Las Vegas filmmakers weigh in on how to keep the industry growing in Nevada


When a proposal to inject $190 million per year into Nevada’s film incentives program circulated in the Legislature, eyes turned to Las Vegas—and rolled in exasperation. The bill would also have expanded the state’s film tax credit program, provided for a pair of Vegas-based studio projects to help boost workforce development and larger productions, and bolstered Nevada’s film industry.

Bipartisan opponents said the bill would amount to a handout for studio companies and multimillion-dollar facilities in Las Vegas, and would benefit only Southern Nevada. Ultimately, the legislation never made it out of committee.

So without those investments, local filmmakers will continue working with what they have—a teeming market, albeit one offering limited options at times.

“I think the vibe in the filmmaking world here is that, unless you’re in reality [TV] or that [low-budget] horror film niche and working all the time, people aren’t relying on paying their bills by being a filmmaker here,” says Chris Ramirez, filmmaker and owner of Lola Pictures.

Ramirez has produced several movies in Las Vegas, including 2016’s Frank & Lola starring Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots, and 2020’s Viena and the Fantomes starring Dakota Fanning and Jeremy Allen White. Having labored in the Valley for decades, he says he and other filmmakers work hard out of passion for their craft, and also out of necessity.

“I always had to make my own work. And I feel like that’s the Vegas entrepreneur in me,” he says. “I think there are … [the] committed filmmakers who are going to make whatever they’re making, and they’re not really trying to pay the bills with it. [That’s] still the filmmaker’s dream.”

While Nevada hosts very few large-scale and studio productions compared to other states, filmmaker Shahab Zargari says locals still find ways to build their careers. Also a communications specialist with UNLV Fine Arts, he has seen students who graduate from film school go on to find work in the state in select niches such as events and commercials.

“A lot of the film graduates, especially when they first get out on their feet, are working camera three at whatever convention at the Venetian,” Zargari says. “That kind of stuff is fine and good. They’re editing conference footage, or they’re doing weddings and that kind of thing, which is cool. But I’m almost positive that’s not why they went to film school.”

Zargari is the co-owner of Think Speak Films, which produced his 2013 directorial debut The Crystal Crypt and four of his other films. But his pathway to filmmaking actually began in marketing, often for Las Vegas Strip properties.

“We are in direct competition with billion-dollar casinos that can spend all kinds of marketing money so the tourists can go see Celine Dion or Blue Man Group. … All of their messaging is diluting ours [and] local musicians, local theater,” he says. “I feel like it makes us hungrier to get those eyeballs. … Las Vegas residents are always on this kick to prove that we’re just like any other city. We have our talented people.”

More homegrown film projects could create more and more diversity in opportunities for a hungry workforce, Zargari adds.

Ramirez says many filmmakers, especially those working on independent projects, are looking to take advantage of Nevada’s incentives and are well-suited to provide some of those jobs under the current program. “We used almost 90% locals at some height in our first movie,” he says.

To qualify for Nevada’s tax incentive program, a production must spend at least 60% of its overall budget in-state. Incentives can rack up to 15% to 25% of production costs and are capped at $6 million in transferable tax credits per production. By way of comparison, New Mexico has an incentive rate up to 35%.

Because of a relative lack of investment, Nevada hasn’t gone much further than dipping its toes in the pool of filmmaking potential.

Ramirez lobbied during the 2013 Legislature for lawmakers’ first attempt to fund the program to $20 million per year. The 2013 bill passed but was largely gutted nine months after the law went into effect. A special session in 2014 ultimately allocated to Tesla $70 million of the $80 million that was originally intended for the film incentive program over four years.

“Back then, we had a chance to catch up. … Then, when they gave all the money to Tesla … that really took the wind out of our sails,” he says.

Representatives from the Nevada Film Office (NFO) say a lack of filmmaking incentives and infrastructure does at times mean larger productions can’t find what they need in the state and must go elsewhere.

“Some examples would be CSI: Vegas, The Cleaning Lady or Poker Face, which just came out with Natasha Lyonne,” says Danette Tull, NFO’s production and communications manager. “They don’t film the whole season here or the whole movie here, because we lack infrastructure. And we also lack a competitive incentive program,.”

The NFO, which helps filmmakers who want to work in the state and administers the incentive program, currently operates with a $10 million annual budget for transferable tax credits. In 2022, the program issued more than $7.3 million in credits to seven projects. Those productions, and others that didn’t use the incentive program, brought jobs and economic activity of more than $42 million to Nevada last year, according to an NFO report.

While Nevada has experienced success with the program, it’s modest compared to that of New Mexico, which spent $60 million on film incentives in 2022, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

“I think one of the most current projects to illustrate that point was Army of the Dead, a [2021] Netflix film that took place in Las Vegas. We weren’t able to host that production here because of the lack of soundstages and also the lack of incentives,” Tull says. “So they ended up basically [laser-scanning] Las Vegas Boulevard and rebuilding our Strip in a soundstage in New Mexico. … Those kinds of things, personally and professionally, sting a little bit.”

On the other hand, Frank & Lola filmed in Las Vegas and used the state’s incentive program. After a run at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, it was picked up for distribution by Universal Pictures. “It’s one of our only Sundance [Film Festival] movies that’s from Vegas [and] was very homegrown.”

During Ramirez’s time working on bigger productions, he has observed some issues with local workforce training and hiring. “What I ran up against with the producers is, it’s all about the bottom line.”

And it can become “prohibitively expensive” without qualified local crew, which is lacking in Nevada, he says. Those productions typically end up having to bring people in from out of state and pay for their accommodations.

“Even if there’s a tax incentive, which helps, you still really need to build up a crew base,” Ramirez says. “It’s a chicken and egg [situation]. … It never happens without a good tax incentive program.”

Tull says permanent studio space could also help build up that base. “It would bring more production here. It would establish a workforce development piece. There would be more work to go around, which would in turn encourage more studio infrastructure coming and more productions coming,” she says.

For Zargari, greater investments in the film industry would help build on the potential that already exists here. “I think [it] … would not only be beneficial for all the local filmmakers, it would help cement the Las Vegas film community as the professionals that they are.”

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Shannon Miller

Shannon Miller joined Las Vegas Weekly in early 2022 as a staff writer. Since 2016, she has gathered a smorgasbord ...

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