High-tech filmmaking could be part of northern New Mexico’s future

Courtesy of El Raton Media Works
Plans are in the works to turn the historic Kearny Elementary School in Raton, N.M. into a film studio and education center

Plans are in the works to build a film school and high-tech studio in Raton, New Mexico. The new Kearny Film Studio and Education Center is slated to open next year in a historic brick school building. It’ll house workshops and classrooms for wardrobe design, makeup, carpentry and other film industry jobs, along with production offices and editing suites.

Ann Theis of El Raton Media Works, the non-profit behind the project, said their future students will get training in the entire filmmaking process and learn skills applicable to life and careers.

“Whether they end up choosing to become filmmakers or not,” she said, ‘they (will) have practiced how to communicate, how to tell their story, how to organize things, and how to accomplish something.”

The non-profit group is also aiming to make the facility home to the region’s first extended reality or XR stage. It's cutting-edge technology in the movie and gaming industry that uses huge LED walls to create virtual reality settings and scenes.

The imagery on the LED walls on an XR stage adjusts in conjunction with how the characters are moving, Theis said, so “when the cameras are shooting, the background moves accordingly. So it looks like real life — the way the background changes as people are moving through space.”

Theis said the XR studio they’re hoping to build would have a 50 feet wide and 25 feet high LED screen, and the XR soundstage would total some 7,400 square feet, with motion tracking sensors throughout. It would be constructed in a new building on the existing Kearney campus.

Courtesy of El Raton Media Works

Raton native Vaughn Vialpando, who leads El Raton Media Works, said they want to stimulate the economy and create jobs in a community once reliant on coal mining. When the mines shut down, “a lot of businesses left, a lot of people left and our population continued to diminish,” he said. “We have no opportunities for our local residents. We would like to change that and break that mold.”

Vialpando said students will be trained in a variety of trades from costuming and camera work to storytelling and budgeting. He said they aim to bring movie projects to the area and give young people a reason to stay.

“The amount of money that has been injected into the (New Mexico) economy for film is astonishing, so we can take advantage of that,” he said. 

New Mexico has generous incentives for the film industry, substantially more than Colorado does, according to Theis. 

Vialpando also pointed out that Raton is located on Interstate 25 and centered between Denver and Albuquerque, so it can appeal to people coming from both metropolitan areas. 

“It's going to have its own momentum,” he said. “That's going to just continue to build and build and build. The sky's the limit.”

El Raton Media Works is working on partnerships with several New Mexico colleges and universities, as well as Trinidad State College in southern Colorado, according to Theis.

Courtesy of El Raton Media Works
Jose Lopez is the technical lead for the new Kearny Film Studio and Education Center in Raton, N.M.

“Our goal is to work with accredited institutions to bring in a variety of educational opportunities,” she said.

Raton Mayor Neil Segotta said he expects other ancillary businesses to benefit and grow as a result of the project, like hotels and restaurants. “I think it has the opportunity to be a pretty good chunk of our future,” he said. “We didn't really picture ourselves as the movie capital of northeastern New Mexico, but by golly, if we're going to be, we're going to do it right.”

Courtesy of El Raton Media Works
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham stands at center with Ann Theis and Jose Lopez of El Raton Media Works.

The state of New Mexico has pledged $1.1 million to the project and other funding sources are in the works. Jose Lopez with El Raton Media Works said they estimate the entire project, including the XR stage, will cost around $14 million.

“The word is getting out,” said Lopez. “I can see people from L.A. with experience, (who) want to go to a place that's not so expensive and can still continue (using) their skill set. They can come to Raton.”

The state estimates more than $850 million in direct spending came from the film and television industry in the last fiscal year, $50 million of which went to rural communities.