Bringing film production back to Page
Many long-time residents of Page have fond memories of the region’s heyday as a film location for movies, television shows and commercials, dating all the way back to the early 1960s.
Evelyn Williams, whose husband Ernie helped build Glen Canyon Dam, made extra money ironing clothing for the cast and crew of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” a big-budget Hollywood movie that was shot in the Glen Canyon area during the winter of 1962-1963.
“I must have been up to midnight. Three babies, and here I am making a dollar to iron clothes for some of the actors in the film,” she said. “We did have a laundromat and they would manage to do their own laundry, but then they would hire us to iron their clothes. That was the years of cotton, you know, so everything had to be ironed.”
Paul Mehan, the owner of Shash Diné Eco Retreat just south of Page, said his wife’s grandmother’s last hogan was built with set materials from “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
“My wife’s uncle was 17 when they asked young Navajo males to play centurions. When the film wrapped, as the story goes, they said whoever wants materials may take them,” Mehan said.
“The young man, he built his mother a hogan. She was one of the last generation of the Navajo here to be unmolested by the outside world. She lived a very traditional life, had multiple home sites and followed the seasons. But that last hogan on the ranch there is built from the set materials. So, little brushes with Hollywood here and there.”
Since that time, more than 50 movies have been filmed in the Page area, most famously the original “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “Maverick” (1994), “Evolution” (2001) and “Gravity” (2013). Unfortunately, Page’s once-robust filming scene started waning when Arizona stopped offering tax credits to film productions in 2010.
“What made Page such a powerhouse back in the 1990s, the 1980s, the 1970s for films was these tax incentives that went away in 2010,” said Gregg Martinez, the economic development coordinator for the City of Page.
“That was really nice for our community because it supplemented when we had soft season. Before people paid attention to the slot canyons, before Horseshoe Bend was a thing, our season was Memorial Day to Labor Day. What the city would supplement with was film. We would have movies and TV shows, and that would fill up some hotel rooms and restaurants, keep the engine running. Once the tax credits went away, Hollywood decided to chase the tax credits, so they went to Georgia and New Mexico.”
Now, Arizona is reinstating those tax incentives in hopes of attracting film crews back to the state. Ramsay Wharton, the program manager for the Arizona Commerce Authority’s Arizona Film and Digital Media Program, said those incentives will allow production companies to get a percentage back on what they spend: 15% back if they spend up to $10 million, 17.5% back if they spend $10-$30 million, and 20% back at over $30 million. There are additional bump-ups, such as 2.5% extra if they use local labor or rent out local spaces.
“That’s a big deal that we have those now with our surrounding states. Now we won’t get passed by. Now at least we’re on fair footing,” Wharton said during a presentation at the 89Forward business conference in Page on Feb. 22. “Ultimately, we’re going to see more Arizona at the end of some of those projects, and hopefully the City of Page will have some involvement there as well.”
The Arizona Film and Digital Media Program is already hard at work promoting Arizona as a film destination, including educating people that the state offers not only deserts, red rock and cactus, but also pine trees, snow-covered mountains and water in places like Lake Powell and Lake Havasu.
“Our mission is to promote Arizona as a film destination and help increase the economic impact of those dollars,” Wharton said. “We attract and we assist the projects. We go out and we put ads in magazines and say, ‘Come film in Arizona and when you get here, we’re going to help you make that happen.’”
The Arizona Film and Digital Media Program is also committed to workforce development through its new film-ready crew training program, run in partnership with community colleges throughout the state, including Coconino Community College.
The program, offered twice a year, consists of training about 40 students at a time to become production assistants. A pilot program was conducted at Pima Community College in Tucson, followed by trainings in Scottsdale and Glendale. Another training planned for Page this spring was cancelled for logistical reasons.
Wharton said being a production assistant is the foot-in-the-door position for anybody who wants to enter the film industry.
“That’s the ‘I’ll get your coffee, yes sir I will carry that stand over here for you or put your chair down, I will assist the camera department, I will assist the art department,’ whatever they need,” she said.
“But there’s language on set that needs to be understood, there’s professionalism in the work force. How do they act? What do they need to know about the industry that maybe they didn’t get from their little film knowledge that they took in school? It’s very different. This is professional, real working. You don’t need a degree to work in this industry. Like many, it’s just a trainable, on-the-job experience.”
Another big component of the Arizona Film and Digital Media Program is promoting support services – those local businesses that can provide services for production companies, including hotels, restaurants, transportation, equipment rentals and more.
Toward that end, the film program has established the online Arizona Production Directory (Gofilmaz.com), a free database where those interested in working with production companies can create a profile and list their services.
Categories include “Talent” – where anyone interested in being extras in movies can post head shots – and “Locations Database,” where people can post not only interesting properties where filming can be done but also props like old cars, gun collections and antiques.
“What makes a community attractive? A variety of film locations,” Wharton said. “You could have one thing that your town or city is known for. If Horseshoe Bend was all that everybody ever saw, there was no other beauty, they would still come for that one thing. But a variety of locations – now that makes you even more valuable.”
Another category on the Gofilmaz.com database is “Support Services,” where profiles for businesses are listed – not only things like hotels, restaurants, graphic design and tailoring, but also consulting businesses established by local experts that could range from firearms safety to dance choreography.
“This is about how do we reframe the way we look at film and digital media projects that we didn’t think about before?” Wharton said. “You all have individual skills that might just serve as experts. You can create your own consulting business. You all are entrepreneurs. I want you to walk away with the sense that ‘I have some opportunities in this industry that I didn’t think about before.’”
The Arizona Film and Digital Media Program has also launched a Film-Ready Community program to help prepare local chambers of commerce, businesses and governmental agencies – such as parks and recreation, police and fire departments – to be on deck and ready to work with film production companies.
“The Film-Ready Community program is about the elevated resources that we provide,” Wharton said. “When production companies come here, we want to make sure that, at the speed of business, if you’re bidding your project between here and New Mexico or Utah, who’s going to do it faster?”
Page is already committed to being a film-ready community, with Gregg Martinez serving as the city’s primary point of contact with the Arizona Film and Digital Media Program.
“Gregg will be doing outreach to make sure than any of you who want to participate, whether you have a business, whether you want to be talent, whether you work in the industry, that you can come in,” Wharton said.
Martinez, who has been named Page’s film commissioner, said the city was ready for filming to return.
“I expect in the future this is going to be a major win for us. We’re going to see major productions return. With the Arizona tax credits for film being back in place, we’re hoping it’s really going to entice Hollywood to come back out and support Page as a business,” he said.
He said he’s already seen an increasing interest in commercial photo and film shoots in the Page area, which he attributes, at least in part, to the region’s natural beauty.
“I think what happened with the pandemic was nature was the most healing agent of all. I think commercials are just capitalizing on that, they’re capitalizing on wide-open spaces, and we are the mecca of wide-open spaces,” Martinez said.
And while attracting film productions to local communities is good for business, it also gives participants stories to tell and helps instill community pride. Martinez has his own fond memories of working as an extra in the 2007 Jamie Foxx film “The Kingdom.”
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a story you have for the rest of your life that you share with your family members, your kids,” he said. “There’s a lot of good that comes with this type of industry.”
Wharton added, “At the end of the day, we’re proud of where it’s filmed. Whether a project films in your neighborhood or right down the street, everybody gets excited because it’s filmed in Page, for example.”