SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – COVID is not the only thing that knocked Utah’s film industry for a loop. Recently, large productions have chosen other states rather than Utah because it can’t compete with what other places are offering the film industry.

In 2021, the State Legislature is presenting Senate Bill 167, otherwise known as SB0167, to try and make Utah more competitive.

They’re called film incentives, or post-spend rebates, and they have become a major part of the film industry, television, web media, and virtual reality financing.

Simply put, a film would carry out their full production in Utah, keep every receipt for everything they spend from crew, to fuel, to gear, exhibit how much money was put into the local economy, and then a third party auditor sifts through the information and determines how much of a rebate – or film incentive – the production is qualified to receive.

While many filmmakers may want to take advantage of Utah’s beautiful and expansive landscape, the truth of the matter is that the Beehive State just isn’t competitive enough to regularly attract the major studios. Other states and countries that are serious about the film industry offer incentives to lure the industry out of Hollywood and into their own backyards.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Currently, Utah has a capped incentive of $6.79 million and can be combined with a $1.5 million cash rebate. It’s due to this fact that legislators are being asked to increase the cap between $15 million and $25 million. For comparison, Utah competes with other places that do not have incentive caps at all.

As it stands, Utah is situated at the lower end of film incentive offerings because of the cap.

Compare it to Georgia with a 20% tax credit for companies that spend $500,000 or more on production and post-production, plus another 10% if you qualify to include the Georgia Peach logo, and no cap.

Marvel Studios has used Georgia for the Avengers, Black Panther, Ant-Man, and the Captain America films. Georgia also serves a broad range of other films and television products.

Click the square in the bottom right corner for full screen.

This leaves Utah between the Rockies and a hard place trying to compete. The incentive is good, but once the cap is hit, it is no longer effective.

Recently, Utah lost Yellowstone’s production to Montana because the state could not compete against the Montanta incentive program.

The Motion Picture Association of Utah (MPAU) lobbies to keep the state competitive, and the Utah Film Commission manages the incentives. Once they reach the cap, they continue to work with productions to support them the best they can with locations and crew.

Carolyn Leone, the President of the MPAU, says, “The time for the Utah Film industry is now, we’re having a change of the guard up at the Capitol, I think it’s not just Yellowstone leaving the state, but people don’t realize the year before, or two years before Dwight in Shining Armor left the state, it was a BYU show they took it to Atlanta and are now on their fifth season.”

Jeff T. Miller, a producer who has overseen millions of dollars of work in Utah, explains why it’s different, “Utah has always been very conservative, other than Huntsman who came in and left us the most money, Leavitt was fairly supportive of the group. Then there was a group of folks where it did not mean as much to them as to some of the other incentive super states.”

Miller continues, “We got lucky because Disney was here in the state and Disney was doing a lot of things through a producer named Don Schain in those days…they did a lot of television movies for the Disney Channel, and then they went away for some time because they were not happy with the incentive growth in the state.”

  • avengers_infinity_war.png
  • Kevin Costner's Live Talking Yellowstone

Utah wound up in a situation where two major television productions were being filmed: Paramount Network’s Yellowstone and Disney’s Andi Mack. There was some juggling, but both fit in under Utah’s current annual rebate cap; however, this did not leave enough incentive dollars in the program for other network-type productions that may have wanted to film in the state. The Utah Film Commission had to be creative within the program’s structure and found ways to work with several independent productions during that time.

Then Montana came up with a $10 million film incentive program for Yellowstone, and subsequently, that show left Utah.

The incentives are sometimes misunderstood, no one is outright receiving money to film in Utah. They are not paid out during production, but after a third-party audit proves the money was spent in the state. This is why many want to call it what it is, a “post-spend rebate”.

One of the stipulations on all state incentives is that crews need to be mostly local. Utah is no different. Earning film business means Utahns stay on the job.

Films are a project by project business, so full-time workers move from project to project. That’s why it becomes important to keep the projects coming in.

Leone says, “These shows cannot even qualify for the tax incentive dollars unless they can prove that 85% or more of their crew is local.”

high_school_musical.jpg
Disney’s High School Musical filmed in Utah. Now the series is currently filming

While Utah has been home to major productions over the last five years, it has also missed the opportunity to host many others.

Miller explains, “Over the past five years of overseeing and budgeting 100 million production dollars in the state, which is great, the opposite of that success is we have had an equal $100 million of potential Utah production go elsewhere because the program is not adequately funded and is failing to keep up with the unprecedented growth of the film and television industry.

“The question is always asked, ‘How come Disney goes to Georgia? How come they go to Louisiana?’ Well, the answer is they are incentive super states, and Georgia is not capped.”

It is reported that Marvel’s Infinity War Spent $182 million in Georgia.

Miller says, “The one great thing about film and television is that it infuses cash into the economy very quickly, the state doesn’t have to wait multiple years to see the impact of this spending with much of it taking place in rural counties throughout the state.”

Miller makes an example of how this works; he says, “If I have a $100 bill and if I gave you (the state) the $100 bill all I want from you (the state) is a $20 bill in return.”

Leone says, “This is not a handout; this is a true rebate. It really shouldn’t be called a tax incentive, it should be described as a post-spend rebate, and these millions of dollars are spent in the state that would not be spent here otherwise without this program.”

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Miller thinks the film industry in other states has communicated the message better than here in Utah.

The state may look at it as giving money up from the state coiffures, but in reality, they are taking in $80 for the economy they would never have had without giving 20% back after an audit.

MPAU says there’s a multiplier effect through the economy that is argued to be two to seven times when a production happens in the state.

Miller says, “Disney has done an incredible job of keeping production in the state with limited incentive resources.  Utah was not in a position to go to Disney and say “give us more jobs” because we did not have the rebate to match those jobs and the overall spend of millions of dollars.” 

Leone says, “It’s hard to compare ourselves (Utah’s Film Industry) to an Amazon, it’s also hard for us to compare our industry with the funding that is needed for education.”

Leone continues, “There are many opinions out there that conclude those rich movie people don’t need our money and that they come here to film the mountains, the snow, and the deserts whether they have an incentive or not, and that’s simply not true in today’s production landscape.”

Andi_Mack.jpg
Disney’s Andi Mack and Paramount’s Yellowstone used Utah’s incentive.

15 or 20 years ago, that statement may have been true, but now other states and places with snow and mountains are competing to get the revenue into their state and offering incentive programs to get them there.

Leone says, “They don’t understand the funding model for film and television has changed so much, they’re not going to come and spend those millions here without the incentives because there are too many other competitive choices throughout the U.S. and the world.”

The MPAU thinks by asking for an increase it will give the state a chance to compete more effectively for a larger part of the business of show business.

The Film Incentive Bill SB 167 has been approved by the legislature and will go to the Governor to be signed. $1.6 million was added to the fund plus another $500,000 added to a fund for smaller productions. In total 2.1 million was added to the state incentive program.