Despite having a successful history with film and television for almost a century, Arizona’s production industry is definitely moving into new territory. Along with a new USD20 million studio facility, the state has brought back its film commission, now titled The Arizona Film and Media Office.
Matthew Earl Jones, Head of the Arizona Film and Media Office of and Shelli Hall, Director of the Tucson Film Office, discuss this new era of film making in Arizona.
How did you get into the production industry?
(Matthew) After college I worked as an agency guy in New York for a while and then I went to the client side of American home products where I did four years of marketing and advertising. When I first got into the business, I was briefly in front of the camera before realizing that it wasn’t a comfortable fit for me. Seeking a different route, I got into production in 1990 and I’ve been in it ever since. I was a Line Producer of TV commercials in Los Angeles for over 10 years, before moving to Arizona in 2002 where I continued to produce more independent projects and television pilots. My background in production relates to line production specifically with most of experience being in commercials.
(Shelli) I have a production background as well; I graduated with a degree in English as I know you did Matthew. I started out working in commercials for grocery product marketing, then producing industrials for tech companies. I eventually moved to Los Angeles to work freelance in the independent film industry, which I have a passion for. After stints in casting, I decided to move back to Arizona. I missed the wide open spaces. Soon after a vacancy became available to be the Film Commissioner for Tucson, and I’ve been in the role for about 18 years – the rest is history!
Can you talk about Arizona’s history with production?
(Matthew) Arizona has always had a vibrant film community. In 2013 I worked on Fast and Furious 7 and it was shot in the Phoenix area. I coordinated all the cars being pushed out of the C130. Our second unit UPM lived in Phoenix for many years and he was one of the reasons why they went there because he knew the area and the local airport. A lot of the shoot was very self-contained as he found most of the locations for them, including the Mesa Gateway airport.
(Shelli) Arizona has a great legacy in filmmaking. It started in the mid-1920s and since then, particularly in Southern Arizona, we’ve become known for our part in the western genre. A studio set was built out in the Sonoran desert for the 1940’s film, Arizona. The set eventually drew dozens of other western films and TV series. At any given time, you can be sure that there’s a western production being shot here.
(Matthew) With our new Governor who’s very film friendly and has a background in business – he values the money that the entertainment industry brings in.
(Shelli) After all, he helped with the implementation of the new film office!
Commercials make up such a huge amount of production activity in Arizona. Are they mostly domestic or international?
(Matthew) They come from all over the world. Of course we service a lot of American commercials due to our cost effectiveness and having locations that can double for any state in the country. Lucky for us, people tend to fall in love with Arizona locations. Particularly, I’ve noticed that the Japanese tend have this love affair with the Wild West.
(Shelli) We host a number of commercials coming over from Japan, they love the desert.
(Matthew) My theory is that they love what they don’t have. In terms of locations, Japan has world class cities but they lack these huge expansive areas and the breadth of natural resources that Arizona has been blessed with.
(Shelli) We do bring in projects from the UK as well. For me, they’re really the second biggest market after the US. The majority of what we see coming over from the UK is episodic content, such as the BBC’s Wonders of Life. We still don’t see as many commercials from the UK as we do from Japan and France however.
With international ties already in place, that should make it easier to attract international features with Sneaky Big and The Arizona Film and Media Office set up.
(Matthew) Absolutely, but I will say that commercials are highly profitable and they’ve been our bread and butter for so long. While it’s fantastic that we have new facilities to cater to bigger projects, I want to go chasing after everything. My job now is just to dispel any myths about Arizona and to show that we’re open for business and respect the production industry. We will do whatever it takes to make your experience in Arizona enjoyable.
Without tax incentives, how will you appeal to Producers?
(Matthew) The bottom line will always be: how much are you going to spend? The savings are what people are looking for, whether they come from tax credits or discounts. The cost of doing business in Arizona is much lower than that of neighbouring states – 40% lower than the cost of doing business in California. A gallon of gasoline is, on average, USD1.50 cheaper in Arizona that it is in California. If you have a bunch of trucks and you’re driving out to the desert in California, they you need to consider the amount of fuel they’re going to burn.
The best thing I can say to a Producer is that before they make a snap judgement: do the math. The cost savings are one thing, but our local crew and vendors are willing to deal. When you go to Los Angeles where the market is saturated, the crews aren’t willing to budge. A location that costs you USD10,000 in Bel Air, you can find an almost identical house in Scottsdale for a lot less. Our permit costs are cheaper and the permitting process is much faster. Hassles like the need for a Fire Marshall every time you install a generator – we don’t put you through that.
The cost of production is just so much lower. All of us have individually negotiated great deals in the past. Let’s say you’re in Tucson and you need a deal on a hotel, Shelli will negotiate a great rate for you. Years ago, I reached out to convention and visitor bureaus with requests for proposals for the hotel industry. Within a couple of weeks, we had over 100 hotels state-wide that were willing to offer up to a 50% discount.
I’m not afraid of the term ‘tax incentive’ – I can’t stick my head in the sand and pretend that they don’t exist. My job is to educate the industry and show potential clients how they can come in and incur immediate, substantial and paper-work free savings. With some tax incentives, you have to wait six to nine months to get your money after filling out the appropriate forms. When you total the cost and overall savings at the end of the shoot, you’ll find that we’re incredibly competitive with other states.
(Shelli) Adding to Matthew’s point, our close proximity to Los Angeles is incredibly helpful. You can still bring your department heads over – it’s only an hour’s flight to Phoenix or an hour and a half to Tucson. It’s only a six to seven hour drive to bring the trucks over as well.
(Matthew) If you need a crane or something similar that they don’t have in New Mexico or Arizona, it’s a difference of 12 hours to import it from the west coast. That could delay you by a whole day – two days if it’s a large truck. That all adds to additional cost on fuel and driver’s rates, so in that context it makes a big difference. One thing that I’m looking at is where there might be a gap in equipment vendors in Arizona.
We’re reaching out to all the sectors that support the film industry: hotels, restaurants, rental vehicles, entertainment, production supplies, set construction, etc. With the strength of the film commission, the Governor’s office and the Department of Commerce, we’re reaching out to them and asking for volume discounts to treat the entertainment industry as a whole. No matter what your budget is, you get the full benefit of what we’re offering.
Going back to locations, are there any spectacular ones that come to mind that you would consider underutilised?
(Matthew) At FOCUS, we’ve brought with us an issue of the Arizona Highways magazine which has a fantastic feature in it called ‘A Land for All’. The article shows that for every state, there’s an Arizona location that will double for it. When showing the article to someone, I usually start with the section for Vermont because the state is so iconic for its foliage in the fall. You just wouldn’t expect to find these locations in Arizona and yet here they are.
(Shelli) In terms of highlighting specific locations, we usually look at the current trends. The Middle East is one example and we hosted David O. Russell’s Three Kings which was set in Iraq. Peter Berg’s The Kingdom was also shot here, but doubled Arizona for Saudi Arabia.
(Matthew) I think that’s the lasting strength of what we have, because no matter what the trend is at a particular moment in time, we will always have locations to match.
What are your plans for getting the word out there after FOCUS?
(Matthew) The first thing I’ll be doing is ensuring that we have a sufficient number of staff to deal with incoming calls from potential clients. We’ve made a lot of great contacts here and had a wonderful time in the process. There have been some incredibly hot leads from people who are looking to shoot in Arizona; they have movies that require a desert or a western town. Shelli and I will be following up on those leads but as I mentioned before, my main job will be to educate people on the fact that we’re open for business, we have more locations than people realize and we’re cost effective. Those are my first steps, other than finding out where the bathrooms are in any given location!