Ready, Set, FILM
Last summer, according to the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity (Go Utah), Board approved 13 productions for film incentives, six filming exclusively in rural Utah, with an overall estimated economic impact of $142.5 million. This summer, more than 11,000 screenwriters are in a labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television, and as of July 13, 2023, leaders of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Radio and Television Artists have joined the screenwriters' strike for better wages. While it's too soon to know how the strikes will affect Utah's filmmaking economy, here's a look at where Utah's film industry stands today.
Utah's Economic Development Incentives Push the State to the Top as a Filmmaker's Go-to
New Orleans has Jazz; New York City, its food; Hollywood, its movies; and Utah, its film productions, too, as the state's Film Commission draws more filmmakers there as the go-to location to produce movies.
The Walt Disney Studios, who, according to the Go Utah 2022 annual report, led the U.S. Media and entertainment market in 2019 in original content production, spent nearly $28 billion across their studios and networks.
Disney could have chosen any location in the U.S. to film "Andi Mack," a TV series on the family-oriented Disney Channel. But the global entertainment company choose Utah for its production resources and cash-back business incentives.
"Disney spent over $130 million in Utah over the last 20 years and filmed over 30 film here," explains Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission. "The state's tax incentives have definitely changed the film industry here." Now Disney will pump thousands of dollars into the Utah economy over the life of the $10 million series that began production in 2016.
Disney is just one example of several film production companies that have come to Utah over the past decade for its state-funded business incentives. According to Go Utah, $4.8 million in state film incentives was awarded between 2021 and 2022 to 13 productions shooting in Utah, including a mix of local and out-of-state feature films and TV series, yielding a total estimated spend of $32.8 million.
"But there are hundreds of companies still moving here on their own without any incentives," said Thomas Wadsworth, Business Development and Corporate Incentives manager, GOEO. "Millennials don't want to work 20 hours a day in a bank in San Francisco," he says. "The work-life balance here and real estate prices offer extremely attractive options."
The business migration to Utah means a win-win for the film industry and the state, according to Go Utah. Its 2022 annual report includes a 2021 study from Olsberg SPI commissioned by the Motion Picture Association which found that for each tax dollar spent on a tax credit, Utah’s economy receives $7. The report says the Utah Film Commission also serves as a liaison to the entertainment industry as it supports local film events and works with higher education to create workforce training opportunities in Utah.
The surge in business has also contributed to Utah’s low unemployment rate – 2.3 percent – far lower than the 3.6 percent U.S. average, according to the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
"I definitely think all the things we have to draw companies here is giving us an economic boom," says Wadsworth.
Kanab Movie Fort, Kane County, Photo by: Ted Hesser, courtesy of the Utah Film Commission
Rural Deficits and Gains
Jobs are not abundant statewide, though. According to GOEO, most of them are within a 100-mile radius along the Wasatch front. That means people in rural Utah have migrated into the Wasatch front or left the state for more work opportunities. When the Utah Legislature passed SB49 last year, the State Film Production Incentives Amendments, last year, it opened Utah's borders to more film production and, therefore, more employment opportunities in rural Utah. The bill exempts rural film productions from the limits on the state's annual tax incentive program, making rural Utah a more appealing destination for filmmakers.
GOEO and the Utah Film Commission see Hollywood as one of the best win-win solutions for filmmakers and rural Utah's lack of employment opportunities. Historically, Pearce says, filmmakers have valued Utah's geography, from Arches National Park to the Wasatch Mountain Range. Offering them incentives in which the more they hire locals, the more they gain cashback makes Utah an unbeatable choice. Actor Kevin Costner endorsed that in February 2022, prior to SB49, regarding movies he wants to produce in Utah.
"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 mentioned on June 15, 2023, KSL.com article.
While GOEO incentives vary, says Wadsworth, any company coming to any part of Utah receives significant incentives from GOEO, Wadsworth says, either in the form of grants or tax credits.
"The great thing about our incentives is it really incentivizes by spending money in Utah and hiring Utah locals," explains Pearce. "Our incentives are stable and consistent and Hollywood has learned to expect that."