The assignment was to find buildings that looked like banks that were not banks, because, apparently, institutions with lots of money do not care to have thriftless, itinerant, filmmakers lounging around outside. Amen to that. I'm not sure the Deconcini-McDonald building on Broadway looks like a bank, but the gorgeous, sculpted entryway makes anyone feel like Rich Uncle Pennybags just by walking through it. The entire, south-facing facade lights up like gold bullion at sunset, adding to the Pass Go Collect $200 effect.
When my family moved to Arizona in 1962, our first "residence" was a 50s motor court in downtown Phoenix. I seem to recall a shamrock motif, but my memory has been warped from a lifetime of Lucky Charms. We lived there for three months. I thought it was great. No snow. In fact, no grass. We played a summertime game of seeing who could walk the slowest across the motel parking lot.
In Tucson, some of the old motels and motor lodges are making a slow comeback after hitting bottom in the 1970s and 80s and--let's face it--pretty much since Nixon was elected president. Most of the historic motels are located on South Oracle, Drachman, and Miracle Mile. Some are doing better than others. The Tucson Inn, with its own iconic neon sign, is recently shuttered and wrapped with chain link fence. But at the Hacienda Motel, things are looking up, and you can still marvel at the only revolving neon sign in town (hint: it's the blue one). In fact, it boasts a neon double whammy, with two signs that bracket the front office. The horses revolve too, but only if you've had one too many at the Venture-N.
The recent rains were a welcome relief from a very dry winter, which lent a certain rain forest ambience to Gates Pass. It just so happened I had been watching Duel in the Sun (1946) recently, the end of which was filmed a hop, skip, and a jump from Gates Pass on the other side of Golden Gate Mountain. That's the part where Jennifer Jones is going after mean ol' Gregory Peck with her lever action rifle and plenty of attitude. I give Jones (or her stunt double) credit for crawling, falling, climbing, and otherwise scraping the hell out of her knees and elbows en route to her doomed rendezvous with "Lewt." (If I got my directions right, part of her journey was through what is now the fake turf and turquoise pools of Tucson Estates.) About once every 45 seconds director King Vidor cuts to the blazing sun overhead, and the whole business is overwrought with summer sweat, Dimitri Tiomkin's sizzling symphony, and the Oscar-baiting ghost of David O. Selznick. You gotta love it and I certainly do. It's grand love in the dust, and a far cry from me standing in the middle of Chollas in the Mist.
If you're looking for a Carnegiea Gigantea--and I don't mean the WWE wrestler who goes by the same name--you pretty much have to come to Arizona. Or Mexico. Yeah, there's a few stragglers in California. Good luck finding them on your AAA map. So unless you direct your Art Department to 3D print a saguaro, this is the place.
Saguaros are so iconic that Tucson sent a specimen to Amazon to lure them to Southern Arizona. Sort of like one of those cacti-in-a-box you can get at the gas station, except 21 feet taller. And even though Hollywood has mostly forsaken Tucson when it comes to shoot'em ups, international fashion shoots still love the desert. UK-based TOAST shot its new spring line around Tucson last fall, and, sure enough, scroll down here and you'll find saguaros.
My own example (above) guards the hills and ravines of Sweetwater Preserve, west of Tucson. It was one of those rare, rainy days when you have about six seconds of sun to frame your shot and not trip over an ocotillo. If Reg Manning were drawing this saguaro, it would have a cowboy hat and say, "Howdy."
And no, Mr. Bezos, you can't have it. That was a one-time offer.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is a charter member of that "wealthiest people in the world" group. And yet that didn't stop nearly every U.S. state and municipality with a stop light and at least one Burger King from floating Titanic-size barges of tax breaks and incentives to snag the new Amazon HQ.
Tucson tried to bribe Bezos with a saguaro. It got us a headline in the New York Post and not much else. The Phoenix metro area offered unspecified "creative" incentives. I hope it wasn't two saguaros. Regardless, I imagine it paled next to the combined $7 billion in open money bags that New Jersey offered--by Republican Governor Chris Christie, no less.
The point is, states--even fiscal tightwads like Arizona--cough up business incentives when the stakes are high enough. But, for the last few years, the door has been slamming shut on tax credits, rebates, and other incentives designed to lure film and media production. In the last nine years the number of states offering production incentives dropped from 44 to 31. Arizona was one of them--it put the famed AZ sunset on its incentives in 2010.
Rich conservatives, it appears, do not like giving money to rich liberals, which explains the 2016 headline "How the Koch Brothers Killed the Florida Film Industry" in various media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal. They especially don't like giving it to billionaire Jane Fonda, and the secret formula that I'm about to unveil in no way advocates moving the Netflix production of Grace and Frankie to Sneaky Big Studios. Hell, no!
