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Monday, 20 August 2012 23:53

The Rocky Mountain Region

Written by  Nathan Hoturoa Gray
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rockymountainregion_openingshot_wyoming_du-ac-000105There are many reasons why filmmakers are drawn to the Rocky Mountain region, but, by far, the main attraction is its outstanding scenery. Set within a 3,000-mile stretch of towering peaks, the region’s stunning vistas provide a dynamic backdrop suitable for TV and film projects. And 2012 is proving to be a busy year for the states of Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah as they work hard to strengthen their incentive packages. These financial perks are vital for enabling creativity to flourish as productions continue to face economic challenges.


This past year, Montana had the opportunity to showcase its rarely shot north-central region, known as the Hi-Line. Its rolling prairie, endless horizon and rich Native American culture were key components in the indie film Winter in the Blood, starring Chaske Spencer (The Twilight Saga) and co-directed by Alex and Andrew Smith (The Slaughter Rule). Based on the acclaimed James Welch novel, the film tells the story of Virgil First Raise, a young Native American man who embarks on a wild odyssey through the rural communities of the northern plains.

rockymountainregion_montata_sexton_witb_andrewsmithspencer_1-1The Montana Film Office was aware of our project well in advance of our production last summer,” reports Andrew Smith. “Their assistance was invaluable to us at all stages of the process, from being active advocates in our early fundraising efforts to tooling us around many hundreds of miles of Hi-Line wheat farms, even when some of those miles were underwater, due to spring floods! They also aided our location scouts, from helping us coordinate with town officials in Havre, Chinook and other Hi-Line communities, to [facilitating] the cooperation of Burlington Northern [Railroad] for rail-line production and supplying us with sturdy office furniture and helpful office support. We look forward to working with them on our future Montana projects.” Winter in the Blood is scheduled to premiere in theaters this fall.

Filming Montana’s breathtaking landscapes and authentic Wild West landmarks just got more affordable with the launch of the Montana Big Sky Film Grant. The new program targets television series and feature-length films that shoot at least 50 percent of principal photography in the Big Sky State, and it will award a total of $1 million per fiscal year to eligible projects. Not a typical tax credit or rebate, the grant is actual cash that can go directly to expenditures incurred while shooting in Montana. Combined with the state’s existing tax incentives (14 percent back on Montana crew and talent salaries, and 9 percent back on production-related expenditures made in the state), the Montana Big Sky Film Grant offers qualifying productions up to 30 percent in cash enhancements. Selected productions will receive the funds 30–60 days after the wrap of their Montana shoot.

Many TV series and commercials recently captured the natural landscapes and authentic characters that make Montana a one-of-a-kind location. Emmy-winning Original Productions shot its fifth season of History’s “Ax Men” in northwestern Montana, following a logging crew as they braved the dangers of the industry. And Collins Avenue Productions filmed a 10-part series for National Geographic’s “American Colony: Meet the Hutterites,” documenting the Hutterite religion’s quiet culture in a colony outside of Lewistown. Stafford Multimedia filmed another facet of Montana culture for an episode of Huntley Ritter’s “The Outlanders” (featuring a Bozeman hunter in the great outdoors), while Montana’s endless, scenic highways continue to attract shoots for car manufacturers, including Chevrolet, Hyundai, Lincoln, Toyota and Dodge.

With its crew base running two deep, Montana’s talent, skill and resources have been instrumental in the successful productions of many major feature films. Earlier this summer, the Montana Film Office rolled out a new app to help filmmakers find idyllic Montana shooting locations, from turn-of-the-century mining towns, winding mountain roads and prairie sunsets to iconic ranches and Western downtown areas. The free Apple iPhone app allows location scouts, producers and directors to search Montana’s Reel-Scout database, which includes more than 150,000 photos of the state’s landscapes, towns and historic buildings. It also connects filmmakers to Montana’s production crews and support services. The iPhone app is available for downloading at:

rockymountainregion_colorado_production still 1COLORADO

With towering 14,000-foot peaks, pristine lakes and some of the best ski resorts in the U.S., Colorado has more than what it takes to keep filmmakers happy. The state’s geographical extremes of glacial valleys and bustling cities are all within a few hours’ drive. A great resource for finding locations around the state is the Web site Shoot Colorado, which showcases Colorado’s deserts, plains, mountains, cities and great scenic byways. And although production crews are largely based in Denver, they travel the state well along with statewide owner/operators.

