Albuquerque Studios Bring Moviemaking To New Mexico

By Bruce Higgins | September 28, 2010

Jaynes Corp. of Albuquerque has been working in the Mesa del Sol development for over a year building the Albuquerque Studios facility. Albuquerque Studios Phase I on 28 acres is now complete and operational as a filmmaking studio, and Jaynes has just broken ground on an adjacent studio for Sony Corp.

Location and Background

Mesa del Sol is a 9,000-acre development southeast of Albuquerque with a master plan for mixed-use development, including 4,400 acres for residential and supporting retail uses; 3,400 acres for open space and recreational use; 800 acres dedicated for schools and universities; and 1,400 acres for industrial, commercial and office development use. The development is a joint venture of Forest City Enterprises and Covington Capital.

Aerial view of the new Albuquerque Studios complex in the Mesa del Sol development southeast of Albuquerque. Three sound stage buildings, a millwork shop and the pad for a fourth sound stage building are in place. Photo by Eagle’s Eye Photo Imaging

The site is just south of the Albuquerque International Airport and has convenient access to the airport, Interstate 25 and the city in general. The Journal Pavilion, an open-air concert center, is nearby.

The city of Albuquerque recently completed a major access road into the area from the Rio Bravo Boulevard exit off I-25. This is a beautifully landscaped four-lane roadway. The medians feature giant characterizations of rattlesnakes, providing a dramatic Southwestern touch to the area. A 24-inch city water main has also been completed, bringing water to Albuquerque Studios and other properties.

Albuquerque Studios is owned by outside investors to benefit from the approximately 200 movies per year that are filmed outside of Hollywood. Moviemaking has long been done on location in New Mexico due to its vast areas with beautiful, undeveloped scenery. Though this outside scene filming was beneficial to the state's economy, there were always many weeks of studio scenes being filmed elsewhere. In order to capture this revenue and potential for jobs, the state of New Mexico introduced several incentives to bring the movie industry to the state. The first incentive is a 25-percent film production cost rebate on all production expenditures including New Mexico employee labor, based upon expenditures subject to taxation by the state. This encourages money to be spent in New Mexico and is a refund, not a credit. The rebate applies to more than just feature films, as it includes television productions, commercials, video games, and documentaries as well.

A wide range of expenditures qualify, including stage and location rentals, construction of sets and their operations, lighting and grip, equipment rentals, wages for New Mexico residents, photography, sound synchronization, editing, wardrobe, vehicle rentals, food services, airfare, lodging, and post-production expenses.

In addition, the state offers feature film or television producers a loan of up to $15 million, interest-free, with certain conditions. The conditions include that at least 85 percent of the film must be shot in New Mexico, at least 60 percent of the "below-the-line" payroll must be paid to New Mexico residents, a distribution agreement for the production must be in place, and a guarantor of the principal of the loan must be in place. Production budgets must exceed $1 million for the program to be considered.

While there has been some media publicity about misuse of these programs, the state incentives have been successful and are a major factor in the investment that led to these studios being built in Albuquerque.

The Phase I Project

Jaynes Corp. was awarded the construction contract in a most unusual circumstance. The usual sequence of events for a construction project is design, bid, build. Barry Tulk, Jaynes estimator and part of the management team for the project, says, "the project sequence was bid, build, design." While that was said in jest, it was not far from the truth. The project was awarded to Jaynes based upon the firm's history and reputation. The project was started in June 2006, and the first facilities were completed and in use during July 2007. One of the interesting obstacles encountered early on the project was that the city of Albuquerque code for fire protection was a problem, with the large square footage of buildings on site and the 24-inch water supply line being inadequate under code. In order to supply necessary water in the event of a major fire, Jaynes installed a dozen 8,000-gallon above-ground storage tanks near the northeast corner of the property, adjacent to the millwork building.

