The landscape is arid. The air parched. Our hero, faltering. John Carter is struggling to survive, making his way toward the West’s promise of gold after the Civil War. Suddenly, he’s transported to an alien world where even more harrowing adventures await—he’s on Mars. Well actually, it’s Utah.
Last June, Disney Pixar announced the production team behind the long-anticipated film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter from Mars” will shoot the big budget sci-fi film in Utah from November 2009 to July 2010. Since the production could spend more than $27 million in Utah and employ nearly 400 locals, it represents the realization of many local leaders’ goal to make Utah a major center for film and television production, after Los Angeles and New York. It’s also welcome news for the Utah Film Commission, the Motion Picture Association of Utah and local leaders who have worked to make the state more attractive to Hollywood.
Despite the excitement, Utah’s film industry has been hit hard by the slowing economy. According to Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission, the film industry’s economic impact on the state decreased from $56 million to $12.3 million during the state’s fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009. But despite the slowdown, Utah’s film leaders remain excited about the Beehive State’s growing role on the big screen. And with commitments from major films like “John Carter from Mars,” it’s clear that Utah is an up-and-coming star.
The Big Picture
Though everyone likes to see their hometown on the silver screen, it’s not bragging rights that the state is after when luring film productions to Utah. Films like “High School Musical 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and the recent “Star Trek,” all filmed in Utah, already show off the state’s one-of-a-kind landscape. Local film leaders believe that film and television will become a serious economic boon to the state.
Governor Jon Huntsman has been a strong advocate for bringing more productions to Utah and supported the Utah Film Commission and others’ efforts toward doing that. “Most people think of film, and they think of stars and lights and red carpets,” says Don Schain, president of the Motion Picture Association of Utah and head of Salty Pictures, the production company behind the “High School Musical” movies. “But the thing that Governor Huntsman realized was the kind of money that comes into Utah—from outside of the state—and gets spent here with film production. He recognized what a good thing that is.”
Schain says Huntsman’s support has been critical as he, Moore and other industry leaders have worked with the legislature to develop the state’s film incentive program. During the last session, the local film industry got its biggest shot in the arm with the passing of Senate Bill14, sponsored by Sen. Lyle Hilliard. It restructured the state’s Motion Picture Incentive Fund (MPIF) to offer productions an incentive of up to 20 percent of the money they spend in the state. The incentive is in the form of a cash rebate (with a $500,000 cap) for smaller productions, or a tax credit (with no cap) for larger productions. This new incentive program will be in place for two years with a total of $10 million in funds allotted each year.
Schain says big films can eat up $10 million quickly, though. According to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), “John Carter from Mars” is anticipated to receive a tax credit refund of about $5.5 million, so Schain is hopeful that success from the MPIF over the next two years will help convince the legislature that even longer term incentive funding will be advantageous.
The new incentive should help put Utah back on the short list for production companies—a list the state had fallen off during the past decade.
In fact, you could say the passing of the SB14 is akin to removing the dorky glasses from the otherwise cute girl in a teen romance—suddenly everyone can see the beauty they’ve overlooked.
It’s not that Hollywood hasn’t fallen for Utah before—since the 1960s, Utah’s deserts, mountains and cities have been the location for many major productions. But since the late 1990s, other locations had become more attractive. Why? In this story, money takes precedence over charm.
Canada started luring productions with huge incentives, then other U.S. states followed suit, most notably Louisiana and New Mexico.
Even though Utah’s charms were still there—diverse landscape, exceptionally experienced crews, talented actors, seasoned vendors, full-scale equipment suppliers and proximity to Los Angeles—it wasn’t enough anymore. Other states and countries’ incentives were more seductive, and Hollywood can be a fickle paramour.
Moore, Schain and former Utah Film Commission Director Leigh von der Esch have been among the most ardent proponents of increasing the state’s film incentive program to woo major productions back to Utah. They made headway by establishing the first Motion Picture Incentive Fund in 2004. It was a relatively modest start—$1 million in total funds—with a 10 percent cash rebate for money spent in Utah, and a cap of $500,000 per production. According to Schain, Disney Channel’s “Buffalo Dreams” and “The World’s Fastest Indian,” starring Anthony Hopkins, were the first two major films to take advantage of the incentive.
Schain and Moore continue to work with the legislature each year to increase the fund. They have explained that a robust incentive program is imperative for putting Utah back on a level playing field with states like Michigan and Iowa, which court productions with incentives as high as 40 percent or more despite limited crews and infrastructure to support filmmaking. Their persuasion hasn’t just taken place on the Hill. Moore has taken legislators on visits to movie sets to witness the hundreds of Utahns at work on crews and in supporting roles.
Moore says that not only are the incentive programs necessary, but having them in place for five years or more is crucial to landing big money makers like television series. He explains that if a new show does well, it can be in production for at least three to five years, and television producers are looking for incentives that will last as long as the show does.
In the past, Utah benefited from series like “Touched by an Angel,” “Everwood” and “Promised Land.” Series tend to spend an average of about $1 million per episode, and at about 26 episodes per year, that’s good money for the state. It’s also consistent work for Utah crews—these series consistently hired locals for just about every position, including first assistant directors, directors of photography, production designers, wardrobe designers, hair and make-up stylists, grips, production assistants and more. That’s in addition to the money spent on camera and equipment rentals, catering, hotel lodging for executives and guest stars, local actors who cast in “day player” parts and extras.
With that kind of money on the table, securing a television series is a priority on Moore’s agenda. He recently returned from meeting with television and film producers in Los Angeles and he says the Utah Film Commission will be working hard to lure a series or two. While he can’t release details yet, a sign of good things to come is that the state is finalizing agreements with a Web series that will shoot 10 episodes in Utah.
