While Southern California draws film and television students from all over the world, people in New Mexico don’t have to set foot outside the state to learn the trade, as local colleges are grooming talent for a booming entertainment industry that has sprung up about 1,200 kilometers from Hollywood.
Recently, Albuquerque Studios signed a billion-dollar contract with entertainment giant Netflix and a $500 million deal with NBC Universal Studios. These agreements come on the heels of New Mexico’s enhanced tax incentives to production companies, who film there and hire local talent. One of the seedbeds for such talent is Central New Mexico (CNM) Community College.
Program tied to jobs
Students at Central New Mexico Community College can learn about wardrobe assembly, electrical work, set lighting and camera operation — to name a few of the courses offered. For New Mexico residents, CNM charges $56 per credit hour; for nonresidents, $296 per credit hour. Even that price is nowhere near the five-figure yearly tuition at other colleges around the country, such as New York’s renowned School of Visual Arts, whether tuition is upwards of $50,000 a year, for a similar program.
Both schools promise connections and training to get their students hired. But in Albuquerque, students have an edge: a blossoming film industry that provides tax incentives for TV and film productions with crews made up of at least 60% local hires.
Amber Dodson, film liaison for the city of Albuquerque, said entertainment giant Netflix alone has committed over the next decade to spending $1 billion in production and generate 1,000 jobs a year throughout the state. She said students in Albuquerque learning “below-the-line” crafts, which include jobs on a film crew like a grip, “are getting jobs often times before they even graduate.”
Jim Graebner, CNM’s senior film instructor, described the school’s program for below-the-line crafts.
“Our program is only a two-term program, that’s basically half a (calendar) year, where we get through the whole protocol of how to make a movie and workflow, and then we expose people to all the different tools they’ll need on a set and then try to get them specialized in a different craft,” Graebner, or “Grubb” as he is known, added.
Graebner likened CNM’s program to a “boot camp,” where the students are working hard to learn skills to meet the needs of production companies and studios.
“The biggest thing we have to teach them is stamina, because they are coming in(to) a world where everybody expects an eight-hour workday. We’ve got 14 hours. It’s the average,” he said.
In a trade dominated by men for decades, women are beginning to make inroads.
“I have women – especially Hollywood’s big on upping the percentage of women on all the below-the-line (non-cast member) crafts – I have women who are grips now and they don’t have to be huge or strong. So, if you’re a woman, want to become a grip, I can get you a job tomorrow,” Graebner said.
Apart from learning to be a grip – that is, to be part of a team that builds and develops a movie set – students receive mentoring and gain on-set experience.
Graebner said the school connects students with the local union, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) 480, where they train with a paid union member and get evaluated for their skills. If they show competency, they can get into the workforce pipeline for the industry, which the union has negotiated for safe working conditions and labor benefits.
CNM instructional technician Gabe Reyes works full time at CNM and also freelances for the film industry.
With the influx of Hollywood in Albuquerque, Reyes said CNM’s Applied Technologies and Film program has taken off since he started in the summer of 2018.
Karen Grandinetti, enrollment strategist of CNM School of Applied Technologies, said the program had 220 students enrolled in the summer of 2018. This fall, there are 657 students.
Prospects are also good for homegrown New Mexican directors and actors who want to build a career in their home state.
One of them is Riley Del Rey, a student actor in the film program at CNM, who recently completed a short film called “Doubt.”
“I think it’s important for people that are moving here to work on productions to take a look at our work and to start selecting their directors and their talent from this market because that’s what’s going to get people to stay and that’s it’s gonna uplift our state,” she says.
Del Rey also pointed to the importance not having to set foot outside the state where she grew up to learn the trade and seek job opportunities.
“What’s making me stay here is that this is the place I’m getting my chops, and it’s where I have family. I also know people in the industry and, with the film community growing so much, it’s just more places for me to find where I fit in here,” Del Rey said. “It’s also less daunting than traveling thousands of miles to go somewhere where I’m not familiar with and (where) it’s kind of a make-it-or-break-it situation.
“I still have to take risks, but I still have all the support from my network here at school but also the family ties that I have to New Mexico,” she added.