It wasn’t the first time it’s happened to Marshall Moore, and it probably won’t be the last. Still, for the director of the Utah Film Commission (UFC), an experience he had last summer is indicative of the impact the film industry has on Utah’s economy.
Moore had been in Kanab observing the filming of Walt Disney Studio’s feature film John Carter of Mars. He left the set, was driving back toward Salt Lake City and stopped in a small grocery store to grab a drink.
“The owner saw my Film Commission shirt and said, ‘I want to give you hug,’” he remembers with a smile. “She said, ‘I want you to know that we love the film business. In fact, my son is getting a part-time job at one of the shoots because of your good work.’ It was very gratifying.”
Ask anyone who has worked on a film production in the state over the past 80 years—and many have—and you’ll likely hear similar stories. Utah has proven not only a great place for filmmakers, actors and production crews to work in, but also one with a populace that supports the industry—and benefits from it.
Setting the Stage
“The film industry in and of itself has existed in Utah since the 1930s,” Moore says. “It began with the Westerns that were shot in Monument Valley, Kanab and Moab. Those are still fresh in the memories of generations of citizens who have lived in those communities. And it eventually transitioned to the entire state. In that process, it has created a lot of full-time and part-time jobs for thousands of Utahns, people who make their living from the [film] industry.”
That became evident in the ‘90s, when three network TV series were filmed entirely in Utah. Touched By An Angel ran on CBS for nine seasons, its spinoff series Promised Land ran for three, and Everwood on the WB for four. When those shows were in full production, each finished episode poured an estimated $2–3 million into the state’s economy.
The byproduct of those series was an embellishment to the state’s cache of filmmaking professionals and support service groups. Many of those who came to Utah to work on those series have stayed.
“I’ve been in Utah for 20 years, and it was ‘Touched’ that brought me here initially,” says Chris DeMuri, an independent production designer and art director. “If it wasn’t for being able to find fairly steady work here, I’d be back in California. But I stayed because this state has always been pretty progressive about business, especially the film business. It’s in close proximity to Los Angeles and it’s a great place to be in this business.”
He says Utah offers major advantages for producers—great locales, an experienced workforce in a right-to-work state and, of course, tax incentives.
Those incentives came after state leaders saw the value of filmmaking during the golden 1990s, one reason why the Utah Film Commission lobbied for, and eventually was successful in spearheading the creation of the Motion Picture Incentive Fund. Approved as a budgetary item every two years by the Utah Legislature, it offers filmmakers tax credits to encourage the use of Utah as a destination for film production—both for the big and little screens.
“The MPIF functions as a tax credit or cash rebate for approved productions and operates on a post-performance basis on expenditures that are made in the state,” the Utah Code reads (Utah Code Ann. 63M-1-1805). Filmmakers can receive a tax credit of up to 20 percent on dollars left in the state, plus an additional cash rebate depending on the cost of the project.
Prior to this year’s legislative session, the UFC prepared a report on the impact of the industry during fiscal year 2010, which ended last June 30. There were 20 feature film, independent film and/or cable projects in Utah, amounting to 424 production days and having an estimated economic impact of nearly $50 million. Television production included 23 projects, 130 production days and an economic impact of just over $3 million. And the third category, which included 68 commercials, videos, shorts, industrial films and documentaries, amounted to 45 days of production and an impact of more than $1 million.
“Those are significant numbers,” Moore says. “Add the Sundance Film Festival’s impact of over $62 million to the mix, and the total economic impact was over $115 million for the fiscal year.” Not a shabby return on the funds allocated for tax credits for fiscal years 2010–11 of $15.5 million.
What can’t be measured are the outer rings of those dollars—the jobs created outside of actual production in support areas such as hospitality, retail and travel. As Moore discovered from his experience in the small grocery store, the reach of filmmaking in Utah goes far beyond the film sets themselves.
“We do have to be a bit leaner here with costs, but we regularly work with 75 to 80 local crew members, plus the vendors throughout the area,” DeMuri says. “Using local businesses has also proven to be very cost effective for producers.”
DeMuri points to the production of Fox Searchlight’s feature film 127 Hours, based on the real life drama of hiker Aron Ralston, who severed his arm to save his life after falling into a crevasse in Blue John Canyon near Moab in 2003. The production wrapped up last spring and was released to rave reviews this past fall. The majority of the film, particularly the sequences involving actor James Franco as Ralston in the crevasse, was actually shot on a set built in the old Granite Furniture warehouse in Sugar House. The production team, headed by Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), spent more than $12 million with Utah businesses.
