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Tuesday, 30 August 2011 16:08

The Rocky Mountain Highs of Production

Written by  Johan Kharabi
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The Rocky Mountain region stretches some 3,000 miles from Canada to the United States’ southwest and crossing Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado along the way. It’s a refreshing backdrop that offers productions unique and varied scenery that can work just as well in a Land Rover commercial as in a National Geographic documentary.

While this region works to develop its infrastructure, strengthen incentive packages and effectively market its natural endowments, much of the top qualities of its five states continue to be best understood on the ground, where producers will undoubtedly be left breathless while saving money at the same time.


Although Colorado’s bread and butter continues to be commercial production, a number of small films and documentaries shoot throughout the state as well, according to Donald Zuckerman, director of the Colorado Office of Film, Television & Media. Colorado’s incentive program offers qualified productions a 10-percent cash rebate. Things may change in 2012 if a new incentive program, which is currently in the works, is signed off on by the Governor — and such a sea change would help to level the playing field. “We are developing a sustainable incentive program that will attract the kind of production the state needs,” explains Laura Grey, community and locations manager at the Colorado Office of Film, Television & Media.

Zuckerman and Grey agree that the state needs more indie production, with budgets ranging anywhere from $2 million to $15 million. In the absence of a viable incentive program to lure these small films and features, the state’s first-rate infrastructure — largely developed throughout the ’70s and ’80s and embodied in many of Colorado’s most impressive soundstages — is at risk of collapse. “A lack of competitive incentives has hurt us,” admits Grey. “[But] the state is [still] extremely lucky. We have the soundstages and grip and lighting houses needed to take care of production in the state when it comes.” The state is struggling to ensure that these resources don’t go to waste.

Homegrown industry businesses throughout Colorado are also quite impressive. And while indigenous production is still in its early stages, Zuckerman says it’s something the state is working to grow. High Noon Entertainment exemplifies the state’s potential in this regard. The Denver-based production company produces about 500 hours of TV programming a year for networks like VH1, TLC, Lifetime, HGTV and the Food Network, and it employs about 350 people throughout the state. Its reach also extends well outside of Colorado, with satellite offices in Santa Monica, Calif. and New York.

Additionally, Colorado boasts state-of-the art production and post studios like Postmodern Company in Denver. Lighting Services, Inc. is housed on the 60,000-square-foot Denver Studio Complex, offering soundstages of up to 15,000 square feet (one stage features a two-wall cyclorama), not to mention an extensive collection of grip truck packages.

“Colorado Springs provides spectacular vistas that include Pikes Peak, the towering red rocks of Garden of the Gods, or the mysterious ‘hoodoos’ of the Paint Mines,” says Amy Long, the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau’s VP of Marketing and Membership. “Whether scouting for a rugged bike trail, a historic steam engine, a quaint Western town or a mountain stream, Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Region have a wide variety of geological, ecological, rural and urban settings.”

The state already enjoys many advantages that make it a natural choice for filmmakers. Its proximity to New York and Los Angeles, for instance, is something that cannot be understated. While the eastern part of the state consists of vast plains, a city like Denver can double for almost anywhere in the United States while the western portion of the state boasts the indomitable Rocky Mountains. Once the incentive package is improved, there’s no doubt that Colorado can take full advantage of its own qualities, making it an increasingly serious competitor for production.


For Idaho, which has a 20-percent rebate program that remains unfunded, the move in the last 15 years from location-driven production to a focus on incentives has been a tough transition. “We have turned our full attention towards our constituents in-state in order to develop our workforce,” explains Peg Owens of the Idaho Film Office. Without a funded incentive program to help grow the state’s film industry, the Film Office has had to be incredibly strategic, instituting a grant program last summer that reflects a move to spend less time on advertising to Hollywood and instead nurturing the industry from within. “As a state, we are thinking outside the box,” Owens notes. The Idaho-only Grant Program provides a small amount of money to any variety of entertainment projects that, among other uses, can be put towards covering the need for completion dollars. Last year, the program had $20,000 to work with, while this year the number jumped to $30,000. “This is not just money to feed any project,” says Owens. “It ultimately must help with workforce development, so the project must have a substantial workforce component.”rockies_idaho_pic-5

Workforce development means bringing in movie-industry experts like Kenny Chaplin of the Production Assistant Training Seminar to lead workshops on developing skills for production assistants and Hoop Dreams Producer Frederick Marx to give seminars on distribution. “We want people here in Idaho with ideas [and] with scripts to be able to make money from it [and] to get their projects to the marketplace,” says Owen.

