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Updated: This story has been updated to include the dedication of the Cherokee facility.

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

In bold business moves, the Cherokee Nation and the Tesuque Pueblo have opened film studios on tribal lands in hopes of luring the billion-dollar film industry with incentives that go beyond tax breaks and scenic locales.

The Cherokee Nation has created a virtual soundstage, the first of its kind in Oklahoma and believed to be the first in Indian Country. The Tesuque Pueblo, a small New Mexico tribe, built Camel Rock Studios, a movie studio/campus, in an existing building that once housed a casino.

The studios are already drawing interest from award-winning directors.

“What everybody fell in love with was the fact that we were able to shoot on tribal land,” Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re putting money into a tribal economy, diversifying their businesses. If we’re going to make Native content, let’s do it right.”

Eyre, a Santa Fe resident who also serves as an advisor to Camel Rock Studio, directed the 1998 film “Smoke Signals” and is currently drawing attention for the all-Native production, “Dark Winds.”

Finishing touches go up on the new Camel Rock Studios, which was opened by the Tesuque Pueblo in 2020 in New Mexico in what had been a casino building. The studio is one of at least two studios opened by tribes to lure the lucrative film industry; the Cherokee Nation also opened a studio in Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of Camel Rock Studios)

Cherokee Nation’s XR Studio

The 27,000-square-foot Cherokee Nation Extended Reality Studio, or XR Studio, stretches out over four acres.

It contains both an LED wall and a ceiling structure that can provide industry-leading content for virtual productions that use Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality elements to create a fully immersive experience.

A dedication and ribbon-cutting was held Friday, July 22, for the facility, known as Cherokee Film Studios, Owasso Campus.

"The Cherokee Nation Film Office is leading the way in helping grow and diversify Oklahoma’s film and television industry,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement. “Our tribe continues to do our part to successfully build permanent infrastructure and encourage economic growth that creates jobs and expands opportunities for the Cherokee people, and for all of northeast Oklahoma.”

The Cherokee Nation previously expanded its industry growth in Oklahoma when the film office became the first tribal film commission to offer a $1 million film incentive for productions filmed within its tribal lands.

The first film made at the studio in Owasso, Oklahoma, was “Land of Gold,” directed by award-winning filmmaker Nardeep Khurmi. It debuted at the Tribeca Festival in New York City in June and won the 2021 AT&T Presents: Untold Stories award, a multiyear alliance between AT&T and Tribeca Festival that awards a filmmaker $1 million to produce a film and provides opportunities for distribution.

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The film follows a truck driver and expectant father Kiran, played by Khurmi, as his life takes a drastic turn when he decides to reunite a young girl with her family after he discovers her stowed away in a shipping container.

“This premiere illustrates the significance of Cherokee Nation having introduced groundbreaking film technology to our region,” said Jennifer Loren, director of the Cherokee Nation Film Office and Original Content in a statement.

“It is truly exciting to see this film and the diverse production capabilities within our reservation and state being featured on a worldwide platform.”

Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., left, meets with filmmaker Nardeep Khurmi, second from left, whose film, "Land of Gold," was the first made at the Cherokee Nation's new film studio in Oklahoma. They are pictured with Jennifer Loren, director of the Cherokee Nation Film Office, and Deputy Chief Bryan Warner. The film was released in June 2022 at the Tribeca Festival. (Photo Courtesy of Cherokee Nation Film Office)

Khurmi said the Cherokee Nation offered broad support in bringing the film to light.

“Inclusive storytelling is important not only in front of the camera, but behind as well,” Khurmi said in a statement. “This story of hyphenated Americans could not have been made without the support of the Cherokee Nation, whose generosity allowed us to film our road trip sequences in comfort and in safety.

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“I’m honored to have made my first film about what it is to be American with the collaboration of First Nations people. It is exhilarating, and I’m so proud of what we accomplished together.”

Camel Rock Studios

Located at the iconic Camel Rock formation north of Santa Fe, the building that now houses Camel Rock studios once housed the Camel Rock Casino. But revenues had been declining with competition from the nearby Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino, and in 2017 the Tesuque Pueblo announced plans to build a replacement casino nearby. Camel Rock was closed in 2018.

The 800-member tribe decided to convert the building to a film studio after some scenes from Universal Pictures’ big-budget movie, “News of the World,” starring Tom Hanks, were filmed in 2019 in the closed casino building.

Rather than build another mall or resort hotel, the Tesuque Pueblo in 2020 converted the building into a movie studio/campus called Camel Rock Studios that has 25,000 square feet that were previously gaming space that now are available for filming.

Outdoor filming can be done on the surrounding red foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and on 27 square miles of the reservation.

Eyre said the setting and studio provide options for filmmakers.

“It’s a museum. It’s an opulent hotel lobby. It’s a capitol building,” Eyre told The Associated Press.

In this June 25, 2020 photo, Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre, an advisor to Camel Rock Studio, talks about Tesuque Pueblo's new film studio in Santa Fe, N.M. The Native American tribe in northern New Mexico has opened up the movie studio at the site of a former casino aimed at attracting big productions in what is believed to be a first by a Indigenous tribal government in the U.S. (AP Photo/ Russell Contreras, File)

Netflix and NBCUniversal have already been investing in New Mexico film in recent years, according to Tunte Vigil, Tesuque Pueblo’s business development associate.

“The Pueblo of Tesuque Development Corporation wants to bring different businesses to the pueblo and the market is really open,” Vigil told AP. “So this is a good opportunity.”

Money in the bank

The studios are hoping to tap into the lucrative film business.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham released numbers earlier this month showing that film, television, and digital media production in the state reached new record spending of $855.4 million in fiscal year 2022, an increase of 36 percent over fiscal year 2021.

Legislation spearheaded by the governor in 2019 provides an additional 5 percent tax credit for productions outside the Albuquerque/Santa Fe area to boost regional productions, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Rural communities saw a 660 percent increase in direct spending from the industry, increasing from $6.5 million in 2021 to $50 million in 2022.

“Another record year for film and television industry spending makes it as clear as ever that New Mexico is the place to be for film and TV,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “Due to the work we’ve done to foster a successful environment for production and build a thriving base of talented local crews, film and television productions from around the world are putting money directly into New Mexico communities, supporting our small businesses and creating jobs for thousands of New Mexicans.”

Amber Dodson, director of the New Mexico Film Office, said in the statement that the success of "Breaking Bad," "Better Call Saul," "Dark Winds" and other films have helped establish New Mexico “as a unique place with one-of-a-kind locations, skilled local crews, and film-friendly small businesses that can propel stories to the highest level.”

“The Film Office continues to tout New Mexico, not only as a diverse and forward-thinking state,” Dodson said, “but a place where memorable, award-winning productions can call home over many seasons.”

That is proving true, as “Dark Winds”, one of the first series filmed at Camel Rock Studios with a largely Native cast and director, has been renewed for a second season.

The article contains material from The Associated Press.

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