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The hit TV show, Yellowstone wants to start filming in Utah, but only if the price is right, and with tax money it might be.

“Yellowstone” wants to film in Utah… if it’s cheap

“Yellowstone” wants to film in Utah… if it’s cheap

Film tax incentive programs have become crucial to making television series here.

BY JACK DODSON

“Yellowstone” wants to film in Utah… if it’s cheap

Film tax incentive programs have become crucial to making television series here.

BY JACK DODSON

When Bega Metzner first came to Moab in 1989 as a model for her mother’s photo shoot, the city was still quite small. It was before “Thelma and Louise” helped spur a film tourism economy, before base-jumping social media influencers descended on the city, and before a surge of second-home owners created a crisis in housing.

Her parents bought a plot of land in the area, a spot she and her siblings would visit regularly with an Airstream parked on it. For the next 26 years, Metzner was in and out of Moab, often leaving to work in film production in New York or Los Angeles, where there was much more work for her in costume departments. Eventually, she had a child in Utah, a “Moab local” that would cement her connection to the city. In 2015, she decided to give up production work to stay and serve as the assistant film commissioner for the city, transitioning to government work. A few years later, when her boss resigned, she took over the commission for the city.

The area is famously stunning, and her job means she gets to introduce outsiders to it most of the time. She repeatedly argues there’s nowhere else like it on the planet except maybe Jordan, the mountainous Arab country. “Pictures honestly don’t do this place justice,” she says. “We have incredible beauty shot roads winding up into our La Sal Mountains. We have beauty shot roads that go along the Colorado River in multiple directions with cliff faces on either side. We’ve got dirt roads that extend out into the desert with beautiful buttes in the distance. There are so many different things. And it’s a lot of land.”

Since the beginning of this year, Metzner has expanded her scope and has served as the director of the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission, which oversees the entire region. And this year, Hollywood actor Kevin Costner has brought one of the biggest projects the area has ever seen.

Build it and they will come

Utah’s film scene was most recently defined by Paramount’s “Yellowstone,” an immensely popular show starring Costner as the head of a Montana family fighting to keep their ranch. While the show takes place in Montana, about 80 percent of its first three seasons were filmed in Utah, due at least in part to the tax rebates offered by the state to large productions.

Based out of the Utah Film Studios in Park City, a large complex hosting three sound stages and a fleet of production offices, the Yellowstone crew made its permanent home in Utah. Pumping tens of millions of dollars into the economy each year, the TV show represented a distillation of what industry experts and lobbyists had been arguing for years: tax incentives could lead to massive investments from major studios—and series like Yellowstone were the best-case scenario. 

According to Marshall Moore, VP of operations at Utah Film Studios who served as the director of the Utah Film Commission for 10 years, major projects from streaming platforms like Netflix or studios like Disney won’t make films in an area where they don’t get tax incentives. In order to compete, Utah’s legislature began a pilot program to offer incentives during his time on the commission. As a result, he says, Disney Channel has been making movies here ever since.

Moore first came to Utah from Los Angeles as a location manager for “The Stand,” a 1994 miniseries based on Stephen King’s book of the same name. After living and working here for nine months, he realized there was a promising industry in the state. He moved his whole family out and bought a house in the area. 

Around that time, tax incentives in film hadn’t become trendy yet. It wasn’t until 1997 that Canada introduced a law that would provide the first rebate to large productions; Louisiana became the first US state to follow suit in 2001. These laws helped establish locations like Vancouver as unexpected go-to locations for filmmakers, making them huge players in the field simply by offering financial perks.

PHOTO APPEARS COURTESY OF YELLOWSTONE

Utah’s government, despite its rich history of inspired cinema and hosting renowned filmmakers every year at the Sundance Film Festival, realized they were falling behind. A legislative brief laid out the situation harshly: “Over the past few years, these production days have been decreasing. This is partially the result of incentives offered by other states and countries and partially due to the changing nature of programming,” legislators wrote. By 2005, they introduced a pilot program themselves.

In the last few years, this process has grown into a patchwork of ever-changing laws and tax incentives that are gamed by production companies and studios looking to save millions. States compete with one another to stay ahead and offer the best deal they can to ensure producers stay. “In the last 30 years, I’ve seen enough series come to Utah and go elsewhere—the incentive just wasn’t robust enough to sustain a series, and ultimately that’s why we lost it after three years,” Moore says. “It wasn’t robust enough to sustain even ‘Yellowstone,’ and they were spending $30 million a season, or very close to it.”

The goal for any state now is a series, Moore says. While feature films may be in and out of production in a handful of months, series productions will find a more or less stationary home base for the duration of its run—usually about five years, meaning it can bring a major boost to a local economy. Between food service, hotels and housing, car rentals, equipment rental, and hiring local crews, film advocates argue that the benefits of a series to any local economy speak for themselves.

One example Moore pointed to was “Stranger Things,” a Netflix show filming in Georgia. After that state invested in major tax incentives for TV and film production, it became a key figure in the industry. Georgia alone has a film industry valued at $9.5 billion. On top of that, tourists flock to the state to see the filming locations of these shows. Moore says this revenue isn’t counted when people track the impact of tax rebates that aim to draw in film production.

Last year, Utahns discovered the flip side of these policies. The fourth season of “Yellowstone” moved its entire presence to Montana because lawmakers in that state suddenly offered a better deal. Up to that point, the production had rented out the entire lot at Utah Film Studios, building nine sets across three sound stages and using up all 39 office spaces. It was cheaper for them to move it all across the border than to stick with Utah’s rebate program.

