Across the border in Albuquerque, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo and Samuel Jackson are filming a Marvel Comic blockbuster called “The Avengers.” David Welz, the one paid employee of the Four Corners Film Office in Durango, would love it if just one scene were shot in Southwest Colorado. News releases from the producers have not given Colorado any reason to hope; Cleveland and New York will provide the urban settings while New Mexico provides mountains and canyons.
But Welz already has a wide array of photos of unique La Plata County locations online for movie location scouts to examine. It’s one tool that Four Corners coordinator Welz hopes to use in his efforts to lure filmmakers.
“The photographers shooting the locations for us are all donating their time,” said Welz, whose post in the office is part-time. “It’s a real challenge to compete against New Mexico, the state that’s always cited as so successful at attracting film producers. But we have things you can’t find across the border – like our train.”
He opened his laptop and quickly flipped through photos of ancient cave petroglyphs carved into rock, a mine shaft converted into a hard-drinking bar, mountain chalets that look like castles and crumbling cabins overgrown with ivy.
Long before a film is shot, a director studies images and photos of possible backdrops and locations. Film commissions compile photos of unique locations and buildings (as well as locales that are generic enough to substitute for an average small town or city neighborhood). A good collection of location shots can persuade film companies to shoot in a particular state or county, Welz said.
His volunteer photographers are submitting dozens of photographs. The New Mexico Film Office website boasts that it has 60,000 photographs available. Don Gray, the location coordinator for the New Mexico Film Office, explains that collection did not come easily.
“I put 218,000 miles on my 5-year-old Toyota collecting those shots; it’s an ongoing process,” said Gray, who also provides movie-makers permit information and advice about roads, weather and accessibility. “We started going completely digital in 2003. Before that, we had racks and racks of photos that we would Xerox and Fed-Ex to movie location scouts.”
The New Mexico website lists star-studded productions currently and soon-to-be filming in the state, including TV series “Breaking Bad” and “In Plain Sight.” An indepdent film called “As Cool As I Am,” starring Clare Danes, James Mardsen and chef Mario Batali, just finished filming. And there is a slew of TV commercials being made. Welz calls these “the bread and butter staples of a state’s film revenue.”
The Four Corners Film Office’s shoestring budget is supported by the Region 9 Economic Development District, San Juan County, the Durango Area Tourism Office, the Durango Downtown Business Improvement District among others.
Donald Zuckerman, director of the Colorado Film Commission, says he cannot come close to New Mexico’s resources.
“The recession meant huge budget and job cuts,” said Zuckerman, who has a $400,000 annual budget and runs the commission with one other staffer. “Colorado gives a 10 percent tax incentive on money filmmakers directly spend in Colorado. New Mexico and Utah give filmmakers a 25 percent tax incentive. I can’t compete with that. Forget movies. We have a hard time getting commercials.”
Zuckerman has submitted a proposal for how Colorado could improve its track record to the governor’s office. When asked for details, he declined, saying he wanted to get feedback first.
But not every state believes tax rebates and incentives are wise ways to spend money in a recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a study in December examining how much bang state film commissions get for their bucks.
“In the 2010 state fiscal year, states spent about $1.5 billion on film tax subsidies,” the report reads. “In 2009, that money would have paid for the salaries of 23,500 middle-school teachers, 26,600 firefighters, and 22,800 police patrol officers.”
The study also criticized movie productions for grabbing tax incentives from states then hiring locals for only low-skill, minimum-wage jobs. Former Gov. Bill Richardson enlisted community colleges and university film schools as a way to ensure that some high-wage film jobs went to New Mexico residents. The schools taught students film editing, sound, lighting, set construction and other technical skills.
Welz hopes one day community colleges in the Four Corners will launch a similar initiative. In the meantime, a visually stunning location book is his priority and his hope.