Colorado has exciting news for filmmakers: Governor John Hickenlooper recently signed the Film Production Activities in Colorado bill (HB 12-1286) into law. The incentive bill features a 20-percent rebate on qualified local expenditures for film, television, commercials, games and other forms of content creation, as well as a loan guarantee program for films. The minimum spend to launch the rebate is $1 million for out-of-state productions and $100,000 for productions originating in Colorado. A 50-percent local-hire requirement is also in place to help develop the growth of local crew expertise.

Producer Meryem Ersoz recently shot the indie feature Mind’s Eye all around the state, and found working in Colorado to be an amazing experience. “Colorado is a pristine, under-photographed place, so we were able to shoot in a variety of beautiful and original locations,” she says. “One of my favorite locations was shooting in a turn-of-the-century miner’s church in Salina, just a few miles up the canyon from Boulder.”

Mind’s Eye tells the mind-bending story of Mattie Carver, a high-school musician who journeys through a maze of alternate realities while twisted perceptions of what is real and what is illusion plague her every step. “The crew was extremely dedicated, skilled, hardworking and enthusiastic about bringing the film to life,” Ersoz reports. “All of our out-of-town actors, including Malcolm McDowell and Dean Cain, seemed happy to be here. It is hard not to enjoy yourself when surrounded by so much natural beauty offering everyone an all-around positive experience. And the Colorado Film Commission is easy to work with too. The rebate system is frictionless and is only going to get better with the recent enhancements to the program.”

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is also complimentary after bringing The Lone Ranger (starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer) to the state. “Filming scenes of The Lone Ranger in Creede, Colorado was a terrific experience,” he reports. “We were grateful for the warmth and hospitality of the wonderful people of Creede and the surrounding communities, and the great cooperation we received from state and town officials. It was a pleasure to add another chapter to the long and successful history of filmmaking in Colorado, which is a very special part of the United States.”


Wyoming is an alluring land that features the dramatic scenic contrast of dynamic mountain escarpments, desert canyons and distant grassy plains. “Wyoming has played host this past year to ‘Modern Family’ Season 3 premiere and the winter scenes in the upcoming [Quentin] Tarantino project Django Unchained,” states Michell Howard, manager of the Wyoming Film Office. “With our cash rebate of up to 15 percent and our film-friendly communities, Wyoming is a viable location option for television and feature films.” Production companies interested in the cash rebate have to spend a minimum of $200,000 to qualify, and it extends to wages, salaries and expenditures on goods and services made in the state. Furthermore, most of Wyoming’s state-owned locations are free of location fees.

“When I spoke to [Tarantino], he wanted big snow [and an] epic mountain,” recalls James Skotchdopole, executive producer of Django Unchained. “The first place I thought of was Jackson.” The production hired several local people for crew work and brought in veteran Horse Wranglers Robin and Kate Wilshire from Turtle Ranch near Dubois. In addition to a private ranch location, part of the crew also shot in Grand Teton National Park and on the National Elk Refuge. A substantial amount of Tarantino’s production budget was spent in Wyoming and crewmembers filled up over 100 condos in Jackson, which was hugely helpful to the local economy.


