Utah Film Industry

UB Insider #3 – Aaaaand Action! A Look at Utah’s Film Industry

About this episode:

Utah has a long history with the silver screen, and at one point even housed “Little Hollywood.” As the industry has changed with the times, the Beehive State has been trying to keep up. In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ Adva Biton and Lisa Christensen discuss how things were, how they are now, and what those in the film industry hope they become in the future. Subscribe or download this episode via Stitcher and iTunes.


Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider, a closer look at the happenings and issues in Utah’s business community. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine, and with me is Adva Biton, assistant editor at Utah Business.

Adva Biton: Hello.

Lisa Christensen: Today we’re talking about Utah’s film industry, one of the most visible in the Beehive State. Adva, you recently wrote a feature about it for our April issue. Utah has a pretty long history with the film industry. Tell me a little bit about how that started and how it’s progressed over the years.

Adva Biton: You know, it’s pretty interesting. Utah’s history with the film industry actually began in the 1920s filming silent Westerns like 1920s, The Deadwood Coach here in the state. Monument Valley in Kanab specifically became really well known for their vistas for Western films. John Wayne’s first starring role in 1939s Stagecoach all the way up to 1962s How the West Was Won with Jimmy Stewart were all filmed here in Utah to the point where Monument Valley and Kanab got nicknamed Little Hollywood, actually.

In the 1970s, however, that stream actually started drying up and it wasn’t until the 1990s that we actually had another renaissance with the wildly successful, Touched by an Angel, its spinoff The Promised Land and Everwood, three network television series being filmed in Northern Utah. It was actually a great thing for the state. We had five or six crews working at a time when those series were here.

Lisa Christensen: You know, I had a neighbor who worked on the Touched by an Angel series.

Adva Biton: That’s amazing. Apparently there were a lot of people who got into film around that time in the 90s. It’s actually part of the reason why Utah has such a great infrastructure for film in the state. We have, no only, great special effects crews here, but a really well known rental house and recently opened our first purpose-built sound stages.

Lisa Christensen: You mentioned in the article that after those three television series that you mentioned ended, Utah had a pretty hard time finding productions to bring into the state.

Adva Biton: It’s interesting actually. Because in 1997 Canada released its federally funded motion picture incentive program. That program offers a pretty large tax incentive to productions that come into the country and film and spend a certain amount of money there. Film are really all about the bottom dollar. We talked to Michael and Ryan Roundy of Roundy Special Effects which is a special effects house that is based here in Utah that has worked on a lot of really interesting and big productions. I think most recently they did Breaking Bad and Independence Day 2, but they’ve also worked on such blockbusters as Tropic Thunder in the past. They had a really interesting perspective. But they were talking about how really filmmaking is all about the money. And if a film is set in California but they get the money to film it in Canada then they’ll take it up to Canada and they’ll pretend that Canada is California.

Lisa Christensen: It’s suspension of disbelief on a whole other level.

Adva Biton: Yeah. They actually talked about how they filmed Battleship, which takes place in Hawaii, completely in Louisiana. They just did a couple of outdoor shots, I think, in Hawaii. They took down a skeleton crew to Hawaii to film those outdoor scenes and everything else they did they filmed on a soundstage in Louisiana. You never know where your film actually took place.

The Canadian program was actually incredibly successful. A lot of American films that people don’t realize, Chicago, Good Will Hunting, Twilight, Brokeback Mountain, Happy Gilmore, American Psycho, and even so recently as Spotlight, The Revenant and Deadpool were all shot in Canada. Realizing from the success that films could really be made anywhere, Louisiana was the first state to offer its own motion picture incentive program in 2001 and that went extremely well for Louisiana. After Louisiana kind of took that first plunge, 44 states had followed until 2009. I think the number now is actually 37 states that have a motion picture incentive program.

By 2009, Utah was not enumerated in those states. I think because of the situation in the 1990s up till about 2003 when we had those three network television series and we were able to keep five or six crews working year round on those, Utah kind of had this belief, that partly because of that and partly because its long history with the film industry, it didn’t have to have a motion picture incentive program to lure productions to the state. We just were good. People just thought that was going to last forever. And then after those productions ceased, they started realizing that if we didn’t get an incentive program we weren’t going to get productions either.

