Acclaimed independent filmmakers bring Arizona’s film scene to life

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Besides the slivers of sunlight streaming through the closed blinds, the only light in the home office came from three large computer monitors on a desk that enveloped about a third of the modestly sized space. Sean Oliver sat down in front of the monitors, editing the rough cut of his new independent film.

The mouse moved from page to page, screen to screen, moving so fast it was hard to keep track of. Still, Oliver leaned back comfortably in his chair, like a driver perfectly in tune with his racing car.

“Forever Home” is Oliver’s narrative feature debut, a haunted house movie he co-wrote and co-produced with a friend during the pandemic. All pre-production and filming took place in Arizona, which has become fertile ground for independent productions after years of neglect.

Oliver is not a great filmmaker, or even a full-time filmmaker. He is an editor, screenwriter and director for Amoroma Productions, which produces commercials, and occasionally does independent work.

Sean Oliver edits his film

Many local filmmakers are part-time and mostly work on projects in their spare time or after securing financial support. Much of the real money to be made in movies in the state is in commercials. The market for movies that tell stories in a narrative way – like “Forever Home” – is very small.

At one point in the 20th century, Arizona was the industry’s third most popular filming location, behind California and New York. It made a name for itself as a favorite haunt of westerns as early as 1920. The genre was epitomized by John Ford’s 1939 “Stagecoach,” set against the backdrop of Monument Valley, the iconic landscape of the Four Corners region of the Navajo Nation. .

Over the next several decades, productions shot in the state included “3:10 to Yuma” (1957), parts of “Psycho” (1960) and “Planet of the Apes” (1968), and “Night of the Lepus” (1972). The peak came in the 1980s, with popular films such as “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, parts of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, and “Raising Arizona”. “Thelma & Louise” put the Grand Canyon on full display in 1991, and “Jerry MaGuire” showed us the money in 1996.

The Fall and Rise of the Arizona Film Office

The state’s film industry sustained itself through tax incentives for locally shot productions until 2010, when the legislature ended the program in response to the Great Recession. This gave an advantage to New Mexico, a desert state with landscapes similar to those of Arizona, which retained its tax incentives. When the state Senate shut down the Arizona Film Office later that year, the state’s film industry all but disappeared.

In 2016, however, the idea of ​​reviving the film office gained support, and the Arizona Commerce Authority reopened it and hired Matthew Earl Jones to run it. His goal is to restore Arizona as a premier destination for filmmakers.

To do this, Earl Jones – who has worked in the industry for over 30 years, creating and starring in commercials and music videos – had to rekindle relationships and build new relationships with film production units.

The primary role of a film office is to assist productions by connecting them with a potential crew and providing information on local amenities, such as specific filming locations, hotels to house cast and crew. team, and restaurants for meals. It also makes the area more attractive for potential productions.

In 2016, however, Earl Jones didn’t have much to work with.

“I inherited a hat and a pen, and not much more,” he said.

When Earl Jones, whose half-brother is acting legend James Earl Jones, phones potential clients, they often talk about past experiences filming in Arizona and how much they enjoyed working with the people and places of the State.

“It’s not the first time we’ve seen the dance,” said Earl Jones. “I’ve seen (the industry in Arizona) grow consistently.”

Banking on building strong relationships to revitalize the industry, he has crossed the border to the Mexican state of Sonora to provide production companies with beaches not available in landlocked Arizona. Jones also signed an agreement with the Navajo Nation to train members of the Native production team to create jobs and bring more economic opportunities to the area.

He regularly pushes Arizona to production companies looking for a location to shoot their next movie or TV series. His efforts paid off: HBO announced plans to shoot “Duster,” a series co-written by JJ Abrams and LaToya Morgan, in Tucson. The series is expected to bring in $65 million to the state.

It’s the big money stuff, though. Even in the toughest or driest times for filmmaking in Arizona, communities of small filmmakers across the state have managed to build their own networks, sustainability, and relative success.

