Story produced by Noah Apodaca, Nathaniel Bitting, Azalea Hughes and Josh Jaeger
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — It’s time to turn up the lights, cue the cameras, and roll out the red carpet as the NMSU Creative Media Institute prepares to work alongside Hallmark Media to produce a holiday feature film this fall.
The film, which is to be named “The Santa Assist,” is a romantic comedy about Santa Claus sending his cousin to a small town in New Mexico to save a horse therapy ranch for special-needs kids. The film will star Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts as Santa Claus, Eliza Roberts as Mrs. Claus, as well as Hallmark stars Jonathan Stoddard and Alexandra Harris.
This is the fourth time CMI students have worked to make a feature film, and this time a group of 26 students will make up the crew, including costume designer and NMSU student Marisol Hernandez.
“What I am most looking forward to during the time of production is actually getting to work alongside our actors,” Hernandez said. “The costume department is really special because it’s one of the few departments where you have daily interaction with your cast, and I have always been a bit more behind the scenes, so this is going to be a very different and special opportunity for me.”
According to the film’s director and CMI professor Ross Marks, the students who are working on the film were carefully selected from the film and animation programs. Students also had to undergo a competitive interview process to get their spots.
“It’s very difficult to make a feature film, so to put this kind of responsibility and stress, and kind of challenge for the students, we knew they had to be at a certain level,” Marks said.
Filming will start Oct. 22 and will last for a total of 20 days. With a budget of approximately $1 million, filming will take place entirely in Las Cruces and its surrounding areas.
CMI alumnus and film industry professional Keagan Karnes brought the project idea to Marks. He also helped establish the funding necessary to make the film happen. Since then, the crew has been making pre-production preparations for about a month.
Marks said the impact of professional, on-the-job training will be highly valuable for students now and in their future endeavors. Marks has worked within the film industry for 20 years, taking a Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995. He is a graduate of both NMSU and the American Film Institute, and has worked alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including George Lopez and Brendan Fraser.
“At this stage in my life, it's more rewarding for me to have my students succeed than for me to be successful as a director."
After achieving so much success in the industry, Marks said this opportunity is fulfilling to him because it allows his students to see and experience how a professional Hollywood movie is shot.
“At this stage in my life, it’s more rewarding for me to have my students succeed than for me to be successful as a director,” Marks stated.
On a larger scale, the film industry in New Mexico ranks among other top industry performers, including oil and gas, aerospace and agriculture. Recent data from the New Mexico Film Office show that in the 2023 fiscal year alone, nearly $794 million has been spent on film and television endeavors within the state. In total, nearly $5.75 billion has been spent in New Mexico over the years.
Andrew Jara, a CMI alumnus and associate film liaison for Film Las Cruces, said that while the film industry has always had a presence in the state, things are picking up.
“The expectation is that [the film industry] will grow,” Jara said. “I think we want to have more productions that are a little bit higher, [and are] dependent on the services we have.”
New Mexico state legislation, including a 10% tax credit for films produced 60 miles outside of the Albuquerque and Santa Fe metro areas, is an attractive motivator for filmmakers across the region. Additionally, the Film Crew Advancement Program is geared toward New Mexico residents who wish to further their movie careers. “The FCAP program provides a 50% reimbursement of the qualifying participant’s wages for up to 1,040 hours physically worked by the crew member,” the New Mexico Film Office website states.
“Luckily, the Senate and the House and Gov. Lujan [Grisham] have been fundamental in pushing the film industry and kind of helping it grow in the State of New Mexico,” Jara said.
For students in CMI like Marisol Hernandez, this opportunity will be a great addition to her resume and experience within the film industry.
“In the long term, I hope this opportunity means that I will get to have many similar experiences,” Hernandez said. “I get to step up my game and show my peers what I am capable of, and I hope that that translates to more jobs.”