New bill aims to help Summit County and other rural areas attract film and TV productions

Legislation would allow state to offer more money in tax incentives

The television show “Yellowstone” filmed its first three seasons in the Park City area, including at the Utah Film Studios, shown, before the production moved to Montana to secure larger tax incentives than were available in Utah. A bill in the Utah Legislature aims to exempt productions that shoot in rural parts of the state, including Summit County, from the budget caps outlined in Utah’s film tax incentives program.
Park Record file photo

State Sen. Ron Winterton sponsored a bill last year that boosted film tax incentives across the state, but as interest in filming TV shows and movies in Utah continues to grow, especially in rural counties, he’s now taking the effort a step further.

The passage of S.B. 167 in March increased the pool of money in Utah’s film incentives program from $6.7 million to $8.4 million in tax-credit certificates plus a $1.5 million cash rebate to bring more television and film productions to the state. Winterton, whose district covers much of Summit County, said the bill was in response to the departure of the Paramount TV hit series “Yellowstone” — which filmed its first three seasons in the Park City area — to Montana, which offered better tax rebates than Utah.

And as the Utah Film Commission continues to receive more applications from productions than they can support each year, Winterton hopes his new bill, S.B. 49, will allow the state to become more competitive.

The legislation would exempt productions that shoot in rural counties, including Summit County, from the caps outlined in the film incentives program, allowing the state to offer more competitive rebates to lure them in – and keep them once they’re here.

The bill focuses specifically on rural counties because of the demand to film there. Over the last five years, 25% of filming days in Utah were in rural locations and more than half of the permits issued were for rural areas, according to Virginia Pearce, Utah Film Commission’s director.

“We take the four counties on the Wasatch Front out of the equation, they can go fight for the $8.4 million, but if this production, if 50% of it takes place in rural Utah, they would qualify for the incentive package,” Winterton said.

The incentive program offers a 20 to 25% payout to companies that spend a minimum of $500,000 in the state. The incentive is post-performance, meaning the productions must have already spent money in the state to receive the tax credit.

For every $1 the state spends on the tax credit, around $7 is returned to the Utah economy, according to a new study commissioned by the Motion Picture Association of Utah.

Yet the budget caps on the film incentive program means the state has missed out on high-budget productions that wanted to film here, said Marshall Moore, vice president of operations for the Utah Film Studios in Park City. If the program only has enough funds to reimburse six productions, for instance, Winterton said “business is over” once the cap is hit.

In 2018 and 2019, Utah lost out on productions with budgets over $200 million. The figure was smaller last year because of the pandemic but still totaled around $70 million. The study found that several production companies like ViacomCBS, Disney, Netflix, Amazon and even BYUtv have chosen to film in other states because of the incentives offered there.

Georgia, where films such as “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame” were produced, caps its film incentive at $200 million, and New Mexico’s is around $110 million, according to Winterton.

Winterton said he heard from a hotel in Summit County that it lost $300,000 in reservations following the departure of “Yellowstone,” and other businesses lost revenue from the lack of foot traffic.

Moore said that while “Yellowstone” was in production at Utah Film Studios, the production stayed for 1,200 consecutive days. Since its departure, the studio has seen a number of “one-off” productions like commercials or small feature films. The longest run since “Yellowstone” has been 48 days as the smaller productions typically stay for a short period before moving on.

Without a cap for productions in rural parts of Utah, Winterton and Moore believe more companies will choose to film in the state, allowing communities to capitalize on the money productions spend. Having a large production commit to a rural area such as Summit County would also provide businesses like the Utah Film Studios consistency to build infrastructure or create new jobs.

Utah’s film incentives generated $614 million in net output over the past five years, according to the Motion Picture Association of Utah report, with nearly half coming from direct spending in the industry. Another $143 million was created through the supply chain and $170 million came through correlated wage effects.

“We would love to have that kind of economy floating around rural Utah,” Winterton said. He added that the film industry could also help support areas like Park City outside of the typical tourist season.

The biggest challenge for Winterton is convincing legislators that the incentive program is not a handout and that the state stands to reap economic benefits from the legislation.

“Productions want to come here, especially without a cap,” Moore said. “This bill would help put rural Utah at the top of the list.”

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