Lights? Camera? Action?

Wyoming Film Incentive heading to Wyoming Legislature again

 

November 24, 2021



“Shane come back… Shane… Come back…,” child actor Brandon De Wilde shouted out at the mysterious cowboy who rode into the sunrise after saving the boy’s town from bad men. It is the last words of the movie “Shane”, which was filmed entirely in Jackson, Wyoming.

That was 1955 and it was the last major studio production filmed in the Cowboy state.

There have been a few big budget movies, such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, which have shot some scenes in Wyoming but the state is not usually considered when a studio is looking to shoot a film.

Charles Lammers, the Wyoming of Tourism (WOT) Creative Asset Manager, pointed out during the Tourism and Hospitality Fall Summit in Sheridan on October 21 the State of Wyoming doesn’t have incentives for shooting any movie, television show or national commercial in the state.

That is not the case with states around Wyoming. The incentives given by New Mexico, Montana and Utah have kept movie productions in those places.

As was reported in “Keeping Joe Home” in the June 13, 2018 Saratoga Sun, the Wyoming Film Industry Film Incentive (FIFI) program was created in 2007 with $1 million of state money and the intent to draw the entertainment industry into the Cowboy State. The funds were administered by the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s Film Office and the hope was it would put Wyoming on the map for tourists. Upon its creation, FIFI was given a sunset date of June 30, 2016. The incentive program went into sunset like many a hero in a Western movie.


There were lessons learned from its failure.

“The difference now is the base incentive is actually 15 percent, which is a little lower than it was before but the maximum that can be achieved by productions is 30 percent which is more than any other surrounding state, if they can meet the requirements to get the full 30 percent,” Lammers said. “The other difference is the film incentive program has a second tier this time around for smaller productions and new media, so video game designers or animators based in Wyoming, doing Wyoming storylines that are encouraging the industry to grow.”


Lammers is the contact person for production companies. When considering Wyoming for a shooting location, the scout for the production almost always asks what the incentives are to come to the state.

“Locations scouts end up not talking to you because the accounting department will probably end up going to where the incentive is largest to make the production cheapest,” Lammers said. “That is the way it is.”

The 30 percent applies to qualified purchases such as crew that are hired locally, lumber for building, renting equipment and catering as long as they come from Wyoming.

“The 30 percent is the maximum we can cash rebate them,” Lammers said. “There are minimum thresholds that must be met. It is $200,000 for the main incentive and $50,000 for the smaller incentive.”

Lammers said films coming to Wyoming is a resource largely untapped.

“I am looking forward to the growth of the Wyoming film industry with help of this incentive,” Lammers said.

As positive as Lammers is about the potential of films coming to Wyoming, he knows there will be some challenges shooting in the more rural settings which have small communities and little lodging.

“We will have to become creative in the smaller towns, staying a lot more at guest ranches, dude ranches or renting a lot of RVs,” Lammers said. “That is one of the challenges of growing the film industry in Wyoming. Do we have the facilities to handle a big budget production? The incentive is not going to be an end-all solution, but it will be a foot in the door that we don’t have now.”


Lammers said another positive aspect of a large production coming to Wyoming is when a set is built of an old Western town on private property, the set will revert to the landowner, who could theoretically open it for tourism.

“Infrastructure for a sound stage is also usually needed, so they will either build one, or rent an old warehouse and create one there,” Lammers said. “When they are done, if they own it, they will sell it and if it was rented, they will usually just give it to the owner.”


Other benefits of production companies coming to Wyoming to film is how quickly money can be dumped into a town. In July 2020 a production was shot in Casper over a two week period. It brought $1.8 million to the Casper area.

At the Fall Summit it was said the film incentive is a draft, but contributing to it were location scouts and film industry professionals. The incentive program has several steps ahead of it before it can face the Wyoming Legislature in March.

A big supporter of the film incentive is author C.J. Box, who sits on the Wyoming Tourism Board.

“The studios doing both ‘Big Sky’ and especially ‘Joe Pickett’ looked at shooting the shows in Wyoming,” Box said. “In fact, Paramount (which does ‘Joe Pickett’) contacted us first. The first question they asked was what Wyoming’s film incentive program was.  Since we lost ours three years ago when the legislature let the program sunset for no good reason, the studios both looked elsewhere.”

Box is disappointed Wyoming was not considered for location on shows base on his works.

“‘Big Sky’ shot last year in Vancouver and this year in New Mexico.  The first season of ‘Joe Pickett’ shot in Calgary.  Both productions spent over $6 million each on location for housing, construction, catering, hotels, transportation, and crew. ‘Joe Pickett’ employed 150 people and ‘Big Sky’ employs over 200,” Box explained. “As I told the legislative committees who held hearings on the film incentive program at the time, a film incentive program was no guarantee that we’d land the two series.  But not having a film incentive program was a guarantee that we wouldn’t.”