It’s through this alternative path that the state hopes to stimulate the film industry from within. A good workforce will do well to complement the state’s existing strengths: its affordability and ease. Owens challenges filmmakers to look at more than incentives when estimating how much money and time will be saved on a project. After all, most towns and cities — including Boise — have no permit requirement. Already, indie projects have successfully taken advantage of all Idaho has to offer its own. The $1 million indie feature Three of a Kind recently finished shooting in the state, and Gregory Bayne’s biopic Jens Pulver: Driven was the first film to use completion dollars from the grant program.

The state’s focus on its constituents has produced other success stories as well. The Idaho-based company Silverdraft recently created Mobleviz, a super-computer-powered digital/VFX “studio on wheels” that’s now being tested in Los Angeles. Sitting on set, the revolutionary trailer offers up to a massive 20TB of storage, and it’s able to handle a variety of high-resolution footage (in HD, 2K and 4K). It’s no wonder that such a groundbreaking product originated in Idaho. The innovative state has a keen sense of focus along with the energy and commitment needed to surmount the obstacles it currently faces.


Montana is another example of a state doing an excellent job in making up for excessive incentives. Under the Studio 406 program, Montana offers a refundable tax credit of 14 percent of resident crew and talent wages (with no minimum spend) and a 9-percent refundable tax credit on qualifying local spend. Additionally, the does not levy a sales tax. However, apart from these helpful incentives, it’s through Montana’s targeted, thoughtful approach to providing support for a specific breed of production that the state truly shines.

rockies_montana_going-to-the-sun-rd-eastside-tunnel_glacierMontana Film Office Director Sten Iversen reports that 2011 saw a substantial uptick in production. “Things have heated up this year,” he explains. “We have hit full-stride now ─ in terms of production.” According to Iversen, while the state has long relied on commercial spots — seeing anywhere from 10 to 15 advertisements shot in-state every year — even these types of productions have picked up this year. Most recently, commercials for Polaris ATVs and John Deere have shot throughout the state.  Reality TV has also taken off in Montana in recent years, topping the production list of shoots in 2011. Recent productions include three programs from Travel Channel — “Man v. Food,” “Hunter Gatherer” and “Dead Files” as well as ESPN’s “The Cook House with Mike and Matt,” Weather Channel’s “From the Edge with Peter Lik” and VH1’s “Real and Chance: The Legend Hunters.” Additionally, National Geographic’s “Expedition Wild” shot at Ennis Lake in the beginning of the year while Discovery Channel’s “Dual Survival” explored the state’s northern plains.

Beyond television production, Montana’s true calling is as a production hub for independent films. As neighboring locations in Canada and the United States have bulked up on incentives in the last decade, Montana has worked to strategically court indie features with a smart marketing campaign and incentive package, which brought together just the kind of perks these types of productions need. “Over the years, we shifted from focusing on studio productions to independent features,” explains Iversen. “And now, 80 percent of our features are independents, with budgets under $5 million.”

Offering warehouse space with free production office furniture, free script breakdowns and complimentary location scouting among other perks, Montana has made itself attractive to independent films by providing the specific lines of support these productions so badly need. Dream Team Cinema recently shot the indie film Vampire in Helena, Quiet Island Films shot the documentary 9 Pieces of Peace in Missoula, and Good Outlaw Studios filmed Treasure State in Kalispell, and all enjoyed Montana’s picturesque scenery and rare family feel provided by the more than 300 freelance crewmembers operating throughout the state. Handling such a variety of production is hardly an issue for Montana, as it is crewed to handle two independent features at a time.

