FARMINGTON – The city of Farmington will soon take ownership of the historic Totah Theater in downtown Farmington from San Juan County after City Council approved a full deed transfer and cost-sharing agreement at its Dec. 8 meeting via Zoom.
The historic theater located on Main Street in downtown Farmington was built in 1949 as a movie theater, said San Juan County spokesman Devin Neeley, and then closed in the 1980s. Almost 20 years later, the theater was sold. Since then, the theater served as a live music and performance venue with an expanded stage to accommodate more than just a screen. While updates have been made since the original theater was built, some features such as paintings on the walls retain their original theatrical magic, with a Southwest twist.
“The style of the building is as unique as its name, and with its fantastic acoustics, this gem is poised to be Farmington’s central film studio,” said Councilwoman Linda Rodgers.
The name of the theater is a Navajo word meaning “among the waters.” The area where the three local rivers meet is also known as the Totah.
While the theater is outfitted for live performances, the Totah still has remnants of the silver screen’s yesteryear – more specifically the projection booth, which still furnishes a toilet and a sink for the movie master who, at that time in history, couldn’t leave the booth during the films.
The theater facility is three stories with offices on each floor, which Neeley said could be available for production companies to use while in the area, a space for screenings and high-speed internet.
The county was able to secure a grant in 2019 and in 2020 totaling $1.5 million to be used to “plan, design, construct, acquire, equip, expand and improve film studio facilities in San Juan County.”
In the last decade, the film industry has branched out in the state and has become a focal point for economic development. Neeley said the county wants a piece of the pie.
“The goal was to spur some economic development in the film sector in this area,” Neeley said. “Through a hired consultant, it was recommended that the county purchase the Totah as a studio hub and build a separate back lot.”
Neeley added that productions that work in San Juan County can end up getting a 35% tax credit. Hear that, J.J. Abrams?
“Keeping this beloved theater in our community preserves a part of Farmington’s past while providing a stepping stone into our future,” Rodgers said. “The film industry in New Mexico is an important economic driver.”
Rodgers added Farmington has already been host to several movies, such as “Transformers” (2007), “The Lone Ranger” (2012), “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (2013) and “Jumanji: The Next Level” (2019).
“My dream is that we continue to build on this industry by providing the space for national and international filmmaking right here in beautiful Farmington,” she said.
Once the grant-funded renovation is complete, the county will transfer ownership of the theater to the city.