The Utah Film Commission’s Motion Picture Incentive Program

Susen Sawatzki

The Amplifying Effect of Investment in Imagination

Jan 2016 Many Park City residents became used to seeing Hollywood stars this year and, for once, it wasn’t during the annual Sundance Film Festival. Both ABC and HBO spent months in the local ski town filming two large productions: ABC with its new network series Blood & Oil and HBO with Steven Soderbergh’s newest feature, Mosaic.

Utah’s iconic scenery provides majestic settings and acts as an effective lure for tourists, businesses and, increasingly, film producers. The ease of transitioning from beautiful wild spaces to urban centers, often located within an hour or less of each other, is just one of the reasons filmmakers come to Utah.

Virginia Pearce, Utah Film Commission Director, explains: “Our locations are dramatic and diverse. Mountains always come to mind when people think of Utah but we really have everything from open stretches of desert wilderness and red rock canyons to bustling hangouts and rural towns—as well as the picturesque peaks and greatest snow on earth. We have a deep and lasting commitment to the entertainment industry, with more than 900 films having been made in Utah, and our locations are definitely a contributing factor.”

For the last 20 years, states and countries have realized that film productions can provide a huge influx of income, and have been steadily building incentive programs that encourage pro- ducers to consider alternatives to Hollywood. While filming, productions spend money on salaries for local crews, lodging and equipment, set building materials, permitting fees and travel and transportation, but the direct investment into a lo- cal economy isn’t the only benefit. Film production also acts as a billboard for the location, almost like a covert but powerful tourism brochure.

“The benefits of film production reach far beyond financials,” said Vicki Varela, Managing Director of Tourism, Film and Global Branding for the state of Utah. “Film production builds Utah’s brand as a beautiful place for tourists to visit, and as a place that welcomes the creative class.”

ABC’s Blood and Oil series filmed in Utah for these very reasons. The show was set in North Dakota, yet filmed in Northern Utah and staged at the Park City Film Studios as the producers and directors found the industry in Utah to be so much more robust. Says Josh Pate, the show’s co-creator, “We looked into filming in North Dakota, but there are more resources in Utah.”

Location and local resources don’t win all film battles, however, as most large productions now rely on state tax incentive programs to finalize the deal. Utah’s film incentive program is solid and stable and has a number of advantages, but it’s also relatively small with a $6.79 million cap per year, which means that many potential studios may overlook Utah.

The economic benefit in terms of both direct and indirect investments in tourism and business that come from film productions can be very large especially in the case of long-running TV series. For that reason, locations all around the world compete heavily to win the interest of studios and land long- term deals. Film incentive programs are a key element in this competition for attention.

According to Marshall Moore, marketing director for Park City Film Studios and former director of the Utah Film Commission, Touched by an Angel, the long-running television series from the late 1990s created an economic impact of over $225 million in Utah. He points out that a current network TV series or two would be key to stabilizing and growing the film business in Utah, but the current incentive maxes out too low to keep the big names. According to Marshall, the major studios are looking for about 25 percent on a $30 million budget, or roughly $7-8 million. Utah’s program offers up to 25 percent, which is good, but it caps out at about $6.79 million – just short of that mark.

Jeff Miller, president of Vineyard Productions and president of the Motion Picture Association of Utah, agrees. He reports that Utah’s program is very consistent and solid, also pointing out that money in the program is set aside at the time of agreement, meaning that a studio will get the incentive as long the conditions are met.

In programs for other states, the incentives are sometimes paid out on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning that late completion could result in the funds being depleted and the studio getting less than expected—or even nothing at all.

Utah has just about everything else going for it, says Virginia, “We have talent, locations, equipment, experience, infrastructure, and we’re a convenient 90-minute flight from LA. The new Park City Film Studio gives Utah’s industry that extra boost. We’re film ready here.”

The benefits of film production to the economy of Utah are undeniable. Pearce said: “In the 2014 fiscal year alone, 23 projects filmed in Utah and spent more than $20 million here. Since the incentive program’s inception in 2011, more than $195 million has been spent in the state, and 27% of that is in rural areas.”

How much of the positive press regarding Utah as a great state for business comes as a result of the halo effect of film productions? How many people and even businesses visit Utah as a result of seeing the state in a film and then stay to bolster the local economy? Even making film scenes as a tourist destination? What happens when you infuse rural economies with $32 million in film-related spending? What is the long-term benefit of that short- term spend?

Although ABC’s Blood and Oil will not be renewed, the production still spent more than $20 million in Utah and created 600 new jobs. Landing that series also opened doors for future productions and additional growth in Utah’s film industry, so the only question remaining is whether the state can furnish the incentives to support that growth.

By Jonathan Richards

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