Idaho’s rolling farmland, magnificent forested peaks and long summer days are like a siren song to filmmakers. And the state’s alluring variety of locales, including its high deserts, glacial lakes and lava flows, cater to all cinematic excursions. Unfortunately, due to budgetary constraints, the state’s Motion Media Rebate Program that was passed by the state legislature in 2008 remains unfunded in 2012. In theory, the incentive provided a 20-percent rebate with a $200,000 minimum spend, and a 20-percent minimum requirement of Idaho crews. Capped at $500,000, the incentive is patterned on the highly successful program set up in Utah, but Idaho filmmakers haven’t yet been able to capitalize on it.

When industry representatives met in late 2011 to discuss the state of the film industry, Former State Senator Joe Stigner was adamant in his dismissal of the program. “The legislature doesn’t care about your industry,” he stipulated. “Why would taxpayers subsidize an industry in a manner that no other industry gets subsidized in?”  Peg Owens, who has been helming the Idaho Film Office for 25 years, counter-argued that ending the program means that Idaho’s film/television industry will no longer be competitive. In a strategic change of direction, the Film Office has now shuffled money originally utilized for attracting films from out of state into supporting the growth of the indigenous/local filmmaking community, with $30,000 in grants and the building up of educational opportunities to improve overall skill levels and cinematic craft. In an effort to reinvent itself in the “post-incentive” era, the Film Office also organizes annual Cineposiums to keep the community tightly bound.

“Idaho has everything available if you know the right people, are kind and generous, and do good work,” states Filmmaker Gregory Bayne (Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man). “I’m pretty sure I can call on anyone to do a favor if I asked.” This proved to be true with his successful Kickstarter campaign to get his documentary project funded. Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man explores the remarkable life of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit and became the first death-row inmate in U.S. history to be exonerated by DNA evidence. “There’s always a creative benefit to having a lack of resources,” Bayne notes. “You have to be more creative.”
Currently, Idaho offers a 6-percent sales-tax rebate on tangible personal property used in the making of any film in the state when a minimum of $200,000 is spent. At press time, the Idaho Film Office hasn’t yet determined whether it will seek to have the 20-percent rebate renewed after its sunset in 2014, although the next legislative session begins in January 2013. Recent films shot in Idaho include Magic Valley (directed by Jaffe Zinn), Three of a Kind (directed by Greg Green), Soda Springs (directed by Michael Feifer) and The Mooring (directed by Glenn Withrow).

To ensure that production slates stay full for these Rocky Mountain states, creative solutions, strong incentives and community support are the name of the game. The region’s financial benefits need to be constantly tweaked and re-emphasized to keep big-budget and indie films rolling in — because while dramatic scenery will always entice filmmakers, it will never fully suffice in these economically challenging times.


Utah continues to hold steady production-wise with a vast number of film and special projects rolling in over the past year, including The Lone Ranger and M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth (which both shot in Moab), Ridley Scott’s The Counselor (scheduled for a September shoot in Salt Lake City with Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz), ABC Family Christmas movie The Mistle-Tones, and many independent shoots. The state’s infrastructure is equipped with some of the best film crews in the world and diverse locations that will enhance the background of any production.

The expansive scenic beauty seen throughout Utah can serve as a paradise for any production. From its sand dunes and pine forests to its salt flats and world-famous ski resorts (boasting the “Greatest Snow on Earth”), Utah’s rugged and geographically disparate locales make it one of the top filming destinations in the United States. Just Salt Lake City alone offers filmmakers a wide range of locations, including the film-friendly City Creek Center, one of the nation’s largest mixed-use downtown redevelopment projects known for its flowing 1,200-foot stream and remarkable retractable roof.

Utah’s Motion Picture Incentive Program (MPIP) will give any approved production a rebate of 15 to 25 percent on every dollar spent in the state. A project must spend a minimum of $200,000 in Utah for the 15-percent cash rebate and a minimum of $1,000,000 to qualify for the up to 25-percent tax credit or cash rebate. Additionally, the Utah Film Commission holds an annual “Utah in Hollywood” industry event where guests can meet and mingle with Utah officials to find out more about filming in the great state. This year’s event will be held this September in Los Angeles.
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