Will proposed new law revitalize Utah's 'vulnerable' film industry?

A cabin in Oakley, Summit County, that belonged to the “Yellowstone” fictional character Rip Wheeler, played by actor Cole Hauser, is pictured inside Thousands Peaks Ranch on Dec. 2, 2021. SB49 aims to raise the tax incentive cap for film productions in rural Utah, a move that would help stimulate the economies of these areas.

A cabin in Oakley, Summit County, that belonged to the “Yellowstone” fictional character Rip Wheeler, played by actor Cole Hauser, is pictured inside Thousands Peaks Ranch on Dec. 2, 2021. SB49 aims to raise the tax incentive cap for film productions in rural Utah, a move that would help stimulate the economies of these areas. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)


Save Story
Leer en español

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

SALT LAKE CITY — Epic valleys, sweeping rock canyons, expansive plateaus, shooting mountain ranges and miles and miles of desert ecosystems — all things that make up the perfect setting for a Western epic.

Kevin Costner would agree, too, as he honed in on the Beehive State as a potential filming location for his long-anticipated Western epic "Horizon." The Western cinematic universe Costner envisions would be made up of five movies and would supplement whatever rural economy Costner chooses to film in, to the tune of $50 million.

Bringing a film project of this magnitude to Utah requires a financial incentive to attract filmmakers and make the state an appealing destination — beyond just aestheics — to produce movies.

Incentivizing film

"A lot of Utahns don't realize that our film industry has become quite vulnerable in the past few years," said Alecia Williams, executive director of Cinema Slopes. "The tax incentive that we offer for productions to come to our state is significantly lower than other states."

Cinema Slopes is a nonprofit group of film aficionados, many of them bringing an extensive background of experience in film, who are advocating for more funding for Utah's film industry.

Motion picture productions that meet several requirements, including spending a minimum of $500,000 in Utah, are eligible for a 20% to 25% tax rebate as part of Utah's film incentive program. However, the program has an annual $8.3 million cap — a drop in the bucket compared to states like California and Montana, which offer $330 million and $12 million caps, respectively.

"Utah, at $8.3 (million), it's making it very difficult for us to compete," Williams said.

This low tax rebate was the driving force of Costner eventually moving production of Paramount's hit series "Yellowstone" to Montana. Over three years of filming, the production brought nearly $80 million to Utah's economy, the majority of that being spent in towns like Heber City, Oakley, Kamas, Grantsville and Logan.

Related:

For Utah to be seriously considered for projects such as "Horizon," Williams said, the Utah Legislature needed to pass SB49.

Sponsored by Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, the State Film Production Amendments bill would exempt rural film productions from the limits on the state's annual tax incentive program, making rural Utah a more appealing destination for filmmakers.

To be defined as a rural production, it must be state-approved and filmed primarily in third-, fourth-, fifth- or sixth-class counties, which would exclude Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Washington and Cache counties.

"I've dreamed for a long time about making my movie in Utah and scouting the state has been an incredible experience. My biggest hope is that the state backs SB49 and that dream becomes a reality. I don't really want to go anywhere else with these five movies," Costner said in a statement.

The Legislature did just that — with an adjustment to cap the rebate at $12 million for rural areas — and now the bill is being sent to the desk of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox for his signature.

Stimulating the economy

Any production coming to Utah has to submit its budget for the Utah Film Commission to review. After review, it then gets recommended to the Governor's Office of Economic Development, which approves the budget.

Once the production spends the money, it's subjected to an audit before it's eligible for the rebate.

The rebate covers expenses that come with producing a film, often for things like hotels and long-term rentals, production materials, rental cars, trailers, restaurant per diems, catering costs and more — and it's often spent in smaller, rural communities.


You start hearing enough of these stories and you realize this isn't about protecting Hollywood, this is about opening a door so that Hollywood can bring their lucrative budget and essentially employ Utahns with out-of-state money.

–Alecia Williams, Cinema Slopes


Williams said many folks assume that allowing big-budget films to come to Utah only benefits Hollywood moguls such as Costner, but she likes to think of it differently — like a cruise ship coming to town.

"Yes it is owned by Hollywood, yes it is funded by Hollywood, but when they get here, they find a location and they staff the entire ship with Utahns," Williams said.

Williams also noted that the film industry pays a much higher hourly wage than others. The average hourly wage for film production in the United States was $39 as of Feb. 25, 2022, but the salary range typically falls between $34 and $44, according to Salary.com.

"You compare that with Utah's minimum wage, you can see why a person who lives in Duchesne is really excited about an opportunity that comes to their town where they can make $30 an hour for 80 days. It can be life-changing for them," Williams said.

Speaking of Duchesne, Williams said Cinema Slopes has started calling cities and towns where films have come to ask community members how the films have impacted the community.

Duchesne is located near the filming location for the History Channel's, "The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch."

"Their community is literally thriving off it," Williams said.

She spoke about a motel in Vernal that had been struggling for years to make ends meet. When "The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch" came to town, it housed the staff in that motel, which resulted in the motel having to hire more housekeepers to keep up with the business that the production brought in.

Additionally, Williams said that she's heard from restaurant owners in Duchesne that benefit from a $50 a day per diem.

"You start hearing enough of these stories and you realize this isn't about protecting Hollywood. This is about opening a door so that Hollywood can bring their lucrative budget and essentially employ Utahns with out-of-state money," Williams said.

Although Cinema Slopes was hoping the Legislature would agree on the unlimited cap proposed for rural film productions, Williams said she was happy to see the bill pass with a higher cap number.

"Anything to make us slightly more competitive is going to be monumental, so we're grateful for that," Williams said.

Related stories

Most recent Utah stories

Related topics

Utah LegislatureEntertainmentSouthern UtahUtahBusiness
Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and tech news.

STAY IN THE KNOW

Get informative articles and interesting stories delivered to your inbox weekly. Subscribe to the KSL.com Trending 5.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast