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Ahead of next year’s incentive renewal, Utah has $85M in film production booked

Paramount's Yellowstone filming in Utah, 2018
courtesy Paramount Networks
Season one of Paramount's hit TV show, "Yellowstone," filming in Utah in 2018.

When you think of movies or TV shows filmed in Utah, your mind might go to the Martian landscapes of southern Utah’s red rocks or an old west set framed by the Wasatch mountains — or a certain neighborhood sandlot.

But Utah’s film industry is a lot more than that. Almost $85 million in production is slated to take place this year, including a big-budget Kevin Costner project called “Horizon: An American Saga 2.

Salt Lake City is a short two-hour flight from the entertainment mecca of Los Angeles and southern Utah is within a reasonable driving distance of Hollywood. That makes Utah an attractive option for production studios.

“That was Disney's claim to Utah was that they could make anywhere, any high school, any Middle America Main Street fit in Utah,” said Utah Film Commission Director Virginia Pearce. “We get a lot of productions that just want that kind of suburban look.”

Disney’s popular “High School Musical series was filmed in the Salt Lake City area.

Helping bring those projects to Utah is a 20% tax break for companies. It could even go up to 25% if filming takes place in rural areas.

“One very critical element [to production] is the financing element,” said Summit County Councilor Roger Armstrong, who is also a practicing attorney in the entertainment industry. “Films are now costing a great deal of money and you're seeing a variety of strategies to help share the burden of those costs.”

Pearce said Utah’s tax incentive program has been in place since 2011, but a 2022 state law expanding the program really boosted the industry.

There’s also a lot of competition from other states with similar programs hoping to lure big-budget productions. Thanks to strong incentives, Georgia’s film industry has grown over the last 20 years to become one of the biggest locations for feature films in the country.

“Because film incentives are such a big part of the way the industry works now, you really have to have a program to be in the conversation,” Pearce said. “We're definitely not the fanciest. We don't give the most money. But because of the experience and the locations, those things combined with an incentive really pushed Utah to that next level.”

Bringing productions to Utah doesn’t just provide a brief boost and some notoriety for filming locations. There are also serious economic impacts, especially for smaller communities.

“The last study we did was a couple of years ago, and it showed that for every dollar spent, $7 is returned to the economy,” Pearce said. “That comes especially in these rural communities. Productions are spending between $100,000 to $250,000 a day, and that's in hotels and restaurants and construction and security and hiring locals to help on the production. So it's really going back into the community and that's why we try to move productions around the state because it's an immediate influx.”

Those impacts were felt firsthand by Armstrong while the popular Kevin Costner show “Yellowstone was filmed in Summit County from 2017-2020.

“Tens of millions of dollars were left in the county,” he said. “We had people that were in positions as actors on the show, extras on the show. We had locations that were used and those locations were paid for. People bought goods and services, hotel rooms and, you know, restaurant bills and food and just a variety of things.”

Utah’s film incentive program is up for renewal in 2024. For Pearce, that’s a must.

“This program has really done what we hoped it would do. It's really infused funding and production into areas that hadn't seen it before. I'm hearing from county commissioners and economic development directors and tourism directors that say, ‘yeah, this has been great for us.’”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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