Lights, Camera, Action in Tucson
By Edie Jarolim
Photo: Christopher Neil, Director of "Goats"
Photo by: Gregory Peters
When it comes to Hollywood screen tests, Tucson is a natural.
“Our proximity to Los Angeles, along with our great weather and great scenery, make us a choice location for the film industry,” said Shelli Hall, director of the Tucson Film Office, a division of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau.
That’s been true since long before 1939, when a Western town set built by Columbia Pictures for the movie “Arizona” led to the creation of Old Tucson Studios, where hundreds of classic films were shot.
According to Hall, a majority of the state’s films have been shot in Tucson and Southern Arizona ever since then -- perhaps 65 percent as a conservative estimate.
In recent years, however, the city hasn’t lived up to its celebrity potential.
“Arizona was in the top five of locations in the nation and the industry brought in an average of $100 million dollars a year when I started working at the film office in 1999,” Hall said. “Now the state doesn’t even rank in the Top 40.”
Many factors led to this decline, including the fall from grace of the Hollywood Western and the 1995 fire at Old Tucson Studios that destroyed its sound stage along with many of its structures. Arizona’s key challenge, however, was one faced by the entire U.S. film industry. In the late 1980s, when the U.S. dollar was strong, Canada enhanced its financial attractiveness to filmmakers with a variety of tax incentives designed to further lower shooting costs. According to a 1999 study commissioned by the Director’s Guild of America, the feature films and, especially, made-for-television movies and miniseries that migrated north in the 1990s cost the U.S. economy as much as $10 billion a year.
Several U.S. states, including New Mexico, began to fight back in the 2000s by creating Canadian-style incentive programs. Their success was aided by the growing strength of the Canadian dollar and the increased cost of getting film crews to Canada. Arizona had an incentive program for five years, but it wasn’t renewed – and the state legislature has not passed new, improved versions that have been presented since.
The result? Bottom-line-focused filmmakers have fled to surrounding states. That tends to be projects with budgets of $250,000 and up.
Success with Indies, TV, Commercials
That’s not to suggest there’s been no film action in Southern Arizona. The Tucson Film Office makes it easy for productions that are not dependent on incentives to film here. Independent filmmakers still relish filming here and TV networks with reality programming – like MTV, Discovery and the Food Channel – film here multiple times a year, Hall said.
TNT’s first reality competition, “The Great Escape,” created by the producers of the popular “Amazing Race,” filmed two episodes here in May – one at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the other at the Titan Missile Museum. Watch for several episodes of the Food Network’s “Chopped,” filmed at Old Tucson Studios, to air in June.
The Film Office also upped its marketing to the lucrative commercial advertising market. A single commercial can easily cost $500,000 and more for filming on location in less than two days. Car commercials especially love Southern Arizona terrain – Jeep, Cadillac Escalade, BMW and more recently, Chevrolet have all filmed commercials here.
Other high-end commercials include one for Sketchers featuring Mark Cuban at the Greyhound Race Track that aired during Super Bowl 2012, as did the recent Chevy Sonic commercial. Print shoots include prestigious catalogs for Urban Outfitters, J. Crew, Sundance, Roamans and Chico’s.
The Sonoran hot dog segment on the Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” points to another reason that many shows come to Tucson to film – they simply cannot find what the city offers any place else.
“A lot of Discovery Channel shows are based here because of what’s going on in the sciences in Southern Arizona,” Hall said. And there’s also the region’s unique weather. “A Japanese film crew comes every summer to film the monsoon.” Oprah filmed several girlfriend getaway segments at Miraval, a world-class destination spa with a backdrop you won’t find elsewhere.
While the city’s role as a location for big-budget projects has dwindled, its importance as a place to showcase films and to nurture indigenous industry talent has grown.
Independent Films Debut Here
Victoria Westover, Director of the Jack and Vivian Hanson Arizona Film Institute (Hanson Film Institute) at the University of Arizona, which has a mandate to work with the community, said, “There is an amazing amount of film-related activity in Tucson for a city of its size. People in Tucson don’t realize or appreciate how much is going on.”
That’s especially true when it comes to independent films
The Loft Cinema, for example, was one of only 17 movie theaters in the nation invited to participate in the Sundance Institute’s Art House Project, an organization of independent theaters. According to Peggy Johnson, executive director of the foundation that owns and operates the nonprofit theater, the criteria for being chosen were “excellence of programming and involvement with the community.” And in January 2012, Tucson was selected to be one of nine Sundance USA participants, hosting a film and filmmaker during the Sundance Festival. Johnson said, “The Loft did really well. We were the first theater to sell out. The community loves independent films.” Aptly enough, the film showcased was one shot locally.
Besides The Loft, most Tucsonans now the Screening Room and Fox Theater as other venues for independent films. Fewer are aware that Grand Cinemas Crossroads, a locally owned discount theater, and Century 20 El Con, a popular commercial movie house, each dedicate one of their screens to first-run art films.
Also little known is the key role the UA plays in bringing films and film talent to town.
Home to Mexican Film Fest
Tucson Cine Mexico, the only film festival in the nation devoted exclusively to Mexican films, is a co-presentation of the UA’s Hanson Film Institute and the Mexican Consulate.
Westover explained, “Every year we bring up major producers and directors from Mexico. They’re very impressed by the quality of the presentations and the vibrant dialogue with the audiences.” Westover added that the festival “has definitely put Tucson on the map in Mexico as a place to bring major films.” It’s also putting Tucson on the map as the place in the U.S. to see the best in first-run Mexican films.
Then there’s Inside Track, a series of panel discussions by entertainment industry professionals, from actors and agents to producers and directors. Started in 2010 by the Hanson Film Institute in collaboration with the Tucson Film Office, this event is designed to help students in theatre, film and television at the UA and local filmmaking talent with professional development. It’s also open to the public.
Westover said, “I don’t think there’s any place in the United States that has a film institute that runs concurrently with a formal university program – and I don’t think there’s any other film school that has as many programs for the community.”
UA Film Pros, Alumni Open Doors
Professors within the film and television program at the UA are all actively working in the industry. They include Larry Estes, one of the producers-in-residence, whose long list of credits includes “One False Move.” And Westover, who teaches film programming, recently produced “Apache 8,” a documentary about an all-women’s firefighting crew that has been broadcast nationally more than 1,000 times.
The students are clearly benefiting from the program. When director Sam Mendes, who won an Academy Award for “American Beauty,” came to town a few years ago to shoot part of “Away We Go,” the UA provided students to work as production assistants. Mendes’ production manager was very impressed. “The crew didn’t realize they were students, they were so good. They thought they’d been flown in from L.A.,” Westover recalled.
According to Westover, many high-powered people in the film industry live in the Tucson area under the radar. Diana Ossana, who cowrote the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain” with Larry McMurty, is just one example. Westover said, “They’re already established so they don’t need to live in L.A. to find work, and it’s an easy commute when they’re called.”
Shelli Hall confirms that the Hollywood bond is strong and continues to be strengthened. “We cultivated entertainment-industry alumni relationships in Los Angeles by having receptions there, with the UA. We regularly meet with industry professionals and pitch Tucson as a location to the studios and other production entities. We worked closely with Disney to help craft the 2012 incentive bill,” she said.
“The hope,” Hall added, “is that when the incentive landscape changes, we’ll still have all those relationships to build on.”