The stage buildings are precast tilt-up panels placed on footings below ground level. The typical panel weighs 110 tons. Each building houses two stages. The buildings for stages 1 and 2, stages 3 and 4, and stages 7 and 8 are in place, and the footings and floor are in place for the building that will house stages 5 and 6. These buildings are designed so that each pair of stages in the building can be joined to combine the areas of both stages. Stages 1, 2, 5 and 6 are 18,000 square feet per stage with 45-foot vertical clearance to the overhead grid; and stages 3, 4, 7 and 8 are 24,000 square feet per stage with 55-foot vertical clearance to the overhead grid. The overhead ceiling grids are designed to support lighting, sound and camera equipment, in addition to the weight of the ceiling of the building.

Set assembly was observed in stage 4, one of four 24,000-square-foot stages. The "elephant doors," two each per stage, measure 25 feet by 25 feet. With double doors opening 100 feet wide and 43 feet high, prefabricated sets and sundry equipment are easily assembled or disassembled. The stages are each provided electrical power from three 15-KVA transformers per stage supplying massive breaker boxes. In Barry Tulk's words, "Each of these transformers could power a residential subdivision."

A special touch has been added to each of the stages. There are passages through the walls so additional power cords, hoses or other devices can be brought onto the stage without leaving doorways open. These passages have sealed covers and are too small for an adult to crawl through — approximately 12 inches in diameter.

Each of the stages has connected production office spaces attached totaling 78,000 square feet. These offices are fully furnished and provide work areas for screenwriters, wardrobe rooms, hair/makeup salons, copy rooms, and pantries. Included in these areas are 10,000 square feet of bungalows/executive offices, including bedrooms and showers. These offices are beautiful by any standard and offer a good work environment to those who are working on projects at the Albuquerque Studios facilities.

The sets are fabricated in the millwork shop across the main parking area. The mill/construction space is 70,000 square feet of working area and includes a welding shop. This structure is a pre-engineered metal building, unlike the other buildings on the site.

These facilities also house other companies present on the site, including Axium Payroll Services, Clairmont Camera, NES Equipment Rentals, Quixote Expendables, Starwaggons, Studio Concierge (operated by Southwest Suites), and New Mexico Lighting & Grip, a subsidiary of NBC Universal. These separate businesses help provide the users of Albuquerque Studios with the best equipment and services available in the production industry.

Sony Pictures Imageworks Facility

On June 25, 2007, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the Sony Pictures Imageworks site adjacent to the Albuquerque Studios facility. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, Sony Pictures Imageworks President Tim Sarnoff, and Hal Katersky, CEO of Pacifica Ventures/Albuquerque Studios, attended this event. Jaynes Corp. is also building the Sony project.

Sony Pictures Imageworks is a leader in the new digital animation that has become so popular in movies today. The company is known for "Polar Express" and the "Spider-Man" series, as well as new movies "Beowulf," "Surf's Up!" and "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."

Besides investing in the new facilities in New Mexico, Sony Pictures Imageworks is investing in new talent in New Mexico by including the University of New Mexico in an educational program called the Imageworks Professional Academic Excellence (IPAX) program. This educational program is designed to develop the next generation of digital animation artists. UNM joins such major schools as Carnegie Mellon, DePaul University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of Southern California, as well as several special schools for computer graphics, visual effects and animation.

An economic advantage New Mexico and Albuquerque will receive besides additional local employment opportunities will be in relocations to the area. Sony Pictures Imageworks has announced plans to relocate approximately 300 existing employees to the Albuquerque facility.

As with the Albuquerque Studios project, economic incentives were a major factor in selecting New Mexico and Albuquerque as the location for these state-of-the-art facilities.

The 95,000-square-foot building was designed by Albuquerque-based architects Dekker/Perich/Sabatini. It is a 3-1/2-story steel frame with concrete decks and masonry exterior. The most unusual aspect of the building is the 22-foot ceiling on the main floor.

While there has been an official groundbreaking ceremony, construction is not yet underway. Planning and design is continuing, but the project is on a construction hold for reasons not disclosed.

About the Author: Bruce Higgins has been in the New Mexico construction industry for over 39 years, 20 of them as general manager of Tom Growney Equipment Inc. (John Deere Construction Equipment, Bobcat, Dynapac, Sakai and Broce Broom distributor) and 18 years as a manager/officer for two major contracting firms based in Albuquerque. He now resides in Farmington, N.M.