Lights, Camera… : Utah’s film companies stand ready for more industry action

“I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now,” says Forrest Gump, slowing to a stop after three years, two months, 14 days and 16 hours of running. He turns around and walks through the gathered crowd, off into the Monument Valley landscape.

Most Utahns don’t realize how many iconic scenes—like the penultimate drive in Thelma and Louise, or Captain Jack Sparrow’s hallucinatory doubles in Pirates of the Caribbean—have been filmed right here in the state, let alone that over 900 films have been made in Utah to date. Utah’s long romance with the film industry began in the 1920s, with silent westerns like The Deadwood Coach taking advantage of Southern Utah’s spectacular landscape. Over the years, Utah’s film industry has seen some peaks—the wildly successful Touched by an Angel filmed in northern Utah from 1994 to 2003, and the critically-acclaimed 127 Hours made Utah its home in 2011, for instance. The Sundance Film Festival, the respected showcase of independent films headed by Robert Redford, has been in Utah since its inception in 1978.

A culture and infrastructure has grown around the film industry in Utah through that history, but history and prestige are not enough to keep films reliably and consistently coming to the state. In the past five years, Utah’s film community and the state’s Film Commission have been working hard to make that industry thrive in the Beehive State once more.

Scene stealing

What do movies like Chicago, Good Will Hunting, Twilight, Brokeback Mountain, Happy Gilmore and American Psycho have in common? All of these quintessentially American films were shot in Canada.

In 1997, Canada introduced a federal motion picture incentive program in order to attract film productions from the United States. The Canadian program, which offers hefty tax incentives to filmmakers who spend a certain amount of money in the country, worked well, and still works today—2016 Academy Award for Best Picture winner Spotlight, The Revenant and Deadpool were all recently shot in Canada.

In 2001, realizing from Canada’s success that tax credits and incentives could lure Hollywood out of California, Louisiana adopted a similar program—and nearly every state in the union had followed suit by 2009. Utah, with its long history of filmmaking (and assured by its network series’ successes that productions would continue to come to the state without an incentive program), was not part of the 44 states that had a program by then.

“We had Touched by an Angel, we had Promised Land, as far as two CBS TV series. So in combination with those—plus a bunch of TV movies we were doing at the time—we had five, six crews working constantly,” says Bryan Clifton, president of Redman Movies and Stories, the largest rental house in Utah for grip and electrical film equipment. “When Touched by an Angel disappeared and Promised Land disappeared, we were down to one TV series, and it was painfully evident that we really needed to get on the ball as far as incentives. Our market was not going to survive without incentives.”

“That’s why the state was behind in creating the film incentive—everyone was happy and working and wages were good. We didn’t see it ending,” agrees Britani Alexander, transportation coordinator and president of On the Road, Inc., the largest motion picture transportation equipment supplier in the state. “But when those things ended and we didn’t have the incentive in place, it took us almost eight years to get back on track.”

Star qualities

Certainly, even without an incentive program, there are still qualities that made Utah attractive to filmmakers. Its geographic proximity to Los Angeles makes it easy for crews to jump in and out without much of a logistics headache. The production costs in the states are far lower than in a place like California. And Utah’s biggest pride—its majestic and varied landscapes—are still more than relevant for the filmmaking industry.

“[Filmmakers] are able to capitalize on the locations, which is a huge, No. 1 thing that we talk about,” says Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission. “You want red rocks? You want ski town? You want a big city; you want a small town? That’s what Utah has. We have a huge locations database.”

Furthermore, Utah is a right-to-work state, which draws in filmmakers unwilling or unable to deal with union issues. “Our main selling point was we are a non-union, right-to-work state, so any kind of cost benefits to shooting here were based on our non-union status,” says Clifton. “Production companies didn’t have to come in and pay union rates and deal with union problems.”

The Sundance Film Festival, too, allows Utah to showcase itself in a way that other states are unable to do—it brings the film industry to the state in a reliable way. “Sundance is a great platform for us,” says Pearce. “We spent the whole festival talking to independent filmmakers and studios, telling them and letting them know about all the resources that we have, the crew, the production resources, the equipment houses and Park City Film studios.”

Still, as time went on, it became apparent that Utah needed an incentives program in order to stay competitive in the field. In 2005, when Disney’s High School Musical wanted to come to Utah, the Film Commission at that time had to get a loan from the Industrial Assistance Fund in order to lure the blockbuster to the state—the Beehive State had a paltry 10 percent tax credit and up to $1 million to offer, which was very little compared to the higher percentages and tens (to hundreds) of millions that other states had on offer. But Utah had a connection to the film via its producer, Don Schain, who produced several movies through the Disney Channel, so the film franchise stayed.

