Pop quiz time. Where was the very first movie shot in the United States? If you said Hollywood, you would be wrong. It was actually right here in New Mexico, and the filmmaker was none other than Thomas Edison. The 1898 silent short came in at 50 seconds and was shot at Isleta Pueblo, 15 miles south of Albuquerque. The result, Indian Day School, is grainy and shows children being herded in and out of the school in question. It would prove to be an auspicious beginning to the Albuquerque film industry.
A Short History of the Albuquerque Film Industry
A few years later, in 1912, filmmaker D.W. Griffith was returning from his winter camp in California to New York and stopped in Albuquerque. Here he shot two films during a weeklong stay, one a full-length love story titled The Tourists, the other a 20-minute comedy starring Mary Pickford as a Hopi maiden, called A Pueblo Legend.
The stage was set for a renaissance of sorts with the addition over the next few years of film companies. Romaine Fielding’s Lubin Company and cowboy legend Tom Mix’s Selig Polyscope Company both took up residence in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where they pumped out cowboy films that made use of the vast landscape in and around Albuquerque.
During the rest of the 20th century, hundreds of movies were shot in New Mexico, most in the northern part of the state. Among those were the 1962 cowboy epic starring Kirk Douglas, Lonely Are The Brave; 1976’s David Bowie feature The Man Who Fell To Earth; 1979’s The Muppet Movie; and 1983’s Academy Award-nominated Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep and Cher. But it was two big decisions in the 21st century that really put the city on the map.
Raising the Stakes
The first watershed moment was Governor Gary Johnson’s signing of the country’s first-ever film production tax credit in 2002, which attracted the attention of filmmakers looking to break free of California’s film empire with 15 percent tax incentives. The second was the decision in 2006 to relocate the crime drama Breaking Bad from California to Albuquerque, thus opening the door to long-form storytelling in the form of television series. Governor Bill Richardson’s raising of the tax incentive to 25 percent in 2006 served to seal the deal. Since then, a production boom has made New Mexico, and Albuquerque in particular, a film mecca.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, as of the end of fiscal year 2022, the New Mexico film industry had brought in a record $855.4 million. That was an increase of $228.9 million over fiscal year 2021. This is due, in part, to the aforementioned film incentive program, which includes a 25 percent to 35 percent production tax credit for film, TV, commercials, documentaries, music videos, video games, animation, post-production, and more.
Even so, it wasn’t long ago that New Mexico was slowly losing ground to other states, which had added competing film incentives to their own state budgets. That changed in 2019 when Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham introduced the rural uplift credit, which added an extra 5 percent incentive to films shot at least 60 miles outside of Albuquerque hub. Now more production companies than ever are flocking to New Mexico to shoot their films.
The biggest contenders as of 2023 are Netflix and NBCUniversal, which both opened production facilities in Albuquerque after signing 10-year plans to help the state evolve its workforce development and job training programs. In the works are plans to move part of Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects business to Albuquerque Studios, and a $15 million production center in Rio Rancho by Lions Gate Entertainment.
Is it any wonder that MovieMaker Magazine has rated Albuquerque as the Best Place to Live and Work as a Moviemaker in North America for five years straight? Or that Albuquerque is consistently rated on The Hollywood Reporter’s top locations to film a movie, alongside New York, California, Louisiana, Georgia, and even Canada’s British Columbia? None that we can see.
A Film Lovers’ Mecca
It isn’t just filmmakers who love coming to Albuquerque for their cinematic projects. The tourism industry has seen an uptick in people interested in visiting film locations since Breaking Bad finished its five-season run in 2013.
Want to visit the iconic locations for that series, or its popular spin-off Better Call Saul? There’s an entire industry that has sprung up around it. Interested in finding the Rink-O-Mania or Café 66, featured in Netflix series Stranger Things? The studio has a website dedicated to those and all of its New Mexico locales. Can’t wait to see the locations where parts of Terminator Salvation, Transformers, and Marvel’s The Avengers were filmed? There’s a map for that!
When it comes to experiencing your favorite movies in a personal way, there’s no better place to start than Albuquerque. It’s a great location to become more familiar with what New Mexico has to offer and see for yourself that some movie magic goes beyond special effects. To find out more about the film industry in Albuquerque and northern New Mexico, visit the Film New Mexico website.