Moore is clearly working for more than just his office’s agenda, though. He feels passionate about fostering a healthy film industry for the thousands of Utahns who work in film and television. He is also a champion of Utah’s independent film industry. Many of the local independent filmmakers produce films on budgets that range from $150,000 to under $1 million. Currently the MPIF doesn’t apply to productions this small. But Moore has formed an advisory board comprised of local filmmakers and says he hopes to announce a new program soon that will support their efforts.
Christian Vuissa is one of those filmmakers and an Austrian writer/director/producer who came to Utah when he earned his degree in film from Brigham Young University. His latest film, “One Good Man,” releases this fall, and his others include “Baptists at Our Barbecue,” “Errand of Angels” and several award-winning shorts films. He is also the founder and head of the LDS Film Festival, which began as a “short film” festival in 2001 and has grown to a nationally recognized film festival that draws more than 7,000 attendees and showcases mainstream and LDS-themed feature films, shorts, scripts and presentations each year.
“I think it’s important that we sustain the local film industry. It is such a unique development for Utah—it just doesn’t exist outside of New York, L.A. and maybe a little independent film community in Austin,” he says. “If we can uphold it, there’s collective knowledge that is gained when people do something in close proximity. There’s this feeling of collaboration, and it opens opportunities for younger talent. Local actors, for example, get more experience because they get lead roles in independent films instead of the supporting roles they get in bigger productions. Crew members in Utah are a lot better trained because they get more responsibility when they work on independent productions. The creative force in Utah really relies on the small local productions to thrive. And the people who work in the local industry depend on those bigger productions to make a living. I think the independent film industry and the major film industry in Utah go hand-in-hand.”
Local vendors couldn’t agree more. Bryan Clifton, president of Salt Lake City-based Redman Movies & Stories, has supplied the film industry with camera and production equipment since 1980. Redman serves primarily Utah projects—everything from local television commercials to big productions like “High School Musical 3,” “Everwood” and more. The company’s reputation has also earned it out-of-state projects like “Interview with a Vampire” in New Orleans and “Shawshank Redemption” in Indiana. In his nearly 30 years in the industry, Clifton says this last year has been the hardest.
“Business for everyone is off by a substantial margin. In states where the incentive programs are in place, it’s been very busy. I’m hopeful that the incentive program [in Utah] moves us in the direction of projects beginning to come back. It’s critical—without the incentive program none of us would survive.”
Schain says he has no doubt with the recent boost to the incentive program, the industry will respond. “This incentive allows us to compete for studio features now. Marshall [Moore]’s last trip to L.A.—he was talking to studios he’d never talked to before.”
The Right Stuff
Apparently, the studios are taking notice of the Beehive State. Bill Borden, an L.A.-based executive producer who produced the “High School Musical” movies with partners Barry Rosenbush and Terry Spazek, has recently become a de facto promoter of filming in Utah. “A lot of producers call me and ask what it’s like to work in Utah. I always say the same thing: Utah’s the best money you can get for your dollar in the U.S. Utah’s advantage is that it has all different levels of crews—production designers, directors of photography, all the way down to grips and electricians that are all top rate. You don’t have to bring in crews, which saves thousands. At the same time, you’re getting an incentive for using them.”
With a bigger incentive in place and the word spreading, the state’s experienced crews and diversity of landscape can finally return to the forefront in the bidding—something Schain says Huntsman knew was necessary. “In a tough economy like this, it probably would have been impossible to get this bill through without Governor Huntsman,” says Schain. And Schain and Moore are hopeful incoming Gov. Gary R. Herbert feels the same way, especially since he helped establish the Utah County Film Commission during his tenure as a Utah County Commissioner.
“My vision is singularly focused on growing the economy,” says Herbert. “Certainly, an important leg of that stool is creating opportunities for Hollywood to come to Utah to make films. Whether it’s clear back to my early days with Robert Redford and Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” up to Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” these films are all opportunities for us to expose Utah, which helps promote our tourism and travel. It’s also an opportunity to employ Utahns who have the skills necessary to make films. Film is certainly is an important part of what we’re going to be doing to support the economy in the state.”
So, with previews like this, Utah should be appearing more in theaters near you. Whether it’s past favorites, like “National Treasure,” “Independence Day” and “Thelma and Louise” or upcoming features like “John Carter from Mars,” Utah is slated to garner bigger roles in film and television. And thanks to the state’s qualified crews, actors, vendors—and recently enhanced incentive program—Utah might even become a star in Hollywood’s movie production industry.
A Look at Utah’s Film Festivals
When Hollywood’s glitz converges with Park City’s mountain chic, you know it’s time for one of the world’s most talked about film festivals, Sundance. In 2009, the Sundance Film Festival had an economic impact of $92.1 million, supported nearly 2,000 jobs and attracted nearly 40,000 attendees, two-thirds of whom were from out of state. The high-profile event brings some of the world’s top filmmakers to Utah, opening opportunities to further market the state as an ideal location for film and television production. Utah is also home to other film festivals—some well-known, some emerging and others, well, you’ll just have to check out the Gangrene on your own.
Foursite Film Festival
Gloria Film Festival
High Adventure Mountain Film Festival
LDS Film Festival
Mormon Heritage Film Festival
Kris Burns, 435-445-3303
Sundance Film Festival
Thunderbird Film Festival
Utah High School Film & Video Festival
X-Dance Action Sports Film Festival
Gangrene Film Festival