Now that he’s left the government commission and is working in the private sector, Moore is feeling the weight of the policies directly. “Yellowstone” had stayed at the Utah Film Studios for 1,200 consecutive days when they left for Montana, he says. And ever since, it’s been tough to find anything that could replace them.

“An absolute struggle,” he says in reference to his team’s ability to attract new productions. “Because one, ‘Yellowstone’ was a special situation. No other production in the history of film in Utah has spent that much money in such a short period of time.”

How to make them stay?

Utah has a long history of robust film production driven by its iconic landscape. John Ford famously produced westerns like “Stagecoach” with John Wayne in Monument Valley in 1939. Thirty years later, renowned features by Sergio Leone and Stanley Kubrick used the same location. In 1991, “Thelma and Louise” came out and featured incredible swaths of Utah’s desert as its backdrop, inspiring visitors from around the world.

These films spurred a following, which would lead to economic benefits for Utah. Larry Campbell, a 40-year industry veteran born in Moab, worked for about seven months on “Thelma and Louise” as a location manager and car builder. After it came out, he says people were calling him for tours of the region, eager to see where it had been shot.

“When I started doing film work,” 67-year-old Campbell says, “Moab was in the toilet financially, places were being boarded up because there was nobody coming here, and we all had town meetings trying to figure out what to do.”

Since then, commercials have become his bread and butter. According to him and Metzner, a major piece of the production scene in Grand and San Juan Counties has been commercials that feature epic desert backdrops. But for Campbell, that changed suddenly with the news about Costner’s new program.

The desert aesthetic that pulled in Leone and Kubrick drew Costner to the area, as well. Campbell says Costner was eager to film there during the early days of “Yellowstone” before the production settled up north. Now, Costner is bringing a new project to the area. “Horizon,” a five-part film series, has made its home in Moab—at least for now—spurred in part by updated tax incentives passed this year by Utah’s government that favor productions filming in rural parts of the state. 

The project will reportedly bring $50 million to the region, but that figure is contingent on favorable tax rules. In February, Costner put out a statement saying he would have to take his films to another state if the legislature didn’t pass a tax incentive program. The bill passed, opening the door to about 30 new projects to receive tax rebates, including “Horizon.” But the law only applies for two years, and Moore says it’s crucial for lawmakers to extend that benefit to ensure filmmakers continue to invest.

PHOTO APPEARS COURTESY OF YELLOWSTONE

The news is a mixed bag for Campbell. Over the past few decades, Campbell has regularly worked with a ranch near Moab for commercials. But Costner’s team contracted the ranch for “Horizon,” tying it up indefinitely. Despite the clear economic benefits to the region, there’s a downside: he has to tell all the clients that usually want to film there he can’t make it happen.

“It’s a big financial impact,” Campbell says, just after lamenting the loss of the ranch for other productions. “They’re spending money one way or another. My girlfriend owns a restaurant downtown, and every few days they’ll order a big to-go order from her restaurant to go to their offices.”

Moore says the latest round of film incentives specifically encourages filmmaking in rural Utah, where he’s often seen producers want to work without being willing to spend the necessary money. Now, he says, they’re able to justify the cost—as long as the tax incentives remain in play.

Metzner sees the situation as a chance to hold onto something that benefits the state in several ways. While she hopes the “Horizon” production team chooses to stay in Utah, she also feels that big production teams can act as stewards of the land. “It brings in so much money,” she says. “It’s a different kind of money, and it’s a different kind of actual human person that’s here spending the money. Recreational tourism isn’t controlled, but film is…everything needs to be permitted properly. I mean, we have dinosaurs here. And people go and scratch their names in the walls and push over rocks. Film crews don’t do that.”

“Yellowstone” deals with similar themes. Costner’s character tries to keep his ranch untouched from development while maintaining the need to provide for a community’s infrastructural needs. “Horizon,” Costner’s new production, raises similar questions about whether the economic investment from the state will bring the kind of benefits film producers promise and if it will help the community prosper.

“This is a rural Utah incentive that was put in place earlier this year, which has been way, way better than the state has seen in a long time,” Metzner says. “Is it comparable to our neighboring states? No. So what is it that’s going to make the legislature go, ‘Oh, let’s keep doing this.’ I don’t know what it is, but I hope that they do because this isn’t the only project that is coming to this area.”

PHOTO APPEARS COURTESY OF YELLOWSTONE

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.

Comments (5)

  • Cheryl Yearling

    Would love to see Yellowstone back in Utah.

    reply
    • Pat Hall

      Was an Extra when they were here before. Amazing Cast and Crew. Let’s herp our fingers crossed

      reply
  • Jason Vance

    Where is the data on “The project will reportedly bring $50 million to the region” and how is it broken down?

    reply
  • Bradley Bertoch

    Here is a contrarian opinion. While film brings a lot of glamour and glitz, fun and excitement, the economic impact is small. Even adding in a tourism nudge (I’ve never been to Georgia or Canada), the return on investment is small compared to other organizations in the State (Utah Innovations Center, Impact Utah, VentureCapital.org,, 10,000 Small Businesses, for example create 10X the impact per dollar). I’m not against vanity investments, when we can afford them, but government’s role is not to create jobs, but allocate resources in such a way as to incentify the private sector to create a lot of good, sustainable jobs. Corporate welfare for Hollywood is not my idea of great IRR.

    reply
  • christine rollins

    Well heavens yes! Y’all need to bring back Yellowstone back to Utah for keeps…

    reply

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