Like its neighbors, Montana is visually stunning, equipped with rich colors and unique landscapes. And, in recent years, it has beefed up its production infrastructure. The city of Bozeman has become the state’s production center largely due to the proximity of Montana State University, which offers a nationally renowned School of Film and Photography and the presence of Filmlites Montana, the state’s largest motion-picture grip, lighting and production-services company. Inside and out, Montana has what it takes to compete well into the future.


rockies_utah_arch_2Utah had a very busy 2011. The feature film Darling Companion, starring Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline and Dianne Wiest, shot throughout Deer Valley and Park City during Sundance, while the BBC America series “Doctor Who” shot its season premiere in the state — the first time the series has ever shot outside the U.K. In total, according to Utah Film Commission Director Marshall Moore, Utah saw 423 production days in fiscal year 2011, with nearly $21 million spent in-state, generating 595 production-related jobs.

Utah’s Motion Picture Incentive Fund has helped to attract this type of attention. Qualifying productions can be rebated up to 25 percent, with a minimum spend of $1 million to qualify and a per-project cap of $500,000. The state also offers productions spending under $1 million a cash rebate of 15 percent. Additionally, there’s a tax exemption on the sale of production machinery and equipment, and accommodation for stays of 30 consecutive days or longer are likewise exempt from sales-and-use taxes.

Veteran Location Manager and Producer Ron Carr, who has done five shows in the state, points out that, even apart from the great incentive package, Utah has plenty to offer. “Utah is a great place to shoot — and it hasn’t been overshot,” he explains. “Locations aren’t too expensive, and people aren’t jaded by the filming. It has everything from terrific small towns to beautiful mountain ranges and national parks. And the state has great crews.” John J. Kelly, executive producer on Darling Companion and 127 Hours, both of which were recently shot in the state, likewise attests to the Utah’s strengths and those of Salt Lake City, in particular. “I think that Salt Lake City is one of the better locations to work in,” says Kelly.  “I’ve made four films there and have had a wonderful experience on each one.” As Utah’s recent placement in P3 Update’s list of the top 10 domestic locations demonstrated, the state will be drawing even more praise in the years to come.


Wyoming sees a great deal of commercial, documentary and still shoots — something to be expected of a state endowed with such beautiful and isolated landscapes that range from picturesque canyons and desert to towering mountains. The northwestern part of the state — where much of Wyoming’s infrastructure is located — has been extraordinarily popular with filmmakers. In fact, scenery has been so important to the state that the Wyoming Film Office (WFO) conducts regular tours for representatives from across the production world, showcasing stunning locales like Jackson Hole, Dubois, Riverton and Cody.rockies_wyoming_flicka0016_small

According to Colin Strickland of the WFO, there has been a lot of production action in Wyoming during 2011, including an episode for Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum,” commercial spots for Land Rover, Subaru and Corona, and the feature-length extreme-ski documentary The Art of Flight. All of these productions took advantage of the gorgeous scenery that makes Wyoming so unique.

Apart from its locations, the state’s incentive program has also helped to lure independent and feature films in recent years. “The program has allowed us to stay in the game,” explains WFO Manager Michell Howard. The state offers qualified productions that spend at least $200,000 a cash rebate of up to 15 percent, with no per-project cap. While the program has succeeded thus far in attracting some larger production, Wyoming is still working to build its own infrastructure and crew base. “We are actively developing our crew,” says Howard. Indeed, the state has stood behind Central Wyoming College, located in Riverton, where the film program functions as a way to develop the industry’s talent pool.

Looking at all the state has to offer, it’s clear that supporting domestic production companies would be the most effective means of developing the in-state industry. The Wyoming Short Film Contest, which offers the winning project $25,000, epitomizes the state’s strategic focus on doing just that. It is this focus that will help Wyoming to take the next step in becoming a well-known production powerhouse.

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