N/on Location

Jim SharpeNovember 3, 2022
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I realize that fictional films and TV shows are just that: fiction. But when it comes to the ones that supposedly take place in my home state of Arizona, I would like a little more reality. Simply put, movies and shows that take place here are rarely shot here.

For better or worse, more flesh-and-blood Arizona could be coming to a screen near you – due to film industry tax incentives of up to $125 million per year recently passed by the Arizona Legislature and begrudgingly passed into law by Governor Doug Ducey (without his signature).

Whether such programs give taxpayers a return on their investment has proven a contentious topic at the Capitol. Conservative Arizona lawmakers have resisted the idea of “handouts” to “Hollywood elites” for decades and remained seemingly unmoved when Arizona-set films like Only The Brave, the story of the 19 heroic Granite Mountain Hotshots who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire, were shot elsewhere. (Namely, New Mexico, which launched its own incentive program in 2002 and has hijacked countless productions because of it.) 

But a tipping point was obviously reached, and that was when the greatest filmmaker of our generation shot a film based on his childhood – a childhood which he experience mostly in Arizona – but filmed it outside Arizona. One must assume it was money that compelled Steven Spielberg to use Whittier, California, as a stand-in for the Valley in The Fabelmans, coming to theaters this November, but just think of the money Amblin Entertainment could’ve saved on their fake-saguaro budget alone if he had gone with the real deal.  

Some of my favorite films and TV shows have similarly committed the not-on-location sin. For instance: The 2007 version of 3:10 To Yuma, with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It should’ve been called 3:10 To Santa Fe, because that’s where it was shot. An even more egregious example: Dark Winds, an AMC series I recently binged that follows the metaphysical adventures of Navajo Tribal Police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. The show is set in “a remote outpost of the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley,” i.e. Kayenta, Arizona – where I lived for four years starting at age 11. 

Yes, a decent chunk of Navajo land is located in New Mexico, but Kayenta is 100 miles from there, and except for a few aerial shots of Monument Valley, Dark Winds was, yup, shot in New Mexico.

They should just rename the dang place Arizona East.

Our other Four Corners neighbors have also been known to vulture our shoots. That signature shot of the titular heroines in Thelma & Louise, plunging into the Grand Canyon? In reality, their hand-holdin’, 1966-T-bird suicide is happening in Dead Horse Point… Utah.

But maybe we should be OK with Hollywood not pushing old cars into our geographic crown jewel. According to the Arizona Department of Commerce, the state’s former, much-smaller film tax credit resulted in a net loss of $6.3 million for Arizona in 2008, so maybe bigger won’t be better.

I recently took my kids to the movies, and after paying for admission and snacks, I was out more than $70. Between that and the several $10-to-$15 monthly fees I pony up for streaming services, maybe us Arizona consumers are the ones who need a film tax break.

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