Rural Utah calls for more incentives and exemptions for film production

A cabin inside the Thousands Peaks Ranch, where the television series ‘Yellowstone’ was filmed, is pictured in Oakley, Summit County, December 2, 2021. A Utah bill is said to be proposed to exempt certain rural productions from the film incentive ceiling. Schedule each fiscal year. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s vast and diverse landscapes have served as the backdrop for many movies, but some say the limitations of the state’s movie incentive program could push productions elsewhere.

Utah’s on-screen debut dates back nearly 100 years with the filming of “Deadwood Coach” in Kanab. The film was the first in a long line to come for Kanab, which eventually earned the nickname “Little Hollywood”.

“We are directly feeling the benefits of film incentives in rural Utah, especially in Kanab, the impacts are very visible from the direct spending portion,” said Kelly Stowell, member of the Rural Utah Film Coalition. “Cinema is the gift that keeps on giving and movies that were shot here decades ago are still popular with people.”

Film tourism may compel foreign visitors to choose a destination because of its connection to a film or television series. This link has brought 2.2 million visitors to Utah and $6 billion in revenue to the state over the past 10 years.

Rural communities like Kanab and Kane County have thrived on productions, but the film industry and competition for its business has grown over the years. Competition has moved from only between States to also between countries.

To meet competition, the Utah legislature passed the Motion Picture Incentive Program in 2011. Utah is among more than 30 states that offer a tax incentive to digital media companies. The program has provided significant economic benefits to the state and its communities over the past decade, a study commissioned by the Motion Picture Association of Utah and the Rural Utah Film Coalition found.

The Olsberg SPI study shows that over the past five years, the movie inducement generated $614 million in net production, including $48 million spent in Utah on film and television productions in 2021.

Nearly half of the $614 million came from direct industry spending, with the rest generated by supply chain and wage effects. Production budgets can stimulate a local economy by purchasing equipment, hiring crew members, transportation and hotels.

But Utah is starting to get overlooked by production companies looking to states that have increased incentives over the years. The Motion Picture Incentive Program received more applications than it can fund, leading the state to lose, Motion Picture Association of Utah President Jeff Johnson said.

“We compete with 34 other states that offer tax incentives and unfortunately at this point Utah is one of the lowest right now. We need to increase the amount of money we have to be competitive” , Johnson said.

The loss includes productions with budgets totaling $216 million in 2018 and $207 million in 2019, according to the study. Among those losses was Paramount’s popular “Yellowstone” series. About 75% of the first three seasons were filmed in Utah, before production shifted to Montana.

“In Utah, we have a great diversity of landscapes. We have everything from the Sahara desert to the high mountains. We have sand dunes, the high mountain forest and all the canyons and country in between. We have that for us. We have the crew, but we need the last piece as an incentive that helps us compete against other states,” Stowell said.

Some of this incentive could be extended to rural Utah. A bill sponsored by Sen. Ronald Winterton, R-Duchesne, would exempt certain rural productions from the movie incentive program cap each fiscal year. The bill is an opportunity to show commitment to rural Utah and its communities, Stowell added.

“It’s a way for the Legislature and for our governor to show us what they think of us in rural Utah,” the senator said. “This is a good opportunity for the Legislative Assembly and the Governor, who have campaigned on rural economic development and helping rural communities. I think this is a way for them to help us directly.”

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