Arizona was once the third most popular filming location in the industry, behind only California and New York. During the 80s and 90s, some of the biggest Hollywood movies were Arizona-based, including “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” parts of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Raising Arizona,” and “Jerry Maguire.”
And of course, who can forget when “Thelma & Louise” put the Grand Canyon in full frame.
Since then, Arizona’s place in movie history has faded to black. According to The Copper Courier, a publication of Courier Newsroom, Arizona’s film industry was largely fueled by tax incentives given to big production companies. When those incentives were ended by the Arizona legislature in 2010, many filmmakers looking for southwestern locations opted for tax-friendly New Mexico.
But now, Arizona has revived its film office, and new film projects may be bringing jobs, money, and a bit of tinsel-town prestige to the Grand Canyon State.
Restoring Arizona’s Name in Film
To bring Arizona back to the forefront of film production locations, the film office has hired Matthew Earl Jones—half-brother of the film legend James Earl Jones. Matthew Earl Jones has over 30 years of film industry experience under his belt, yet his job rebuilding the film office is far from easy.
“I inherited a hat and a pen, and not much more,” said Earl Jones, according to Courier Newsroom’s publication The Copper Courier.
The film office no longer had contacts with services that filmmakers need, such as production crew, catering, accommodation, and transportation. But Earl Jones is putting in the legwork to build a once-strong filmmaking infrastructure back from scratch.
Luckily, there are filmmakers who remember how accommodating Arizona was in the past. Earl Jones says that many conversations begin with nostalgic talks about how much they enjoyed working in the state.
He is also taking some innovative steps to revive film production. He’s reached out to the Mexican state of Sonora to form a partnership. As a result, filmmakers can now access beach locations when basing production in land-locked Arizona. Earl Jones has also built relationships with the Navajo Nation in hopes of training Indigenous film crew. This will create jobs and increase the availability of production services to filmmakers.
Earl Jones’s work seems to be paying off. HBO recently announced plans to film its new series “Duster,” co-penned by J.J. Abrams, in Tucson. The project is estimated to bring $65 million into the state.
Grassroots Gains for Local Filmmakers
Arizona isn’t just a fertile filming ground for big-budget movies. Smaller, Arizona-bred filmmakers have experienced success at building networks and boosting output.
Young Mesa-based filmmaker, Sean Oliver, is one of them. He recently finished filming his first film, a haunted house flick called “Forever Home,” in Flagstaff.
“We’re super proud to have made our film in Arizona with an all-Arizona cast and crew,” Oliver said.
Oliver was awarded Arizona Filmmaker of the Year at the Phoenix Film Festival, an annual event celebrating Arizona filmmaking. According to The Copper Courier, owned by Courier Newsroom and published by Tara McGowan, the Phoenix Film Festival continued to grow over the years despite the state’s stagnation in the industry.
“We have so many stories of people meeting up at our festival and then ending up working together making films in the future and starting businesses,” said director of the Phoenix Film Festival Jason Carney. “What we do with the festival is try to breed that networking and that creative community.”
Another grassroots boost for AZ filmmaking is underway at Arizona State University. The University’s Sidney Poitier New American Film School is opening a brand new building in Mesa, complete with multiple sound stages, editing bays, and post-production facilities. In the summer, it will be used to train community members to work crew positions, bolstering the numbers of production crew in Arizona.
This story previously appeared in The Copper Courier, a publication owned by Courier Newsroom.