Here’s why Arizona is becoming a hot spot for filmmakers

Business News | 7 Apr |

All hopeful young filmmakers or actors have the same dream: to move to Los Angeles and find work in Hollywood. For years, creatives growing up in Arizona have felt that the Grand Canyon state held no future for them. However, Arizona’s film culture is set to change, with the addition of new studios being built throughout the state and a production schedule that is set to take place in Arizona over the course of the next few years.

The current state of film in Arizona is heavily reliant upon commercials, due to the ideal climate during winter months as corporations prepare for spring and summer advertisements, according to City of Phoenix Film Commissioner Phil Bradstock.

“During January, February, March and April, Phoenix is just slammed with projects because all the big corporations need to get ready for their spring and summer rollouts, and they need to get all their commercials ‘in the can’ (complete),” Bradstock said. “A lot of it is all the catalog shoots, bathing suits and patio furniture, those types of things. So with our weather, it’s like 70 degrees (in February), so everybody comes out here to film.”

In the past, major motion pictures such as Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Psycho (1960) and even parts of Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) were filmed in Arizona. However, there was a major decline in movies made in Arizona in the last decade after the state stopped offering any tax incentives for productions, Bradstock said.

Bradstock said that at the time he started working at the film commission in 2006, Arizona had film incentives, but everything changed at the end of 2010, when incentives stopped being offered. He said that during those few years when the state offered tax incentives, filming in Arizona brought in $110 million in expenditures and covered about 56 projects. Since 2010 there have been efforts by certain groups to offer incentives again, but it has not gained traction within the state legislature, Bradstock said.

Despite the lack of incentives offered by the state of Arizona, director and producer Kelly May with Ditto Productions has mapped out a schedule of several feature films to be shot in Phoenix over the next few years, starting this spring with the production of “Nothing, Arizona.” 

“Nothing, Arizona”, written by Brian Samuel Davis, tells the story of a man who is released from prison after 40 years and who is working to rebuild his life in the desert of Phoenix, all the while feeling “haunted” by the memories of his crimes.

May said that although the story initially took place in another state, after sitting down with Davis, they both decided that it would make the most sense for the story to take place and be filmed in Arizona. May grew up in Arizona before moving to Los Angeles, where she worked with DreamWorksTV, Disney Channel and NBCUniversal. May said she had always wanted to film a movie in Arizona because of the unique landscape and because not a lot of films are done in the state.

“I moved to L.A. when I was 18 with a crew of people from Arizona. I think we all knew, like you can only go so far in Arizona and then you kind of hit a ceiling,” May said. “But after being in L.A. for almost 15 years, now coming back to Arizona and working on this film, I’ve realized there are so many talented people who are ready and eager to have a film industry in Arizona, and there’s little things kind of percolating everywhere.”

May said she understands why a lot of filmmakers decide to shoot in states such as Georgia or New Mexico, where they have better tax incentives, but she believes that if the film community in Arizona becomes united and shows the legislature that there is a need for tax incentives in the state, perhaps Arizona could someday become a hub for film.

“I hope that by building enthusiasm with my productions that are going to be happening there and trying to create more of a community, then that would push the need for it, and the people who are really interested in filmmaking in Arizona can start to build more of a community together,” May said.

Apart from her upcoming productions, May said she believes that organizations such as the Phoenix Film Festival and the Scottsdale Film Festival are doing a good job of creating communities of people interested in the industry within their cities, but that these communities are somewhat “compartmentalized” and that they need to be pulled together into one larger film group within Arizona if they plan on enacting change.

Matthew Earl Jones, commissioner of the Arizona Film Commission, said in a statement, “Phoenix has launched some of the best and brightest producers and directors in the film industry, but we have lost many to L.A. Kelly May and Ditto Productions coming to Phoenix to produce is a great sign of our year to come for 2020. We welcome the community from L.A. and other parts of the country who are looking for a great place to produce, affordable labor, resources and a great diversity of landscape and climate.”

Auditions for “Nothing, Arizona” were held at Tempe’s BrandLab Studios in February, and the movie was set to film there as well starting in March. BrandLab Studios general manager Ben Smith said he is excited about the production, and especially for its potential to “bring the film industry back to Phoenix with a bang in 2020.”

“We’ve seen a lot of films leave the state and go to other areas with better tax incentives or better film programs, but to see a producer who came out of L.A. come back and choose her hometown to produce this movie is amazing,” Smith said.

BrandLab Studios launched at the end of 2019, with newly renovated space for all types of performing artists as well as studio equipment for film crews who are coming to Arizona. Smith said he hopes the studio becomes “a hub for all types of creatives” and helps to advance the culture and industry of film in Arizona.

Additionally, Arizona State University is doing its part to advance the culture of film in the state with the installment of the new Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts building that recently broke ground at Mesa City Center. The academic building is set to open in Spring 2022, offering a space for media arts and film production as well as other programs.

“We are thrilled that a world-class media center will soon be located in Mesa, AZ and feel that it will be a catalyst for local production. I also applaud (Herberger Institute) Dean Steven Tepper’s commitment to making ASU’s Film Program one of the most culturally diverse film programs in the country,” Jones said in a statement.

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