After ‘Yellowstone’ exodus from Park City, bill seeks to increase Utah’s film tax incentives
Funds could draw more productions to Utah
For the past decade Utah’s film incentive program has supported more than 200 films and television series that were fully or partially shot in the Beehive State.
The Utah Film Commission, a division of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, uses the program to encourage the use of Utah as a production and filming site by offering tax incentives to projects that spend a certain amount of money in Utah.
“They have to provide us with receipts that show they spent the money in the state,” said state Sen. Ron Winterton, who represents Park City in the Statehouse. “The Governor’s Office of Economic Development reviews the receipts, and determines whether or not the productions are eligible for the rebate. The audit is a stringent audit that looks at every single receipt, and it takes months to do these audits.”
However, the cap on the amount of money available for the incentives stands at $6,793,700 and hasn’t increased since the program’s inception. And with the increase of productions due to the onslaught of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Disney+, the current budget is not a big enough carrot to entice production companies to set up shop in Utah, said Virginia Pearce, Utah Film Commission director.
“The Utah Motion Picture incentive program was designed in 2011 to provide incentives for Utah to remain competitive with other states or countries,” Pearce said. “Since 2011, Utah’s film industry has grown along with the interest in the film incentive. While the current program provides $6.79 million annually, we continually receive more applications than we can support each year.”
That’s why Winterton drew up a bill that proponents say would put Utah back on the film industry’s competitive map.
S.B. 167 would increase the incentives pool to $10 million in tax-credit certificates starting in the fiscal year ending in June 2022, according to Winterton.
“I wanted to double (the amount), which would have gotten it to nearly $15 million, but I’m finding resistance to that,” Winterton said. “So backed it down to $10 million.”
Winterton believes misconceptions of how companies get the money is one reason for the resistance, he said.
“What people may not know is these rebates are given after productions have spent their money in Utah, so it’s not like we’re going to pay them in advance to spend their money here,” Winterton said. “We already get our money upfront, and then we consider giving a rebate.”
Another misconception the senator hears is that the rebate is a handout.
“They spend $1,000 and we’re going to give $200 back, and that looks to me that we get $800 of their money,” Winterton said. “So when you start talking big dollars, I don’t see where the rug is. It’s not a handout.”
Advocates say attracting production companies to Utah is a boon to the state’s economy, a position supported by an economic impact report released in November 2019.
The report combined a study done by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the 2019 Reported Film Permit Data released by the Utah Film Commission.
The findings are as follows:
• Every dollar associated with the incentive program brought back a $14 return in the state’s gross domestic product
• The film industry created 2,554 new jobs in Utah
• More than 54% of business takes place in rural Utah — mostly in Emery, Grand, San Juan, Tooele, Wasatch and Washington counties
• $114.6 million was created in new state earnings
• $201 million was generated in in-state spending
Marshall Moore, vice president of operations for the Utah Film Studios, said these numbers have benefited Park City and Summit County.
Production teams of the hit Paramount TV drama “Yellowstone” spent more than $90 million in the state of Utah over the three seasons it was filmed in the Park City area and housed at the studios, located at Quinn’s Junction, he said.
“These crews weren’t here for just a weekend, because it was like they were here for one long corporate event,” Moore said. “They spent money on big purchases to day-to-day things. They spent money on housing. They spent money at stores for food and life’s necessities. They spent money on recreation and dining out. ”
While “Yellowstone” was eligible for rebates from the state, the incentive’s annual cap prevented the Utah Film Commission from matching rebates the production received for its previous seasons. So the Dutton Ranch left Utah last summer for greener and more lucrative pastures in Montana, which had approved a $10 million incentive a few months prior, according to Moore.
“What keeps the work flowing and jobs being created here is tied to the rebate Utah offers,” Moore said. “If production companies don’t get it here, they will go elsewhere. ‘Yellowstone’ proved that. They have a choice. They can go anywhere they want, because they count on getting some kind of return on making that choice, which is something 36 other states offer.”
By comparison, Georgia, which has been a hub for the Marvel Studio blockbusters such as “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” has capped its film incentive at $200 million, and New Mexico caps out at $110 million, according to Winterton.
“Because of that, Georgia had $1.3 billion of revenue come into their state, and we’re $100 million behind New Mexico, which is our neighboring state,” he said.
The “Yellowstone” exodus caught the attention of Winterton, who visited Utah Film Studios the day the production packed up and left last August. Without a large-scale production currently utilizing the space, the studio is now being used as a mass COVID-19 vaccination site.
“When I saw that we weren’t going to continue this, it became alarming to me, because it greatly affects Summit and Wasatch counties, and the rest of the state,” he said. “The filming took place in most of the rural areas of the state, and the Wasatch Back benefited from it.”
Winterton learned how much “Yellowstone” crews enjoyed working in Utah, because of its local film-friendly infrastructure that includes full-service grip, electronic, sound and camera companies.
“I talked with the producers and they liked that we had all the catering, transportation, animal handlers and other professionals here who are established businesses,” he said. “They like that they didn’t have to import the resources to make this production go on.”
Winterton added that he is in this fight for the long run.
“I think it’s worth going after,” he said. “I’ll get what I can this year. We’ll study it and do what we have to do to entice these film companies to come to Utah.”
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