Lisa Christensen: Well you mentioned in your story that Utah has been trying really hard to change that over the last few years.

Adva Biton: Interestingly enough, in 2005 we did get High School Musical which was a huge blockbuster. And we didn’t have a motion picture incentive program at that time. But it wasn’t actually easy. And part of the reason that High School Musical came here is from the producer Don Schain had a lot of ties to Utah. And he decided to keep it in the state. Marshall Moore who was the director of the Film Commission at that time told us that they had to borrow a million dollars from the Industrial Assistance Fund and pay them back the year after to basically dangle a tiny little incentive in front of High School Musical to lure them to the state. Just for comparison’s sake, we offered a 10% tax refund and one million dollars to High School Musical to stay in the state. New Mexico currently has a 25% tax refund and 50 million dollars that they could offer a production. I don’t know if that’s what they had at the time, but we definitely were not playing with the big dogs.

Lisa Christensen: I don’t know, those numbers seem pretty close.

Adva Biton: So miraculously, we kept High School Musical and, of course, High School Musical 2, but it became painfully obvious to everybody that we could not roll with something like that and be sustainable. Even still it took until 2011 for us to get our own incentive program in place.

Our current incentive program is between 20% and 25% tax refund, 20% is the base rate but you get 25% if you meet certain criteria, one of which is, I think, having 80% local cast and crew. And we also have a cap of 6.79 million which, as I said, is still nowhere near New Mexico’s cap of 50 million and certainly nowhere near the cap that places like California have which is 330 million and Louisiana and Georgia who currently has Marvel’s Avengers franchise are, I think, nearing half a billion dollars as their number.

Lisa Christensen: Wow. That’s incredible. I had no idea.

Adva Biton: Yeah. The film industry is actually a really big part of the Southern states’ economy and so they need to have a cap that’s that big.

Lisa Christensen: So besides feeling like we’re already pretty good with those TV series, what are some of the reasons that Utah hasn’t made the film industry, I don’t want to say as much of a priority, but hasn’t put as much financial backing in attracting productions here.

Adva Biton: Well in talking with Virginia Pearce, the current director of the Film Commission here in Utah, one of the big reasons is because Utah’s economy is incredibly varied. And so we don’t really need to put as much of a focus on the film industry in order for us to have a healthy and robust economy.

There are plenty of reasons we can get into later about why our incentive program should maybe grow in the future. But there’s a lot of things that do draw productions into the state other than the incentive program. One thing that’s really obvious, is Utah’s pride and joy, our varied and spectacular landscape. Monument Valley wasn’t just a draw in the 1920s for Westerns, it’s still a draw. If you look at some of the really iconic scenes, the drive in Thelma & Louise, Forrest Gump’s turning around and walking home after running for two years, those were in Monument Valley. Jack Sparrow with all of his kind of weird hallucinatory doubles happens in the Salt Flats. High School Musical is filmed in St. George at the Inn at Entrada. And then of course we have ski towns, we have “anytown USA,” we have urban environments here in Salt Lake City. We have the mountains. There’s a lot of locations for our database that make us really attractive to films. We’re also a right-to-work state. So productions that don’t have a big enough budget or don’t want to deal with union issues are very attracted to Utah for that reason. And thirdly, because of our history with filmmaking we have a pretty impressive infrastructure.

Lisa Christensen: So when you say infrastructure, what kinds of things do you mean?

Adva Biton: When I talk about the infrastructure here in Utah insofar as filmmaking productions, I’m talking about grip and lighting equipment houses like Redman Movies and Stories, Moving Pictures Ltd., ACME Camera Company. We have a special effects crew in Roundy Special Effects that have worked on blockbusters going back to even the 80s. I’m talking about the fact that we have casting directors, we have our first purpose-built sound stage in Park City Film Studios up in Park City, with 15,000 net square foot sound stages, three of them and a 35 foot wood grid and catwalk up on top that can allow people to rig lighting and rig safety without having to sacrifice anything on their actual sets. You know, all of the basics that any film production would need already exists here in Utah. And, you know, it doesn’t seem like all that much when you say it out loud, yeah we have grip lighting equipment and we have experienced crew, but the truth is that most places don’t have these things.

