Spotlight: Rocky Mountain and Northwest
Scenery and Incentives
The Pacific Northwest — the states of Oregon and Washington — have a multitude of scenery options, from seacoast to mountains and a lot of prairie in between. There are ranches and forests, cities that can double for almost anywhere (and do), new and old buildings, and so much more.
Farther east, next door states along the Rocky Mountains offer up some of the classic “spectacular vistas” that make Eastern city dwellers fantasize about their next vacation. Features such as Brokeback Mountain and Close Encounters of the Third Kind popularized Wyoming as a location with some of the best natural wonders rarely seen by city folks. Famous landmarks, such as Utah’s Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon, and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, have served as backdrops for countless westerns and contemporary films.
And there are active incentive programs in place to sweeten the idea of filming features, episodic television and commercials in all these areas. That’s the good news; the bad news is, funding for many of these programs is, at best, iffy these days.
Utah has an annual budget of $6.79 million for film office incentives, which covers film and television but does not include commercials, sporting events or game shows. To receive a baseline 20% tax credit incentive, there’s no local hire requirement; but if you want an extra 5% (25% total), you have to hire 85% of the total cast and crew in Utah. Excluded are extras, five principal cast members, two creative executive producers, and a director. Utah accepts that those people will be brought in from L.A. or New York, so they’re not part of the total.
One of the productions shot in Utah, Waffle Street, directed by brothers Ian and Eshorn Nelms, is based on the true story of James Adams (James Lafferty), who jumps from the white-collar world of Wall Street to waiting tables at a waffle shop. Amid the greasy madness of the 24-hour diner, James befriends Edward Collins (Danny Glover), an ex-con grill master who serves up hard lessons about life, finance, and grits.
The crew filmed throughout the Salt Lake City metropolitan area in August 2014, including taking over One Man Band Diner in Lehi, Utah for a few weeks. “We purposefully wanted to set the film in Anytown, USA, and we could cheat Utah for many places. It’s a beautiful location,” says producer Autumn McAlpin.
Utah’s talented film crews, helpful film commission and great tax incentives offered additional appeal, adds producer Brad Johnson. “Utah’s known for having really good crews and a beautiful setting,” Johnson said. “At first the directors were reluctant, but after location scouting, they were talking about moving here.”
The community was eager to have a film made in their backyard, McAlpin adds. “We received amazing donations for locations, product sponsors, and extras.” Johnson and McAlpin both enjoy working in Utah so much that they based their respective production companies in the Beehive State.
North of Utah are two states that feature idyllic western locations, Idaho and Wyoming. Unfortunately, as Amy Rajkovich, a tourism specialist, notes, “Currently, Idaho has film incentives on the books, but the program has never been funded. The incentive is set to sunset in 2020.”
Still, there are shows being shot in Idaho. Way Out West, a “semi-reality” show on truTV, is being shot in Idaho now. truTV is a cable channel, part of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., a Time Warner company. The show description plays up the Idaho connection: “Amidst the majestic mountains of Idaho, three boisterous, fun-loving families of outfitters have been living, laughing and competing with each other for three generations, taking clients deep inside the country’s last great wilderness for tracking, fishing, rafting, horse riding and camping trips.”
Local productions fill out the forms for incentives, too. In Wyoming, a number of Jackson-based production companies do consistent work in their home state. Producers like Teton Gravity Research and Brain Farm apply for film incentives regularly. Teton Gravity Research specializes in ski and snow extreme sport cinematography. Athletes wearing cine cameras do leaps and jumps that defy gravity — and the viewer’s imagination. They recently had the premier for their latest feature Almost Ablaze. “Almost Ablaze highlights stunning locations, next-level riding, and the globetrotting lifestyle of thrill-seeking athletes,” boasts the producer. “The crew set up camp deep in the Teton Range hitting 5,000-foot dream lines all on foot. The film has already won Film of the Year at the 2014 International Freeski Film Festival.”
Meanwhile, back at the bank, the Cowboy State offers a simple incentive solution: a cash rebate program of up to 15% on dollars spent in the state during a film shoot. There are a couple of advantages to the cash rebate: you get your expense report to them at the end of production, and they’ll cut you a check about four weeks later. No waiting around for tax season! On a $200,000 project, a 15% tax credit might net you $25,500. In Wyoming, that same 15% comes in the form of a cash rebate, and it works out to a full $30,000. Production companies have to spend a minimum amount of $200,000 to qualify and then meet additional criteria to determine the rebate percentage between 12%-15%.
Next door, as it were, the Montana Film Office is at the forefront of offering competitive cash incentives and generous soft incentives for production efforts in the state through the Big Sky Film Grant and tax incentives. Targeting feature-length indie films with budgets under $10 million willing to shoot a minimum of 50 percent in-state, the Montana Big Sky Film Grant awards a total of $1 million cash per fiscal year to eligible projects. Selected productions will receive funds 30-60 days after principal photography wraps. Combined with Montana’s tax incentives, which provide 14 percent back on Montana crew and talent salaries and 9 percent back on production-related expenditures made in Montana, the grant offers qualifying productions up to 20 percent in cash enhancements. Qualified film-related expenditures incurred in the state, including all talent and crew salaries, are eligible.
Productions find additional savings through the state’s sales tax-free status and the accommodations tax reimbursement after 30 consecutive days. “We are here to assist with every step of the grant process so we can help maximize the returns productions are getting,” says Montana Film Commissioner Deny Staggs. “Our goal is to make sure that Montana’s great locations, talent, and crew remain available and affordable for every production.”
The Montana Film Office offers producers complimentary script breakdowns and location services, helping them find that rushing river, Old West town, mountain and prairie vista, quintessential main street and much more. During production, staff act as liaisons with producers and state and federal agencies to assist productions in obtaining the necessary permits and also provide productions access. Through the Film Office’s comprehensive database of in-state crew and support services, productions can keep expenses down as well by utilizing local crew and service providers.
To date, The Montana Film Office has allocated grant funds to a handful of productions this year, including Winter Light, a dramatic short by producer Josh Pense and director Julian Higgins that shot near Missoula, Montana.
Throughout the summer, Montana played host to feature films. Timber the Treasure Dog from Oracle Films took advantage of Montana’s natural cave systems to create a family friendly film fully shot and finished in-state. Also shooting this summer were commercial productions for GMC, Coke, Ford, Chevy, and Polaris.
If mountains aren’t in your script, how about an “Anytown” that can be done up as, well, any town? The Washington city of Spokane had an episodic series filming for the SyFy network called Z Nation. The 13 episodes wrapped around the end of September, 2014. Though several films have been made in Spokane, Z Nation is the first TV series to be shot in the city, at least beyond the pilot stage, says Marc Dahlstrom, production supervisor. A crew of 50 to 60 people – more than half are from Spokane – worked all over the area. The show’s story involves a cross-country race to save humanity. If you haven’t guessed, the Z in the title stands for zombie, and Spokane will be standing in, not for one city, but for the whole nation.
You don’t have to have zombies, local or imported, in your film to take advantage of the scenery and financial incentives of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest, just a desire to use those the best way possible.
*Correction: The opening image credit has been updated to reflect the actual location of John Ford’s Point. It is in Arizona, not Utah.