“We were able to get a loan from the Industrial Assistance Fund to provide incentives for High School Musical, which we paid back the following year when we were renewed for an incentive,” says Marshall Moore, senior vice president of marketing and government relations for Park City Film Studios, who served as the director of Utah Film Commission at the time. “That was how we were able to do the first one, which led to the other two. Which led to about $25 million in economic activity in Utah spending.”

It wasn’t until 2011 that Utah got its own incentive program. The Motion Picture Incentive Program is a post-performance tax credit, where productions can get a 20 percent tax credit on what they spend in-state, up to 25 percent if requirements such as hiring at least 85 percent local crew or filming in rural locations are met. The cap on the return is set at $6.79 million, which can roll over to the next year if any of it is unused.

“A production comes in, they submit an application. What that includes is a budget of what they anticipate spending in Utah. Unlike some other states, our program just gives money back on the money spent in Utah. It’s an in-state spend,” says Pearce. “After they’re done shooting, they do an independent audit, a CPA audit of everything that they spent in Utah. That comes to GOED’s incentives office which gives it another audit, and that eventually goes to the Tax Commission that gives it another one. It’s a very rigorous program that’s very transparent along the way. We see what they are spending here, which is often more than what they expected, because once they get on the ground, they realize that we do have a ton of resources that they didn’t expect.”

Supporting roles

Utah’s incentive program has done well—since its inception, $110 million has been spent by productions that have received an incentive, including studios such as Fox, Disney, DreamWorks and ABC. Some $24 million was provided in incentives in that same time, which translates into $86 million in Utah economic benefits. With the help of the program, Utah drew in its first network television series in over 10 years, ABC’s Blood & Oil, which unfortunately was not renewed for a second season this year. Blood & Oil created 600 jobs and spent more than $20 million in the state.

The incentive program also made it possible for Utah to shore up its infrastructure. Park City Film Studios, which has three purpose-built sound stages at 15,000 square feet each, was opened last year to serve the productions the incentive program is attracting to the state—including Blood & Oil, which took up all three of the stages last year.

“This studio would not exist if it were not for the incentive program. You’ve got to attract the production to the state first, before we can even get it at the studio. Now we should be at the top of the list when a production comes in that needs a studio,” says Moore. “… At the same time, the studio in and of itself is capable of attracting TV series, studio feature films, to the state. But it can’t do it alone. It needs that piece of the incentive to allow them to choose Utah.”

Utah’s incentive program is small compared to other states. New Mexico offers between 25-30 percent in tax credits and has a cap of $50 million. California’s cap is set at $330 million, says Pearce. Georgia and Louisiana also have their caps in the hundreds of millions, and are rewarded with such blockbusters as Marvel’s Avengers franchise.

Part of the reason that Utah’s cap is low, says Pearce, is because Utah’s economy is so varied—it doesn’t need to lure as many productions as possible to the state. “Utah’s got such an incredibly diverse economy. We’ve done really well in spreading out all of these different industries and making them successful in their own way. I see film as part of that,” says Pearce. “That being said, I would love to see it grow. In order to compete for television series, which I think all of us believe the best benefit is—because you get a longer-term investment, a bigger investment, longer-term jobs—we need additional funds in the future.”

Nobody interviewed for this story was in favor of raising the cap even as high as New Mexico’s, but Utah’s current number makes it difficult for the state to get enough work in for its 1,600 registered crew members and 900 vendors to find work in-state throughout the year. While Utah has proved it can draw in a series like Blood & Oil and support it, the series took up most of the incentive program’s cap money, which would make it hard for the state to draw in more work.

“It’s restrictive. It limits the volume of large productions we can attract to the state. We may be able to do one Blood & Oil, but what if there were two shows like Blood & Oil? We couldn’t have done both of them at the same time,” says Moore. “It would be maybe one large production and a lot of smaller productions that wouldn’t take as much.”

Indeed, many of the films that come into the state end up being lower-budget or independent productions. While it’s good for the industry to draw any sort of production into Utah, having a larger concentration of lower-budget films brings its own challenges, says Ryan Roundy of Roundy Special Effects, who has worked in the industry with his father, Michael, for most of his life.