The Arizona Indie Film Scene

In an interview, Oliver, the Mesa-based indie filmmaker, talked about the freedom that comes with being small and “off the map.” Independent filmmakers have more leeway to make the kind of films they want, such as a Western sci-fi series with vampires by Michael Flores, which Oliver found among the most slice-of-life feature films in LA. Web Fest two years ago.

“A lot of filmmakers here are like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I’m going to get there,” Oliver said.

The award for Best Drama for Sean Oliver from A Night of Misfit Films in 2019 rests with a speaker in his office on November 12, 2021. Oliver says he appreciates the freedom that comes with being small and

The Phoenix Film Festival has played an important role in the state’s film industry, providing space and community for small-scale productions. From 2010 to 2016, festival attendance increased even as big-budget filming in the state all but came to a halt.

Each year, the festival hosts an Arizona Feature Film Competition which usually features at least three films. A few other films are screened out of competition and the festival offers programs of short films. It also provides an opportunity for local filmmakers to come together, learn from each other, share ideas and network.

“We have so many stories of people who met at our festival and ended up working together to make movies in the future and build businesses,” said Phoenix Film Festival Director Jason Carney. “What we’re doing with the festival is trying to create this network and this creative community.”

In 2021, the festival named Oliver Arizona Filmmaker of the Year. Her other accolades include a Best Drama award at A Night of Misfit Films in 2019 and a couple of 48 Hours festival awards.

“Part of what I love about the (Filmmaker of the Year) award is knowing who it’s from and that they’re really supportive people who have basically seen my career grow over 10 years,” Oliver said. “It’s kind of their way of encouraging me to keep growing and keep going. Keep improving.

Make ‘Forever Home’

Oliver and his friend wrote “Forever Home” during the pandemic. After raising enough money, in part through a wefunder.com campaign, they entered pre-production: the phase in which the cast and crew embark and the directors and producers prepare everything that is necessary, from meeting times to filming dates and set design, for the film to succeed.

The major developments that made the production of “Forever Home” possible were the local relationships he established in the industry – his bosses at Amoroma Productions, Daniel and Kellie Mendoza. They believed in Oliver’s idea enough to become producers, and Daniel Mendoza acted as cinematographer, the role in film production who handles everything camera-related and achieving the director’s desired look. .

Daniel Mendoza brought all the movie camera equipment needed for Oliver’s film, which saved Oliver tens of thousands of dollars in rental costs.

Daniel Mendoza, on the right, the director of photography of

Oliver and his partner picked the roles and recruited enough crew to film the movie. Most of them agreed to help in exchange for a small or deferred payment.

They shot the film in pieces on different trips to Flagstaff, as everyone involved had full-time jobs needed to pay their bills.

Oliver and his team shot much of “Forever Home” in an Airbnb in Flagstaff, which took many early mornings to make the trip north. They were there for a holiday weekend, again for three days, then a final period of eight days. Other days were spent on minor scenes shot in and around Phoenix.

Now, with all the footage “in the box” – industry jargon meaning it was shot successfully – Oliver has begun the arduous process of putting his film back together. The script is over 80 pages and has around 100 scenes.

The future of any independent film is always precarious, as there is no distribution deal or a guaranteed way to recoup money on the investment. This is the case of Oliver’s film. He means well, of course, not just to return money to his investors but to pay the crew.

Build a place for the cinema

The recently renamed Sidney Poitier New American Film School at Arizona State University has been training students for more than two decades. Although many landed jobs in the industry, they often had to leave the state to do so.

The Poitiers school will open a state-of-the-art building in Mesa next year, complete with four sound stages, multiple editing bays, post-production facilities, and stage and costume shops.

The school’s associate principal, Jason Davids Scott, said he envisions the facility “not just as a place for our students, but also as a place where the community can come and learn about media making and film making”.

During the summers, school officials hope to use the building to train community members for various crew positions. This will create a stronger production workforce, which Arizona’s industry lacks, Scott said. With ASU’s advanced facilities, this is expected to attract professional filmmakers and TV shows to the state.

For more Cronkite News stories, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.

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