Arizona’s film industry is booming
June 20, 2022
Move over, Hollywood. Arizona’s film industry has been booming lately! Our state has seen a lot of activity over the last year.
One of those projects includes a collaboration to market the Navajo Nation and its incredible landscapes to the film industry and HBO’s pilot filming of “Duster” in Tucson.
This week on Arizona Horizon, we spoke to Matthew Earl Jones, the director of Arizona’s Film and Digital Media office at the Arizona Commerce Authority. With his film expertise and industry connections, he’s been a catalyst for this growth and has some unique insights. Earl Jones has worked in the industry for more than 30 years, creating and acting in commercials and music videos.
Arizona’s early popularity as a film destination
At one point, Arizona was the third most popular film location in the industry, trailing behind only California and New York. With our rugged desert landscape and breathtaking scenery, Arizona made a name for itself as the preferred location of Westerns. Our state was a hub for Westerns, as far back as 1920. John Ford’s “Stagecoach” released in 1939, is set against the backdrop of Monument Valley, the iconic landscape of the Four Corners area of the Navajo Nation.
In the following decades, productions filmed 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 Arizona getting recognition in popular films including “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Raising Arizona.”
Who can forget the Grand Canyon finale shot in “Thelma & Louise,” back in 1991? Then in 1996, “Jerry Maguire” ‘showed us the money,’ with many scenes shot at the Arizona Cardinals Training Facility. The movie’s final game in which Jerry finally gets Rod to dance was shot at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.
The decline of our state’s film industry
The state’s moviemaking industry sustained itself through tax incentives for locally shot productions until 2010, when the Legislature ended the program in response to the Great Recession. That gave an advantage to New Mexico, a desert state with landscapes similar to Arizona’s, which retained its tax incentives. When the state Senate shut down the Arizona Film Office later that year, the state’s film industry went into serious decline.
Filmmakers began turning to other locations to make movies. Along with New Mexico, Canada became a popular spot to film.
Also, the movie industry here had thrived here for decades due in large part because to the Old Tucson Studios, which hosted dozens of movies, TV series and commercials. But a fire in 1994 destroyed much of the original Old Tucson set and studio. Attempts to replicate it never fully achieved full throttle success.
Breathing new life into Arizona’s film industry
But in 2016, the idea of reviving the film office gained support, and the Arizona Commerce Authority reopened it and hired Matthew Earl Jones to direct it. His goal was to restore Arizona as a go-to destination for the filmmakers.
To do so, Earl Jones – whose half brother is acting legend James Earl Jones – had to rekindle relationships and establish new connections with film production units. Banking on building strong relationships to revitalize the industry, he has reached across the border to the Mexican state of Sonora, to offer production companies beach locations that aren’t available in landlocked Arizona. Jones also signed a deal with the Navajo Nation to train Indigenous production crew members to create jobs and attract more economic opportunities in the region.
New projects ahead
He regularly pushes Arizona to production companies that are looking for a place to shoot their next movie or TV series. His efforts have paid off: HBO announced plans to shoot “Duster,” a series co-written by J.J. Abrams and LaToya Morgan, in Tucson. The series is expected to bring $65 million into the state.
The Phoenix Film Festival has also been a significant part of the film industry in the state, giving space and community to small-scale productions. Each year, the festival hosts a competition of Arizona features that usually has at least three films. A few more films are shown out of competition, and the festival includes short film programs. It also provides local filmmakers the opportunity to come together, learn from each other, share ideas and network.
Arizona State University’s recently renamed Sidney Poitier New American Film School has been educating students for more than two decades. The Sidney Poitier New American Film School will now inspire the next generation of diverse filmmakers and storytellers.
For more information, on Arizona’s Film and Digital Media office, visit the ACA’s website.