“Being low-budget, [like] a lot of the shows coming through, they can’t afford some of the things we offer for the shows we normally work on, which complicates things a lot,” Ryan says. “It puts us in the middle of trying to keep them happy and trying to stay on budget as well.”

Many things that seem de rigueur to viewers take a lot of time and money, laments Michael Roundy, who has worked in the industry since 1984 on such blockbusters as Tropic Thunder and the upcoming Independence Day 2.

“It’s not that we’re trying to out-price anybody. These are the costs. They don’t realize how many man hours and how much equipment it takes to flip a car,” Michael says. “[They say:] ‘Well, you’ve just got to flip it over.’ What are you going to do, flick it with your finger? Because that doesn’t happen. You have to take the weights out, the oils out, you have to put cables in it, the safety features in. You have to mount cannons in them … We’ll give you what you want. But this is what it takes.”

Usually, says Ryan, special effects become expendable, and a once-promising production can leave local workers high and dry—and looking for jobs in other states. Ryan worked in New Mexico for a portion of last year, and he says that watching New Mexico outpace Utah has been somewhat bewildering.

“Infrastructure-wise, Utah is there. We’re ready to go. Utah, in all departments, has the equipment. It’s set up,” says Ryan. “[Years ago,] we got [to New Mexico], and they had the new studios and the new tax incentive. That was it. They didn’t have crew. They didn’t have equipment. We looked everywhere. … But now, working there last year, they’ve got all the equipment, all the crew—guys who five years ago I was training down there are now running their own show. We can visually see what the tax incentive and what having stages has done for them. We’re hopeful the same will happen for Utah. We know we’ve got a lower cap, but we’ve got the infrastructure already.”

The value of production

The film industry first came to Utah’s southern landscapes to film silent movies and westerns. Kanab, then known as “Little Hollywood,” welcomed filmmakers with open arms until the stream of movies began to dry up in the 1960s. While the industry is no longer pouring into rural Utah, even today those communities depend on the film industry to bolster their economies.

Jessica Alvey owns Stan’s Burger Shack and Food Mart, Whispering Sands Motel, and Duke’s Slickrock Grill and Campground in Hanksville, “65 miles to the nearest anything,” she says. Her businesses rely on the film industry, especially during times of the year where tourism slows to a trickle.

“What [films] do bring to our area is really critical for us, for our growth. Not just for my businesses, but for the whole town,” says Alvey. “It makes a big difference when you’re really small.”

The new Point Break film and 2012’s John Carter filmed scenes in Hanksville, each staying between two to four weeks in the area. In that short time, Alvey says her revenue was doubled for the year, because the films rented the campgrounds and the RV park during the summer, when they would otherwise be empty. Cast and crew ate at her restaurants and utilized all the services in the town. Even those filming commercials or YouTube promos, she says, help the community.

“We’ll take our catering truck out on scene and feed them whatever meal they want, and that’s been a huge boost for us. They stay at our motel, they gas up at our gas station,” says Alvey. “We love the commercials as well as the big films.”

“That’s direct rural spend,” says Pearce. “That’s not specifically business in the film industry, but that’s hotels, restaurants, in a rural setting that could make or break their year, having a film crew set up for a couple weeks.”

That type of spending makes a difference in urban areas, as well. Blood & Oil was in Park City for six months and the production spent plenty of money outside the film studios. Moore enumerates the businesses that benefited: condo owners and hotel owners from housing 125 people for six months, as well as the car rental companies, building supply companies, clothing stores and restaurants.

“So many people benefit,” says Moore. “Some of [Blood & Oil’s supplies] came from out of state, but the more you spend here, the better the return is for your incentive.”

That doesn’t even touch on the people who make up Utah’s film industry infrastructure—the special effects wizards, the grip and lighting equipment providers, the transportation firms, the casting agents—who enjoy working in the state and want to stay here.

“I want retire to Utah, not retire from work,” laughs Michael Roundy. While the industry would be strengthened by raising the incentive’s cap, the amount of work in the state has gotten better in the past five years since its inception. “We have two different movies that [started] filming in March. We have an HBO project that [started] filming at the end of February. Most equipment and crew will be working at the same time. We haven’t experienced that as much since we had High School Musical,” said Alexander. “We’ve just had spurts in the time since we’ve had [the incentive program], but I feel like the work is going to continue. The gaps are smaller than they have been.”“We love it here. We love the people we work with here,” agrees Ryan. “We want to work here more. We think the right steps are being taken and just need to push them along a little further, and good things will happen.”