In 2017, 24 productions received film incentives to shoot in the state and use local crew with an estimated $73 million spent in the state and more than 2,000 locals were employed. This represents a 52% increase in Utah spend, compared with 2016.
Brief History of Film in Utah
You don’t have to look much further than an ad for the state of Utah to see the draw. From desert lands and mountain grandeur, to urban streetscapes and charming towns, the sheer diversity continues to lure filmmakers. Utah has deep roots in the entertainment industry. The early westerns took advantage of southern Utah’s spectacular landscape, with The Covered Wagon filmed on Antelope Island, The Deadwood Coach in Cedar City and The Searchers in Monument Valley, and this was just the beginning. As these desert spaces became synonymous with the ‘wild west’, the rest of the state also began to spark interest. CBS series “Touched by an Angel” filmed nine seasons in the late 90s, and 2005 saw the first of three “High School Musical” films shoot for Disney Channel, all in Salt Lake City. And that’s not all. Remember Tom Hanks as the bearded ‘Forrest Gump’ running through the valley? Or Thelma and Louise speeding through the desert in a Ford Thunderbird? What about James Franco scaling Moab in 127 Hours? All of these iconic and critically-acclaimed moments were filmed in Utah. A production’s backdrop is its backbone, setting the scene in every shot; it gives actors and audiences a chance to truly live the story. Utah’s unique landscape keeps both creators and spectators coming back.
2017 was a busy year for the Utah Film Commission. 24 productions received film incentives to shoot in state, including an impressive range of local and out of state feature films, TV series and documentaries. As a result, an estimated $73 million was spent in state and more than 2,000 Utahns were employed. This represents a 52% increase in Utah spend, compared with 2016.
A huge win for the Film Commission, and for the state, was two major networks returning to shoot second seasons, following the great success of their first. With almost 40 million views, the popularity of Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” is clear. Based in Salt Lake City and Magna, the production has employed more than 200 Utah cast and crew since returning in 2017. The show’s executive producer, Michelle Manning, commented: “I have shot all over the world, but Utah is now my favorite place to film.”
In its first season, HBO’s award-winning western-sci-fi series, “Westworld”, garnered an average of 12 million viewers and was praised for its breathtaking, otherworldly backdrops, which resulted in its return to southern Utah last fall. The two series represent our film industry on many levels. Aside from being incredibly diverse audience-wise, the productions also showcase the state’s unique and varied location offering. “Andi Mack” features our ‘any American town’ suburbia, while “Westworld” portrays Utah’s more iconic, otherworldly locations.
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Taylor Sheridan also returned to Utah with a western series,”Yellowstone”, starring Kevin Costner. Expected to air on the new Paramount network in 2018, the production has utilized the Utah Film Studios, based in Park City, which has proven to be an invaluable addition to Utah’s creative industry since
its 2015 opening. Equipped with three state-of-the-art sound stages and the latest equipment, the studio ultimately allows Utah to compete with bigger budget film programs such as Georgia and Vancouver.
Park City is home to the internationally acclaimed Sundance Film Festival, which continues to be one of the state’s great creative assets. Having such an influential platform here in Utah is clearly a huge advantage for the wider film industry. It offers the Film Commission the unique opportunity to meet with producers and directors, year after year. 2017 was a particularly exciting year for Utah, with four Utah-made productions having screened at the Festival – more than ever before: “Wind River” (Taylor Sheridan’s previous project), “Brigsby Bear” (from SNL’s Kyle Mooney), horror-comedy “Snatchers” and Netflix’s “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train”. None of those involved with creating these productions had filmed in Utah before, but all left feeling that they would love to return.
Utah continues to be an attractive destination for holiday season content. Location is key, and it’s often the more mundane, unexpected and even off-the-beaten-path locations that are the most appealing for this genre. From the magic of the Midway Ice Castles, Temple Square and Thanksgiving Point, to our ‘every town USA’ quaint suburbia, and our many world-class ski resorts, the state has a diverse and unique offering. The 2017 holiday season saw the Utah-made Enchanted Christmas and “Switched for Christmas” premiere on the Hallmark Channel, as well as “Wrapped up in Christmas” and “A Christmas Prince” screen on Lifetime.
Filmed in Provo Towne Center, “Switched for Christmas” landed the best ratings of any of Hallmark channel’s yuletide films last season to date, scoring 5.17 million viewers and a 0.9 rating among adults 18-49.
The Film Commission continues to focus on supporting a wide range of content and nurturing new talent. 14 Utah-grown productions from local filmmakers shot in state in 2017, including documentaries, narratives, TV shows and even a music video, which created an estimated $8.4 million in Utah spend. “We have seen such a diverse set of productions shoot in state, from established national networks to smaller local filmmakers”, says Virginia Pearce. “This is exactly our goal: to welcome and support talent from all angles and to help them create the best possible content.” The Community Film Incentive Program, under the wider Motion Picture Incentive Program, has supported up-and-coming, Utah-based talent to keep projects in state. 2017 productions include a modern adaption of Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women, as well as a documentary by Jenny Mackenzie entitled “However Long”. And Utah’s appeal doesn’t stop at movies. Big brands including, Ford, Volkswagen and Woolrich, continue to take advantage of Utah’s natural beauty for commercial backdrops, as well as musicians including Demi Lovato, Katy Perry and Imagine Dragons who have all recently shot music videos in the state.
With over 1,600 registered crew members, Utah has a large enough resource base to handle three to four concurrent productions. “Our locations and incentive programs encourage initial interest to film in Utah, and our local resources, including our crews, drive filmmakers to return,” says the Film Commission. “Our creative community is hard-working, professional and skilled, going above and beyond time and time again.” Michelle Manning, executive producer of Disney Channel’s Andi Mack, adds: “The cast and crew bond [in Utah] is like nothing I have ever experienced.”
There is a clear feeling of community and engagement amongst the creative minded. November 2017 saw the Film Commission launch a wide scale photography contest to inspire creatives and visionaries to bring Utah stories to life and encourage filmmakers to shoot in state. Initiatives were recently introduced to ensure that the Utah Film Commission continues to be a valuable resource within the local industry, and a stimulus in the wider industry. Going forward, any production using the Film Commission’s resources must have a workplace-harassment policy in place, requiring environments to be free from discrimination. There is a wider entertainment culture and growing community, with successful industry-focused organizations, including the Utah Film Center, Salt Lake Film Society and Spy Hop, as well as a new focus on augmented and virtual reality. The Utah-born immersive VR experience, The Void, was recently named as the number one of its kind in the country.
Looking ahead at what 2018 holds, Utah is kicking off the year with another exciting Festival season. Four made-in-state productions will showcase at Sundance for a second year running. Two feature films: “Damsel” (the latest Zellner brothers’ production) and “Hereditary”, as well as two documentaries: “Quiet Hero” (from Utah’s Jenny Mackenzie) and “Believer”, will screen in state.
The annual ‘Utah Film Commission on Main’ venue [625 Main Street] will be open for snacks, internet access and ongoing events and activities throughout the Festival, with its doors open to the public from 10AM to 4PM, January 19-25.
Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone” continues to shoot its first season in state, while Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” is wrapping its second season.
“The Outpost”, a 10-episode fantasy adventure series from Electric Entertainment and Arrowstorm Entertainment, is also now filming in Utah. One thing is certain: entertainment and content creation are clearly rooted in the state, and hopefully we will continue making history in this way for years to come.
by Debra Vago
Press and Media Relations
for the Utah Film Commission