Union Roundup: New Mexico Film Commissioner Amber Dodson Says the State Is in Showbiz for the Long Haul

Stranger Things
Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things/Netflix

Our post-election, Georgia Peach logo-meets-Wakanda Forever column drew an interesting email from the New Mexico Film Office. Would we be interested in chatting, they asked, now that their governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, has also been handily reelected, as the state seeks to emphasize its specific differences with Georgia?

Before, this kind of conversation would have been restricted to differences in production tax incentives, and perhaps the square footage of available soundstages. But now, they’re also happy to emphasize the cultural differences between themselves and Georgia.

So it was that after a certain long weekend noted not only for its reflections on gratitude but also a lot of revisionist history and rampant consumerism, we found ourselves chatting with Amber Dodson, director of the New Mexico Film Office — a position she assumed some three years ago (after overseeing Albuquerque’s citywide film office).

“I came on board in 2020 in this position… I think it was four days ahead of Covid,” and then “we were hit [and] shut down for about six months.”

“There was a bottleneck in production,” of course, with everything stopping at once, but then, once protocols and production returned, “it was so busy when we opened our doors again, we were almost tapped out entirely with crew and stages.”

And it’s been growing steadily ever since.

“We know we’re on a great growth trajectory with New Mexico. We know we’re poised for growth — but this is kind of nuts.”

Amber Dodson
Amber Dodson image via New Mexico Film Office

Of course, production hasn’t been the only thing that’s gone nuts since Covid hit. Fissures that were already apparent in American (and global) culture erupted with a vengeance after the 2016 election, and with the ongoing politicization of the pandemic itself.

And not just the pandemic, of course. Books, amusement parks, teachers, women’s healthcare, the right to vote — all are currently under attack by forces that seem to view a razed, societal monoculture as their ultimate expression of the American experiment.

Those fissures have also resulted in productions moving from Georgia to New Mexico, Dodson recounts. When Gov. Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s restrictive voting measures into law after 2020’s false election claims, “we saw movies instantly relocate.”

Those projects include the Eva Longoria-directed Flamin’ Hot, about the janitor at Frito Lay who applied some of his own culture’s flavors to Cheetos and thereby boosted the company’s fortunes.

“The whole movie was about an immigrant story, and the immigrant dream,” Dodson says, and Longoria didn’t feel right filming it in a place where immigrants, and other minorities, were suddenly going to have a hard time voting. (For those keeping track of the high early voting numbers reported in Georgia’s senate runoff this week, note that those were made possible primarily by a lawsuit that forced the state to re-allow early voting, thus giving people with fewer absentee or mail-in options a chance to get to the polls.)

Dodson allows, though, that nearly two years after the restrictions, the interest New Mexico is getting isn’t necessarily [from] productions still pulling up stakes from Georgia to go there, but instead, [it’s becoming] where to go in the first place.

Sometimes this involves entire companies. Although she couldn’t divulge the name when we spoke, at least one studio with “hundreds of employees,” is looking to relocate outside of L.A., to another place with fairly advanced production infrastructure. And those employees, she says, “want to raise their family in a state where they feel comfortable with the politics.”

Dark Winds
Zahn McClarnon in Dark Winds/Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

There are considerations beyond access to voting, of course — how politicized your child’s schooling might become, or even the ability to get an abortion, other women’s healthcare, or to access drugs for other conditions that have become unavailable because they are perceived to be “abortion drugs.”

The same Georgia courts that reinstated early voting also recently reinstated the state’s draconian abortion laws, too, so for anyone contemplating easy access to OB/GYN care, this has become an issue weighted heavily in New Mexico’s favor.

Dodson says she’s seen “this exodus of people coming out of L.A., moving here in droves.” As for the work available to those “driving,” in addition to the as-yet-unnamed studio, Netflix famously has a long-term deal with the state, as does NBCUniversal, which “committed to having a production hub here for 10 years.” The studios, in turn, don’t have caps on the number of productions that can qualify for incentives, since they offer both the expanded infrastructure and a steady supply of production work.

She also gives “immense thanks” to Sony and AMC for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, all of them “putting us on the map to produce world-class entertainment.”

New Mexico Film Office
Image via New Mexico Film Office

That particular map showed $630 million spent on production in the Land of Enchantment in 2021, surpassing the previous record by nearly $100 million. This year, Hollywood is on track to spend $850 million, and “we’re going to shatter that record again.”

Dodson acknowledges some changes wrought by the pandemic allowed people to realize “they can work remotely, and be really effective,” providing more geographical latitude up and down the workflow.

But she’s also quick to credit Gov. Lujan Grisham as “the fundamental reason why we have this highly competitive film incentive now. Our crews have been growing for two decades. Film, TV, and digital media is one of her key industry sectors [and] it was optimized when she came on board. I think it’s one of the most brilliant incentives out there, [and] it’s built on hiring New Mexico residents and sourcing from [them].”

She points out that when the governor came on board, she raised the cap for their film partner programs.

“[No], we don’t have the spend numbers Georgia has yet, and [no], we don’t incentivize everything, [but] we feel our model is more sustainable for the long haul.”

Since that time frame would also seem to apply to America’s ongoing cultural and political upheavals, the “long haul” may be another factor accruing steadily in New Mexico’s favor.


MLWIncrediHeadMark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”

Mark London Williams’ Union Roundup column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk.