c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
One afternoon last winter, a man with a shaved head walked into Twisters, a burrito joint in Albuquerque. He was wearing a yellow helmet and Hazmat suit and carrying a gas mask. He put on the mask, struck various poses throughout the restaurant and then sidled up to the counter to buy a burrito topped with French fries, one of the restaurant’s specialties.
At a different fast-food restaurant, the manager might have been alarmed. But this particular one had doubled as Los Pollos Hermanos, the chicken joint owned by a ruthless leader of a methamphetamine cartel in “Breaking Bad,” the AMC television series.
Such fan fervor — in this case, impersonating the show’s main character, a chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook named Walter White — had become routine. In fact, during one week this month, 117 fans from places as disparate as northern France, the Cayman Islands, Baton Rouge, La., and Kalispell, Mont., signed the hefty “Breaking Bad” guest book perched on the Twisters counter near the soda machine.
The show, which won three Emmy Awards this year, including its first for best drama series, began filming in 2007 in Albuquerque, a city long overshadowed in tourism by Santa Fe, its smaller neighbor to the north. Over the next six years, however, as the series showcased Albuquerque’s grit and high-desert beauty, the city became a star in its own right and an entire “Breaking Bad” economy sprang up.
But now, with the series finale to be broadcast Sunday night — filming concluded in April — the future is uncertain for the many businesses that have come to rely on the show for sales.
During the show’s run, the production directly employed an average of 200 people, said Wayne Rauschenberger, chief operating officer at Albuquerque Studios, the 28-acre facility where much of the show was filmed. Beyond that, there were lumber yards, antique stores, limousine companies, hotels, caterers and others performing ancillary functions. Residents were hired as extras, and homeowners and businesses were paid for filming privileges.
The set decorator Michael Flowers says he patronized antique stores when designing sets, recalling that he spent $20,000 on scrap metal at a local salvage yard while building the show’s meth-lab set. Flowers described his philosophy as: “Don’t shop at chains. Go to ma-and-pa stores; keep the money in Albuquerque.”
The series’ creator, Vince Gilligan, routinely incorporated local spots into filming. He has been widely quoted as saying Albuquerque became a central character in the show. As the show’s popularity surged — about 6.6 million viewers tuned in last Sunday — so did Albuquerque’s.
“‘Breaking Bad’ became such a phenomenon that it helped in other areas such as tourism,” says Nick Maniatis, director of the New Mexico State Film Office. “You wouldn’t think that would be the case for a show about meth. But it was shot so beautifully. They did such a great job showing different areas of our state.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
When tourists began streaming in, they sought out the aesthetically ordinary places they had seen on screen, like the Twisters restaurant and the house that serves as Walter White’s home. In 2012, ABQ Trolley Co. began highlighting such locations in a weekly tour that now runs from April to October; it routinely sells out. Earlier this year, two other companies began leading competing bicycle and limousine tours.
Many more fans make their way to the landmarks on their own. Fran Padilla, owner of the house whose exterior and swimming pool were used as the White family home, counted more than 2,000 gawkers outside her window in August and September. She keeps tabs on visitors by using a pair of binoculars to scour their license plates, and occasionally emerges to introduce herself.
Originally from Brooklyn, Padilla has lived in the house with her husband for 40 years. When the show’s location scout knocked on their door before the pilot was filmed, “it was like winning a lottery,” she says. “With all the homes in Albuquerque, they picked ours?”
She declined to divulge how much the production paid out, except to say: “It didn’t make us rich, but it was nice. Extra money is always nice.”
The fact that 4 1/2 of the show’s five seasons are available on Netflix allows it to continue drawing new viewers, beyond its huge TV following. That gives Padilla and others faith that its drawing power for Albuquerque won’t be just a fad.
Others have doubts.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Debbie Ball, who owns the Candy Lady, believes that the boom will fade in a year’s time. She has been churning out blue rock candy meant to resemble the special blue meth manufactured by Walter White in the show. The candy was used as a prop in the first two seasons of “Breaking Bad,” and she now sells it to tourists in what she calls “dollar dime bags.” She estimates she has sold 35,000 bags since August 2012.
Ball also leads limo tours, booking one or two “Breaking Bad” circuits a day since January. Among her other tie-in products are hand-painted Pez dispensers depicting some of the show’s characters. All told, she says, she has seen a 25 percent increase in sales of her “Breaking Bad” products and a 10 percent bump in sales overall in the past year.
For now, anyway, “it’s like Christmas every day,” she says. “It’s basically another business that’s been spawned out of this.”
Carrie Mettling, co-owner of the local chain Rebel Donut, expects that most viewers who haven’t finished watching the series will be caught up within a year, at which point enthusiasm may wane.
Rebel Donut makes the Blue Sky doughnut, which is slathered in blue frosting and dusted with blue rock candy. As it turns out, one of Rebel’s three branches is inside the building that doubled as the Drug Enforcement Administration office on “Breaking Bad.” “I thought it would be pretty funny to sell blue-meth doughnuts in the DEA building,” Mettling says. “It was an ironic coincidence.”
She created the first batch of Blue Sky doughnuts in June 2012 as a gift to the “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul. After she posted a picture of him with the doughnuts to her store’s Facebook page, sales spiked. She typically sells six dozen a day and 40 dozen on Sundays, when the show is broadcast. For the current season’s premiere, fans hosting viewing parties across the country bought 1,500 dozen.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
One business that’s already feeling a pinch is A Good Sign, a print shop that created the artwork used on the sets. Before “Breaking Bad” came to town, its owner, Tami Abts, ran a one-woman shop, but by the end of filming for the fifth season, her staff had ballooned to 10. Business was alarmingly slow through the spring and summer — and she scaled down to one employee — though last week it began to pick up again, she says.
After a four-month hiatus, many of the crew members for “Breaking Bad” have now landed jobs on “The Night Shift,” a new NBC series lured to Albuquerque after the New Mexico legislature passed the so-called “Breaking Bad” bill, which raised tax subsidies for television productions in the state.
For nearly two decades, New Mexico was a big player among states offering such subsidies. But in 2011, the state placed a $50 million cap on annual tax credits under the argument that it shouldn’t foot such a big entertainment bill; film spending in the state then dropped 20 percent. The “Breaking Bad” bill was an effort to coax productions back to New Mexico. Once it was passed in April, it began to do that, Maniatis says.
“We didn’t think we’d see a huge impact until right about now, and that’s what’s happening,” he says. “The Night Shift,” a drama about a group of Army doctors working the night shift in San Antonio, and “Killer Women,” a new ABC crime drama about a female Texas Ranger, both began filming recently.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Movie productions have provided an economic lift to the city, too. In fact, the third-highest-grossing film in history, “The Avengers,” was shot in Albuquerque in 2011. But the life span of a television show is typically far longer, and some in the industry believe that it translates into more financial staying power.
The next big hope for Albuquerque is the recently announced “Breaking Bad” spinoff with the working title “Better Call Saul,” based on the popular character Saul Goodman, an outspoken Albuquerque lawyer with permeable morals. Albuquerque Studios hasn’t yet been approached about the project, but it’s eager to land the show should production take place here — a subject of intense speculation among local residents and business owners.
The backdrop of the show will be Albuquerque, “so we expect it’s probably going to be filmed here,” Rauschenberger says.
One businessman who won’t be relying on the spinoff is Ted Rice of Marble Brewery.
“I’m just trying to take it all in stride,” Rice says of the huge increase in sales he received for his two “Breaking Bad” tribute beers, Walt’s White Lie and Heisenberg’s Dark. He began brewing them in August for a “Breaking Bad” viewing party hosted by the brewery, but says he has no plans to continue them.
“I’m just going to keep focusing on my flavors and keep them entertaining,” he says. “Without a tie-in to pop culture.”