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Utah Trying to Lure Movie Industry Back

Utah Trying to Lure Movie Industry Back

Posted - Jun. 12, 2004 at 3:23 p.m.



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KANAB, Utah (AP) -- These days, "Utah's Little Hollywood" gets more business from marketing its place in movie history than by adding to it.

The set for Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josie Wales" has been refurbished for tourists at Frontier Movie Town. The city's film and tourism office doubles as a minimuseum paying homage to the hundreds of Westerns that were shot here decades ago.

And besides being used as a rare commercial site, about the only use the rotting, dilapidated boardwalk and set of the old "Gunsmoke" television show is as a home for rattlesnakes.

It's a far cry from Kanab's heyday, from the 1920s through the 1970s, when television Westerns and about three motion pictures a year were shot in town, bringing hundreds of actors and technicians and giving work to an equal number of Kane County residents.

These days, Kanab's scenic red rocks and canyons are out of demand, a fall tied directly to the demise of the Western. Kane County now only gets a boost in filming for movies shot at Lake Powell, but even there the economic benefits go across the state line to extras, restaurants and motels in Page, Ariz.

Utah's desolately beautiful salt flats, mountain ranges and canyon country have served as natural backdrops for all manner of Westerns and science fiction yarns, from 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" to 1996's "Independence Day." And Kanab isn't alone in suffering the hardship of the dwindling film industry presence.

In 1999, there were nearly 2,400 days of production in Utah for feature films, television movies and shows, documentaries and commercials. The next year, more than 400 days were added.

Then, the bottom fell out. There were just over 1,200 production days in 2001, almost 1,250 in 2002 and not quite 1,200 last year.

Dropping just as fast is the industry's economic impact on the state, which has accounted for as much as $135 million annually.

"It's not as healthy as we would like," said Leigh von der Esch, executive director of the Utah Film Commission for the last 19 years.

She said production dropped from its 2000 high for numerous reasons. Fears of an actor's strike boosted filming days that year, trying to get enough movies into the can before the strike that never came.

Then, there was Sept. 11, followed by the 2002 Olympics, when filmmakers avoided Utah because of fears of having no motel rooms.

Television had also found a home in Utah, but even that suffered when CBS' "Touched by an Angel," which frequently filmed in and around Salt Lake City, ended its nine-year run.

Another debilitating shot for Utah was the rise of reality-based television.

"A lot of our bread-and-butter shows were the movie of the weeks, and they are not making as many," von der Esch said of the television staples that have dwindled to less than a hundred a year, down from 316 five years ago.

But Utah's biggest problem now in bringing the movies back to Utah is outbidding other states and countries.

New tax incentive packages in Louisiana -- where von der Esch said the state went from $20 million the year before it went into effect to $100 million the next -- and New Mexico are drawing filming to those states. And provincial and federal government breaks in Canada have long enticed executives to take their productions north.

There is no firm number of how much money is lost to Canada and other countries, but one study conducted by The Monitor Co. said between 1990 and 1998, the number of U.S.-developed film and television productions shot outside the country nearly doubled to 27 percent. The study also found the economic losses from this practice, known in the industry as runaway productions, increased from $2 billion to $10 billion over the same time.

American entertainment "is one of the things we export around the world," said Stuart Suna, president of the New York-based Silvercup Studios. "It's a manufacturing business, and just like manufacturing is being outsourced outside America."

Suna is co-chair of The Creative Coalition's Runaway Production Task Force with actor Tony Goldwyn. The task force works with leaders in Hollywood, Washington and Albany, N.Y., to curb runaway production.

Suna said he's found politicians have no idea of the magnitude of working people who are involved in movie making. "They don't realize how many carpenters are needed to put on a show," he said.

To help even the playing field, the state of Utah is now offering incentives to bring movies back. Passed by the Legislature earlier this year, the package would typically provide a 10 percent tax rebate to productions. If a story line is changed to set the film in Utah, producers would get another 2 percent break.

The fund is capped at $1 million this year, no one project can get more than $500,000 and it's first-come, first-served. Also new is the Motion Picture Task Force, whose members include those from the motion picture industry and state government.

"If Utah continues to sweeten the pot, you probably will attract people back," Suna said.

In Kanab, the county film commissioner, known simply as Cowboy Ted, says officials have already seen a surge in interest. That happened before the incentive package was in place, so he wonders if the popularity of the HBO Western series "Deadwood" doesn't have something to do with it.

The county has been working with a crew about possible locations for new Kevin Costner film, and an independent filmmaker wants to shoot a Western in Zion National Park.

"We haven't done anything in three to four years, and now we're starting to get calls," he said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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