Box is hopeful, the film incentive will come to pass

“I would have loved to have the shows filmed in Wyoming, and particularly the North Platte Valley where the Joe Pickett saga was imagined in the first place,” Box said. “I hope our legislators have gotten smarter since 2019 and will pass a film incentive program this session.”

Carbon County Visitors Council (CCVC) CEO Leslie Jefferson is in total agreement on the benefits of the film industry returning in force to Wyoming.

“Entertainment is big business.  Films and the making of films have a huge economic impact,” Jefferson said. “To have the opportunity to film a movie or television series in Wyoming goes beyond entertainment.  Filming on location bring jobs, revenue and production infrastructure.  The economics of filming on location generate business for hotels, restaurants, bars, gas stations, hardware stores, not to mention employment for locals.”

Jefferson remembers when a film was shot back in the 1980s.

“In 1987, I had just graduated from the University of Wyoming, and I was back in Rawlins and needed a job. That summer the film ‘Prison’, starring Viggo Mortensen, was being filmed on location at the Wyoming Frontier Prison. I had the fantastic opportunity to work security at the front gate,” Jefferson remembered. “I was not the only person from Rawlins that was employed either by the film production or a contracted business to assist with the film production on location. That summer, the actors stayed in hotels, frequented local restaurants and bars, shopped in businesses and purchased gasoline.  The film production was a substantial lift to the Rawlins economy that summer. Although the movie was not a blockbuster, the production continues to provide the Wyoming Frontier Prison with a bit of film notoriety.” 

Jefferson said there is already evidence people want to visit places they’ve seen on the big or small screen.

“The by-product of filming on location; tourism.  Films and/or TV shows can resonate with their audiences and inspire travel for years to come,” Jefferson said. “Take the Longmire series that was filmed in New Mexico with minor location shots in Wyoming.  The interest in the Longmire series has brought many tourists to enjoy Wyoming and check out the Busy Bee in Buffalo.  Another example is Dirty Dancing, filmed on location at Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke, Virginia.  The film was a hit and the lodge created a tourist department to coordinate and run tours of the property for film enthusiasts.”

CCVC Chairman Danny Burau sees no downside for a competitive film incentive program.

The CCVC Saratoga representative and owner of Firewater Public House gave an analogy in restaurant terms.

“If I give you a dollar off 10 dollars, I still made nine dollars,” Burau said. “If the Hotel Wolf gives a dollar off 10 dollars and I give nothing, it should be no surprise, nobody wants to come to my place and I get nothing because I offered no counter incentive.”

Burau said it is good business to look for ways to find edges on the competition.

“In my example, I understand I am not getting 100 percent of what I would like if I give incentives, but those incentives are getting me some money, I would not have at all,” Burau said. “That has been the story with the film industry coming to Wyoming.”

He believes Carbon County is perfectly situated with its varied landscapes for the film industry. Burau said with the advent of COVID-19 changing the way movies were being made and distributed, now is the time for Wyoming to be aggressive with getting the film industry to consider the state.

“We have so much going for this state to be a great setting for so many types of films, legislators should not even hesitate in trying to be competitive,” Burau said. “You have bestselling authors setting their novels in the state for a reason. The film adaptations shouldn’t be filmed someplace else. The stories should be filmed here and legislators should try their best to make it possible.”

The film incentive does have a powerful friend in the Wyoming government.  Governor Mark Gordon has made clear his support of Wyoming having a film incentive.

“I grew up here and so many stories about the West are really set in Wyoming and it pulls a little at me that these great stories about the Johnson County War, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Revenant are filmed somewhere else,” Gordon said. “You have Craig Johnson’s stories set in Wyoming and Chuck’s (Box) are and not to mention our state has so many beautiful places. Carbon County is full of them. You have the Shirley Basin area that is just the West. Medicine Bow has a street by the Virginian Hotel that looks like Wyatt Earp should be walking down it.”

This Wyoming governor remembers the last major movie filmed in Wyoming.

“I think the one movie that always just evokes Wyoming so much, is “Shane”. It was the last major movie made in Wyoming near the Grand Tetons,” Gordon said. “We have lost opportunity over time and look at places like Alberta and British Columbia where they have attracted so much tourism because of films. I am hopeful the incentive will be passed because the best part about having the film industry come to Wyoming again, is the opportunity to show off our great state.”

The mysterious Shane may have ridden into the sunrise with the viewer unsure he would ever return to the town and family he had saved in that 1955 film but there are a lot of people in Wyoming living in the present hoping film productions, and industry that comes with it, will come back with this film incentive being put forth.

These folk all have the same message and goal: Come back Wyoming film industry… Come back.

 

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