“We created those canyons from scratch, and 99 percent of the materials were sourced right here in Salt Lake City,” DeMuri says. “Local proprietors always benefit when we shoot here, because there are no prop houses in Utah. So we go to smaller businesses and rent or buy things like lumber, metal, lots of raw materials and furniture. That money stays right here in Utah.”
“Utah was easy for me to come to,” says David Cummins, who does post-production work and who, along with DeMuri, was on the crew for 127 Hours. He moved to Salt Lake City in late 2009. “I was tired of living in L.A. and wanted a break from the pressure cooker down there. I’d seen the trend for the industry moving to other areas where they could get tax breaks and find great crews and locations. Utah was among them. What I have really seen is a leveling of the playing field between the coast and other areas, particularly with regards to post production.”
Cummins praises Utah for being “very pro business. I was really surprised how the local community has embraced the red digital cinema camera. We used that on 127 Hours, particularly in the scenes were James was stuck in the rocks. A regular camera wouldn’t have fit in those tight spaces.”
Cummins originally got a call from one of Boyle’s producers who simply wanted to rent time in editing bays. But once the crew did some camera tests, Cummins says they realized “they needed a whole on-set solution. With the quick turnaround that digital provides, we were able to wrap production at the end of May and still have the film ready for the Toronto Film Festival on September 9.”
Such technology is a necessity here, since Utah does not have a film lab. But with the way the industry is changing and the use of digital on the increase, that’s probably fortuitous for Utah.
“A lot of the larger post-production houses that only work with film have gone out of business in L.A.,” Cummins says.
The list of local professionals who cater to the film industry is solid and experienced. From craft services (food), security and casting to videographers, set designers and production teams, Utah is blessed with what DeMuri says is “a three-to-four-deep set of crews available at any given time.” It’s helped the UFC win a number of campaigns for films, including one called Darling Companion starring Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline that wrapped in the fall.
“The funny thing about that film is that it’s set in Colorado, where the writers live, but was shot here. They don’t have crews or the incentives that we offer here, so we shot the film in Park City and near Sundance, substituting for areas of Telluride.”
Moore and his team are constantly marketing the entire state for film, television and commercial production locations. “Our job is to make sure productions are coming, hiring local professionals, using our resources and providing revenue streams for them.”
From his perspective, Cummins also credits the commission with trouble shooting for film production teams. A lot of preliminary work and problem solving is done before a team arrives, making the actual shoots much easier.
“There was a time when Utah was perceived as a location state only,” he says. “The idea was come here, shoot exteriors, then go somewhere else for interior shots or to edit. That’s changed greatly, thanks to films like 127 Hours and John Carter.”
In 1985, the film Footloose was shot entirely in Utah County. Originally, producers planned to simply shoot exteriors here, then return to sound stages in Los Angeles for the bulk of the movie. What they discovered here, instead, was everything they needed—from crews to locales to materials—to finish one of the highest-grossing films ever made entirely in Utah.
“Probably the highest-grossing movie made here was High School Musical 3,” Moore points out, a film that brought in more than a quarter billion dollars internationally. “The whole franchise was a huge revenue generator for local businesses, and even after the last film was released, visitors were still clamoring to see the locales at East High School where the film was shot.”
During fiscal 2010, the largest economic impact films were John Carter of Mars (estimated at $27.7 million) and 127 Hours ($12.1 million). But they were hardly alone. Den Brother pumped over $3.3 million into local coffers and created 120 jobs for locals. Thrillbillies cast and crew spent $1.2 million. A list of others combined to create 1,300-plus local jobs and expend more than $50 million in local stores and businesses. The incentive total for that windfall was just under $10 million.
Even with those successes, the commission does see some films slip away. The Coen Brothers movie True Grit that came out in December went to New Mexico to shoot, a state offering a 25 percent tax incentive compared to Utah’s 20 percent. Texas and Vancouver, British Columbia are considered Utah’s biggest challengers in securing films shot outside of Tinseltown.
What Moore and everyone else involved would love to see is another TV series along the lines of Touched By An Angel return to the state for production. It’s always a possibility, depending on how the economy grows.
“Location fees here are about a third of what they are in L.A.” DeMuri adds. “Parking fees, rents—they all add up. And the locomotion is better here—moving from one location to another with much lighter traffic. There are so many possibilities within a short radius to Salt Lake City—mountains, deserts, lakes, resorts. This is just a great place to be making movies.”
Locals agree—after all, when Hollywood makes movies here, merchants make money.