‘ZONAWOOD’ —The future of movie and TV filming in Arizona

By Tom Maxedon
Published: Friday, December 9, 2022 - 4:46am
Updated: Friday, December 9, 2022 - 2:05pm

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Illustration of Zonawood, a Hollywood sign on South Mountain over a view of downtown Phoenix
Tim Agne/KJZZ, Getty Images
New tax incentives in 2023 aim to re-establish Arizona as a destination for the movie and TV industry outside of Los Angeles.

Arizona has a rich history of film and TV production from iconic westerns to famous horror movies — and even music videos. New tax incentives set to kick in next year promise to help expand on the history of filming in Arizona by securing the future of the state as a destination for the movie and TV industry outside of LA.

The Arizona Motion Picture Production Plan signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey this year is aimed at big-budget projects, but indie makers in the state will profit as well.

The program is designed to promote the workforce and expand the film and television industry in the state. Approved productions can receive:

  • 15% tax credit for productions up to $10 million
  • 17.5% tax credit for productions between $10 million and $35 million
  • 20% tax credit for productions more than $35 million.

The opening titles of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic film, “Psycho,” provide a dateline: “Phoenix. Friday. Dec. 11th.”

The camera pans a much different skyline before landing at the window ledge of a room in the former Jefferson Hotel (now the Barrister Building). Inside, actors John Gavin and Janet Leigh have just Netflixed and chilled so to speak.

Holly Bauman Photography
An old view of the Barrister Building in Phoenix. Formerly the Jefferson Hotel, it was featured in Alfred Hitchcock's opening frame of "Psycho."

While “Psycho” is undoubtedly a classic, horror is the lesser of the genres emanating from Arizona.  

Filmmakers for westerns like “The Outlaw Josie Wales and “Tombstone,” chose to shoot in Arizona for a reason, because of the state’s icon vistas and readymade sets like Old Tucson Studios.

While the exact details are still being worked out, the Arizona Commerce Authority, which is charged with finalizing the application process for incentives, has a record of spurring economic success.

Arizona Commerce Authority
Matthew Earl Jones, director of the Arizona Commerce Authority’s Film & Digital Media Program.

“For fiscal year ’21 and ’22, so that’s the period of July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2022, we assisted 350 projects with an estimated value of $170 million,” said Matthew Earl Jones, director of the Commerce Authority’s Film & Digital Media Program.

He’s also the half-brother of one of America’s legendary actors, James Earl Jones, who gave voice to one of the most infamous villains in the galaxy.  

And while the tax breaks are aimed at large-scale productions, Matthew Earl Jones said, “All the programs of the film office and incentives are open to local producers.” He encourages Arizona creatives in the industry to apply for them.

“In the Commerce Authority, we’re about local jobs. We’re hoping that not only do these programs help but, more importantly, that it helps people see that they cannot only learn their craft in Arizona but they can pursue their craft in Arizona. They can make money here,” he said. “One of the things that’s important to our office is that we don’t keep losing the brightest, youngest minds who graduate from the great film schools in our state and then feel they have to leave.”

The Commerce Authority has also partnered with five community colleges to offer a production assistant certification program provided by the Arizona Production Association. Over the next five years, more than 2,000 production assistants are expected to be trained.

Matthew Earl Jones also believes tribal nations in Arizona will profit, highlighting, for instance, an agreement signed by outgoing Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, “President Nez signed an MOU with the state film office to work with the Navajo Nation to help them promote their assets and help train their people and really help promote filming on the Navajo Nation. [Separately], Beyoncé shot some scenes for ‘The Lion King’ video at Havasupai Falls.”   

Hear Matthew Earl Jones' interview with Tom Maxedon

Valley-based actress, playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker Peppur Chambers believes respect for the land and locals is important when awarding bids.  

“I’m interested that filmmakers don’t come here as colonizers to film and leave. We have to be respectful of the land and of the people,” she said. “What that means is hire locally so that people can learn and take knowledge and experience back to their own communities and make their own stories.”

Leticia Rey (2020)
Peppur Chambers.

Chambers was recently appointed to the Chandler Cultural Foundation's Managing Board and is the first performing artist to serve on it. They provide oversight for the Chandler Center for the Arts  

Apart from tax incentives, what makes Arizona attractive for film and TV production?  

“Arizona has a very diverse landscape. [From Phoenix], you can go two hours north and get full lush forests. You can get snow. You can go two hours south and get dunes and deserts. You can go even further south and there’s a mining town. We just have so much in one state that we can offer these productions. That way they can shoot the entire film or show right here without having to back to Los Angeles for any sort of pickup shots,” said Bella Hibbs, director of Valley-based Good Faith Casting.

She sees an opportunity for locals to benefit.

“The film incentive is for bigger budget productions, but that money does go into the state, so I do think independent filmmakers will still see a benefit, being even able to work on those productions, make connections and hopefully get their film either funded or produced. So, hopefully it will still trickle down to those independent filmmakers as well,” said Hibbs.

Hear Bella Hibbs' interview with Tom Maxedon

Scottsdale-based indie screenwriter and director Robert Conway agrees with Hibbs.

“I think overall it’s really good. I wish they would help smaller film, too, but starting with multi-millions, the good thing is it’s going to help the economy a lot,” he said. “It’s going to give people out here jobs and there’s a lot of really crew people. I was disputing the account of a colleague of mine who shot something out here and said ‘I couldn’t find any good crew,’ I’m like, ‘you should’ve called me, man.”  

Robert Conway
Scottsdale-based indie screenwriter and filmmaker Robert Conway.

Conway has numerous films to his credit, the latest of which is “Hellhounds,” about a biker gang of werewolves. The production co-stars former Valley resident Eva Hamilton and is set for release in 2023.

His advice to locals: book it and they will come.

Hear Robert Conway's interview with Tom Maxedon

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