One of the interesting stories that we heard from Roundy Special Effects was that when they first came down to New Mexico, shortly after New Mexico got its motion picture incentive program, they asked for a list of licensed special effects guys that they could hire and they said that they got this thick stack of papers, three columns per page of people. They called everybody on that list and only actually three of them were as licensed and qualified as what they actually needed.

Lisa Christensen: Wow.

Adva Biton: But, you know, going back now after a couple of years of New Mexico having this incentive program with as high of a cap as they have, they said that now, people that they were training five years ago to work equipment now were running their own shows. So they can visually see what having an incentive program has done. The nice thing is that it actually breeds a lot of hope because considering that we already have an infrastructure, we have a crew, we have people who not only love the film industry, but have worked in the film industry and they want to stay in Utah. They want to find year round work and stay in the state, they know that, you know, having sound stages, you know, Park City Film Studios only opened in 2015 and by the time they opened they already had a network television series, which, by the way, was our first in 10 years taking up all three of their sound stages.

Lisa Christensen: So those kinds of things really produce very tangible results.

Adva Biton: Yeah. You can see pretty quickly what ends up happening. I mean, even since we’ve had our incentive program since 2011 you can already see that it’s helped us get more work. We got, as I said, our first network television series in 10 years. That was ABC’s Blood and Oil. It was not renewed for a second season. There’s nothing we can do about that but it did spend 20 million dollars in the state and it did stay here for eight months and it took up all three of our sound stages for the entirety of those eight months and created 600 jobs here in the state.

Lisa Christensen: Wow. That’s incredible. So just one production can have a huge impact on that industry.

Adva Biton: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that everybody knows that luring in network television series is really where we want to go because it’s a longer term investment. It’s more money that’s being spent over a long period of time here in the state. And that’s exactly what we want. That’s exactly what we need.

We want our crews working for longer periods of time. We want them to know there’s going to be something here for them. But the only issue is with a 6.79 million dollar cap, even though that cap rolls over if we don’t use it every single year, we approved Blood and Oil for I think it was 8.3 million dollars, which we had because we had some rollover funds, but as you can tell using basic math, that eats up the entirety of our cap. So we can lure one Blood and Oil, but we can’t lure two Blood and Oils.

Lisa Christensen: So given the strengths that we have in terms of workforce and infrastructure and landscape and then some of the challenges that you mentioned we have, what are some things that people in the industry and lawmakers working on this issue, what do they want? What’s the hope for the future of Utah’s film industry?

Adva Biton: The Film Commission has done a really great job. Utah’s incentive program, while small, has been incredibly consistent. 110 million dollars has been spent by productions that have received an incentive and I think everybody just wants to see that number grow as much as it possibly can. Nobody is of the mind that we need to raise our cap even as much as New Mexico. We’re not looking at 500 million. We’re not looking at trying to play with Louisiana or Georgia. We’re not interested in that.

I think there’s a lot of pride here in the state in luring independent projects. That being said, a lot of people in the community don’t want to have to go to New Mexico to work. They want to work here year round. The Film Commission wants all of our 1,700 registered film crew to be working and to be knowing where their next paycheck is coming from, and to not have to get that paycheck out of the state. But the way that we have things now, that ideal is just not achievable. And, you know, I heard kind of a funny story about a guy who had to take a second job as a cab driver and he was talking about how he was having to ferry people up to Sundance and it just felt incredibly ironic to him.

Lisa Christensen: That is really, cruelly ironic.