But--and I'm looking at you the 90 members of the bicameral body known as the Arizona State Legislature--there is a cheap way to boost the economy by providing jobs to some of the most destitute individuals this side of Brentwood:
These people are not only not rich, they can be found begging for money and filching free cognac in upstanding communities like Park City, Utah. They don't look like much in their black baseball caps and motorcycle boots, but they're not asking for much, either. The average budget for an independent film is about $750,000 (maybe a few bucks more, as that figure is from 2014). Enough to make a movie and have $20 left to help re-elect Gov. Doug Ducey, nudge, wink, nudge, wink.
Right now, independent filmmakers here in the West have to duke it out with some of the wealthiest movie people in the world (who also like to party with Jane Fonda) for production incentives from California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Yep, every state surrounding this state offers some variation of tax credits and rebates. A 25% tax credit is common. 30% is not unheard of. Free instant coffee--yours for the asking.
This is why Only the Brave (2017) was filmed in New Mexico. This is why a movie called Arizona (in production) was filmed in New Mexico.
And here's the kicker. The New Mexico state house is pushing to eliminate the $50 million cap on film incentives in that state. That whooshing sound you hear emanating from the Land of Enchantment? That's the sound of Hollywood semi trucks roaring across the Grand Canyon State en route to claiming their share of uncapped incentives. Given that California has a hefty $330 million cap, the Arizona film industry is threatening to look like the recipient of a Jimmy Jacobs chair shot.
Cue the 2,000+ U.S. independent films made and submitted to the Sundance Film Festival each year. Most were made for under a million bucks. But states like California require a minimum production budget of $1M. So your average $750,000 feature does not qualify for tax credits. Back to the Sundance lounge bars they go, hat in hand.
There is an opportunity here, Arizona. It's going to cost you a few bucks, but at Happy Hour Taco Tuesday prices:
Offer a 25% tax credit or rebate to qualifying productions with a budget or spend under $1 million with a $5 million annual cap.
If the first year is successful, consider raising the cap by $1M every year for five years, for a final cap of $10 million. In that interval the program will have brought in nearly 60 filmed productions into the state. Sundance estimates that an average of 64 people work on every film accepted by the film festival. Those 60 films, with a combined budget of $45 million, would employ 3,840 crew, actors, and related positions.
By the way, that's nearly twice the number of people that Tucson's Ratheon was planning to hire over five years, starting in 2017. Sure, those film and missile-building positions are not equivalent, but it's something to think about.
So that's the plan. A small, relatively inexpensive way to bring film back to Arizona, sneak in behind California and New Mexico while they do the heavy lifting, and keep lefty profligates like Tom Cruise away from Charles Koch's cookie jar.
We're still going to have to cowboy up. New Mexico offers a 25-30% credit and other incentives, but you know what? They don't share a border with California. They don't have the Grand Canyon. They have, like, three saguaros.
And this is where they filmed Rio Bravo, and, by God, New Mexico can't take John Wayne away from us.
One of the better high school jobs I had was working in a greenhouse that grew hydroponic tomatoes. This was in Peoria, Arizona, back when Peoria was known for its cotton and alfalfa fields and burly Russian farmhands named Popoff and Tomachov and hairball cropdusters that somehow squeezed their Thrush Commander between powerlines and the top strands of a three-wire fence. A greenhouse is a peaceful place to be. The air is mild--the structure acting as one long evaporative cooler, and the plants bath in a filtered light that Norma Desmond would have killed for. Everything looks better in a greenhouse. George Clooney in his ER prime, would have positively glowed in a tomato greenhouse. They keep the bad world out, and a better world in. The one pictured above was shot at Desert Survivors.
Always fun to add the photo of a location that has been picturefied 9 million times before, but at least I got up early for this one. I had to. It was another 6 a.m. delivery at the Tucson International Airport which I can now do in my sleep, which is a good thing since I am usually still asleep when the drop is made. In my back seat was my fresh-out-of-the-box iPhone 8 Plus with its new photo editing tools that let you make a complete mash-up of anything you aim at.
The Ghost Ranch motor lodge, first built in 1941 and now on the National Register (read about it here), is a Tucson treasure and its sign is not only semi-world renown but--as they say in the historic preservation game--has tremendous integrity of association. The lodge was designed by famed architect Josias Joesler and owned by Tucson bigwigs Arthur and Phoebe Pack, and the cow skull motif was gifted by friend and artist Georgia O'Keefe--presented free of copyright restrictions as a wedding present. Holy Bovinae Osteology, Batman! The skull has to be one of the most iconic images in the Southwest and if I were the current owner I'd probably be marketing it for top dollar to the Burj Khalifa or something.
The old Ghost Ranch Lodge & Restaurant neon sign on Miracle Mile is a natural at this hour. Due to its orientation, it's difficult to get a shot of the sign with the setting sun behind it, so first light is the preferred scenario. It was just me and the pigeons and some guy needing a buck. I gave him a buck, O'Keefe gave us history, I got my photo, and Apple is $799 richer. Everybody's happy.