Utah's desert: a picturesque backdrop. (Photo credit paraflyer, Flickr.com)
From New Hampshire’s “no filming permits” policy to Michigan’s 42 percent tax credit, states are fighting to stay competitive with low-cost international filming locations — and each other. For filmmakers, this means a slew of incentive programs that might make financing your next film a bit easier.
Utah entered the fray last March, with the passage of a bill that restructured its Motion Picture Incentive Fund. For qualified productions, Utah offers a cash rebate of up to 20 percent of in-state expenses with a $500,000 cap, or a 20 percent tax credit with no cap.
The new incentives, along with the state’s strong production infrastructure and helpful film commission, have generated a buzz among filmmakers and locals for what Governor Jon Huntsman calls Utah’s “Saltywood.”
Every January, filmmakers and fans alike flock to Park City for the nation’s largest independent cinema festival, Sundance, as well as its younger alternative, Slamdance. The former, founded in part by the Utah Film Commission in 1978 to attract filmmakers to the state, is now run by the Sundance Institute, but the commission remains a sponsor. And for good reason — smaller independent films are the local film industry’s bread and butter.
“It is definitely our niche,” says Utah Film Commission director Marshall Moore. A former location manager, Moore says that many productions in the state fall between the $250,000 and $5 million budget range.
A recent poll conducted by Variety ranked Utah as one of the states with the best film-office support, thanks to the well-staffed commission, which assists filmmakers with location scouting and other services. Most types of locations can be found within an hour of Salt Lake City International Airport, Moore says. And from the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple to the University of Utah’s Frat Row, Utah’s got plenty of them, all listed in the commission’s location database.
The former Western film hotspot has a strong, established infrastructure. In 2009, Disney producer Don Schain, president of the Motion Picture Association of Utah, told a Utah Senate committee that the state has “arguably the best production infrastructure this side of either Los Angeles or New York,” according to the Deseret News.
And thanks to Utah-based television shows such as Touched by an Angel and Everwood, the film commission has more than 1,800 listings for film crew and support services with industry-wide experience — enough to crew several productions at once. The large in-state crew base helps to keep costs down. An experienced workforce means not having to fly in crews from out-of-state, which can rack up per diem expenses. And if you do need to get to Los Angeles, it’s less than 90 minutes away by plane.
The revamped incentive fund, which currently provides up to $10 million per year for two years, was designed to attract big-budget films. But just one major production could take up most of the pie. Take, for example, Pixar’s John Carter of Mars, which will spend almost $28 million in the state. In 2009, the sci-fi film was approved for $5.5 million in tax credit incentives. Current legislation allows for about $7.8 billion to be given in tax credits in a fiscal year, with the remaining $2.2 million reserved for cash rebates. Fortunately for filmmakers on a tighter budget, the cash rebates come with a $500,000 cap per production.
Disney’s popular High School Musical films were filmed in Utah, and J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek used the state’s distinctive desert as a backdrop for the planet Vulcan. Adam Green’s Frozen, a thriller about stranded skiers, was filmed at Utah’s Snowbasin Mountain and will be screened at this year’s Sundance.
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To take advantage of the 20 percent cash rebate or tax credit, you’ll need to spend $1 million in the state, though there is also a 15 percent cash rebate available for productions under $1 million. The 20 percent cash rebate option is especially attractive to many smaller-budget independent filmmakers because of the quick turnaround — Moore says the money usually comes back in one to two months, early enough to help with post production or advertising. Though Utah’s 20 percent incentive might seem less generous than some of the competition, its ready-to-go crew base and production infrastructure have attracted budget-conscious filmmakers who are unwilling to fly in crew from out of state.
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