Starring Role

Utah Takes Center Stage in Film Production

Hilary Ingoldsby Whitesides

March 1, 2011

The beautiful and surreal landscapes of Southern Utah are familiar to generations of Americans, due in large part to director John Ford and actor John Wayne, who made the state legendary with films like “Stagecoach” and “Rio Grande.” That tradition is alive and well in Utah, particularly with the 2010 release of “127 Hours,” which showcases the state’s desolate red rock geography and earned an Oscar nomination for lead actor James Franco and a Best Picture Nomination for the film.

What started out as the perfect backdrop for Westerns has grown into a robust and competitive film industry. Hundreds of movies, television episodes and commercials have now called Utah their home, from Academy Award-winning “Thelma and Louise,” to the beloved “High School Musical” series, and the nine-season television series “Touched by an Angel.”

Though Utah has experienced a booming film industry in recent years, the State faces heavy competition from other states seeking to lure production teams. Despite the competition, production teams keep finding themselves back in the Utah, wrapping up another movie. So what makes the State of Utah stand above the rest? A combination of robust incentives, unique locales and film-ready infrastructure, including professionally trained crews, makes Utah a shining star in the industry.

Show Me the Money
With growing economic concerns for filmmakers and many productions heading to Canada to take advantage of the labor tax credit, many states began to adopt incentives starting with Louisiana in 2002.  Currently, Utah offers a 20 percent post-performance cash rebate or tax credit on films with in-state budgets of more than $1 million. Both rebates require a minimum of $1 million spent in Utah. For example a project with a $2.5 million in-state spend would maximize the benefit from the cash rebate, while projects with more than $2.5 million spent in the state will benefit from the tax credit rebate, because there is no per project cap. 

“The Governors Office of Economic Development, working in collaboration with the Motion Picture Association of Utah and the film office, has created a program that is good for the State and good for the filmmaker,” says Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission. Indeed, since the incentive program launched, the State’s film industry has maintained a competitive edge.

“The World’s Fastest Indian,” starring Anthony Hopkins, was the first movie to receive an incentive in 2005. Since then, an estimated 60 projects have used the incentive program in Utah. In fiscal year 2010, 19 movies filmed in Utah took part in the incentive program, for a total of dollars left in the state of $59 million.

Incentives are available to in-state and out-of-state filmmakers. The application requires a script, project details, and budget and filmmaker profile. Applications are reviewed monthly and the incentives are approved by the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development Board. All incentives are paid post-performance, meaning the production has shown to meet all criteria and the rebate request has been audited and approved by a certified public accountant.

But it’s not just silver screen projects that qualify—television movies and episodes documentaries, full length animation, IMAX, and other multi-media projects may also qualify to take advantage of Utah’s stellar film incentives.

The Right Stuff
Of course it’s not just the incentive program—although it’s incredibly appealing—that brings filmmakers to Utah. According to Moore, Utah’s film-ready infrastructure is unmatched.

Many productions throughout the years including the television series “Touched by an Angel” and “Everwood” were instrumental in creating a robust infrastructure of crew and talent within the State.” To sustain that infrastructure, successful film programs at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, Utah Valley University and other educational offerings will continue to be instrumental in sustaining a the talented crew base.

“What’s great about the Utah incentive is that we combine it with an established workforce,” Moore says. With available film crews, production companies, two equipment rental houses and a “plethora of available talent,” Moore says Utah is a financially smart choice for filmmakers looking to keep their costs down. Producers, directors, production managers, photographers, videographers, actors and more can all be found locally.

Another advantage is Salt Lake’s proximity to Los Angeles. “A lot of productions come to Salt Lake City because they can base out of here and shoot in Salt Lake or at locations within an hour of the city. And the proximity of Salt Lake to Los Angeles makes it appealing as well, because it’s only a quick 90-minute flight from L.A.,” Moore says.

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