Adva Biton: Yeah. And another thing to consider here is that the money that’s being spent, even though Utah’s economy is so incredibly robust, you can’t understate how much the film industry means to rural communities in Utah. We talked to a Jessica Alvey down in Hanksville, Utah. She describes it as 65 miles from anywhere. She owns a burger shack and a food mart, a motel and a campground down there as well as a gas station. And she says that the film industry is really critical to Hanksville. And it’s not even that they need the big productions. They don’t need the 100 million dollar feature films to come down. Even having YouTube videos, even having commercials come down to Hanksville is absolutely huge for their growth. In terms of the big productions, they recently had Point Break and in 2012 they had John Carter come down and film there. And these productions were only there between two and four weeks and she said that they doubled their yearly revenue.

Lisa Christensen: Wow. That’s incredible.

Adva Biton: Yeah. When these productions come down it’s usually at a time for Hanksville where tourism is really at a minimum. They come down during the summer. There’s nobody down there. There’s nobody gassing up. There’s nobody eating at the restaurants. There’s nobody spending any money in Hanksville. And they come down and they rent the entire campground. They stay in every single room in the motel. They gas up at the gas station. They spend money where it’s the most needed in this state and it helps that entire community stay afloat. And that’s the sort of things that go between the cracks when you’re thinking about something like the film industry.

I think a lot of people don’t understand how critical that industry is for rural spend. And then when you think about what gets spent in urban communities, it’s actually kind of the same thing. I mean, you have a cast and crew that comes down, even the ones from out of state, because you can’t have 100%, obviously, local cast and crew. These are people that are staying for 6 to 8 months in hotels, that are staying in condos, that are renting cars, that are eating at restaurants, that are buying clothes, props that are being bought at local antique marts for some things like Blood and Oil. They had to do that. They don’t have a seamstress on set, they go out and they buy clothes and they make them look older. You’re also talking about lumber. You’re talking about construction. You’re talking about a lot of things that make a profit from having a production come down in the state and stay here for a pretty fair amount of time.

Lisa Christensen: You know, when you’re talking about the hotels and retail and lumber and construction, it sounds like we’re talking about Utah having a diverse economy and lots of diverse industries, with film being only one part of the whole. But it sounds like it kind of supports the rest of the whole in a lot of ways.

Adva Biton: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, when you think about it you’re thinking yes, we’re offering 20-25% of this money back. But that still means that you’re getting between 75 and 80% of that money that is staying in your state. You’re incentivizing people to spend as much money as possible because they’re going to get some of that money back. But you’re still keeping a huge percentage of that money in the state.

Nobody that we talked to is really pushing for us to raise our cap money, even as far as New Mexico’s. We’re looking for something more in the 12 million dollar range. With 12 million dollars you can support two network television series and you can support independent features that come in. But the good thing about it is that the program that we have is really consistent and that businesses are seeing growth since 2011. You know, we’re starting to have more productions that are coming into the state. We’re starting to see more work for everybody. Productions are coming in. They’re spending money. We’re even seeing more commercials that are coming down. The Martian actually didn’t film any of the actual movie here, but when they wanted to film promos they came down to Utah and they filmed a couple of promos using our extremely martian landscape. So we’re seeing some of that work come back.

You know, when we’re talking about increasing the cap and looking at the incentive and shoring up whatever we can do, we’re looking towards the future. And I think that’s the smart thing to do. But you can’t ignore the fact that we are seeing some growth from this incentive program. And we are starting to see some productions that are coming into the state. The film community just wants to see it get better.

Lisa Christensen: Well fantastic. Thank you so much for telling us a little bit about your story and about the film industry.

Adva Biton: Yeah, thanks so much for talking about this. And I’m incredibly grateful to all of the people that we interviewed for all of their insight and everything that they let us know. It’s always great to hear more in depth about what’s going on with the industries here in Utah.

Lisa Christensen: Thanks for tuning in. And if you have any thoughts about today’s discussion, you can let us know at or on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages. Just before we go, we have one last fun fact about the film industry and Utah Business. Our very own publisher Sam Urie was once cast as a 7 year old cavalry rider in one of the many Westerns filmed down in Southern Utah. Sam will not tell us which movie it was in, but we will be finding out and sharing it with you in the comments. Thanks and have a great day.