- Associated Press - Saturday, October 8, 2011

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - This historic high mountain state capital and artistic enclave, long a favorite vacation and second home destination for celebrities, is expanding its star power this month with the opening of the world’s newest movie studio.

But the development on 65 picturesque acres southeast of town is more than a warehouse with a few sound stages. It’s also a sophisticated and uniquely Santa Fe-style operation that both its backers and competitors hope will help the state regain its stature as a leading alternative to Hollywood and New York for film makers.

Developed to resemble the pueblos of New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, Santa Fe Studios looks from the outside more like a luxury hotel than a traditional warehouse-style movie studio. Its amenities _ beyond its 360-degree mountain views and two 60-foot sound stages _ include plush offices and dressing rooms complete with terraces, access to electric cars and a special ultra-high-speed Internet network used by researchers at the nearby Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.

It was developed by longtime movie producing and directing brothers Lance and Conrad Hool, along with Lance’s son Jason. They describe it as a “boutique” studio _ a Four Seasons say, rather than a Marriott _ that was made “by film makers for film makers.”

“You just don’t get this anywhere else in the world,” CEO Lance Hool said on a recent tour of the $25 million facility, set to open as soon as the final permits are issued in the next week or two.

Still, thanks to a double-whammy dealt by the recession and by Gov. Susana Martinez’s attempts earlier this year to cut rebates intended to lure film productions to the state, the highly-touted development may be opening after nearly six years in the making with no announced movie deals.

“We are suffering the wrath right now of people not knowing,” Hool said of industry reaction to the political debate that left the state’s 25 percent rebate program for filmmakers in limbo earlier this year. “We lost a big Tom Cruise movie,” he notes. “They went to Louisiana.”

New Mexico, under former Gov. Bill Richardson, in 2003 was among the first states to offer a 25 percent tax rebate on money spent filming in the state. The generous incentive program, combined with the state’s moderate climate, varied landscape and proximity to Los Angeles soon put New Mexico solidly on the moviemaking map. Movies filmed here in recent years include “The Longest Yard,” “Transformers,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Terminator Salvation” and “Crazy Heart.”

The state now has five studios with 14 soundstages, more than 200 film-related businesses and one of the largest local crew bases outside Los Angeles and New York. And Santa Fe Studios alone has room to add nine, possibly more, soundstages as demand allows.

While many considered the state a growing third coast of sorts for film, the industry this year saw how quickly its star could fall. With the tax incentive in limbo, projects quickly moved to some of the two dozen other states that now offer competing incentives. One major studio went so far as to put a blanket ban on filming in New Mexico.

Lawmakers and Martinez ultimately reached agreement to keep the state’s incentive but to cap annual payouts at $50 million _ well below the $76.7 million paid in 2009 and $65 million in 2010. Anything that was filed after the limit was hit would fall into a queue for payment the next year. Although Martinez’s office this summer committed to pay all eligible applications received by July 1 under the old rules _ easing concerns the cap will be hit in the next few years _ publicity about the political debate as well as growing competition by other states trying to tap film industry development continues to dog the once flourishing industry here.

“We’re still suffering from the confusion,” said Wayne Rauschenberger, chief operating officer of Albuquerque Studios, the state’s largest studio, which recently finished up filming the Avengers. The studio also is home to the set for the television series “Breaking Bad” and is currently filming “Blaze You Out,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“It’s one of those thing where so many states have put out incentives it’s really hard to get their attention clearly. They’re like, “Didn’t you do something to the incentive program? Didn’t it get taken away?’ So we’re still a little slow.”

The Martinez Administration is trying to make amends. Nick Maniatis, who was appointed this summer to take over the state’s film office, recently completed a round of meetings with major studios heads to relay the state’s commitment to the industry. And Martinez has issued an open letter touting the state’s assets and affirming her commitment to the industry’s ongoing success.

That effort, combined with the opening of a new studio near a city industry insiders have long enjoyed visiting, has many optimistic of a turnaround.

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