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Lights, camera, action! Utah's film industry comes of age.

Lights, Camera, Action! Utah's Film Industry Comes of Age

On any day around Utah, you might see scenes like this: a film crew on location in Liberty Park, filming scenes for the TV movie, "Battling for Baby"; a car commercial being filmed in Arches National Park; photographers from the state film commission taking location shots in the San Rafael desert or the Kanab film commissioner talking to a film company that needs cowboys, horses, cattle, lumber, and guides.

Utah's scenery and support services are a major catalyst for this business, but as any seasoned businessperson knows, it takes good marketing to sell a product. Thus, state economic development officials consider the state film commission's budget ($400,000 in 1990) "seed money" in a big investment.

Lucrative film budgets contribute to local economies around the state. In 1990, Utah enjoyed $33,000,000 in direct spending from film crews. This is a combination of commercial production generated by in-state and out-of-state organizations. (That $33,000,000 figure is fondly referred to as the "what-is-left-behind dollar." It does not include multipliers.)

Private business in Utah that provides support services to film crews has increased 50 percent, according to Leigh von der Esch, director of the Utah Film Commission and president of the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI). The percentage of Utahns on film crews has increased from 10 to 80 percent since 1985. (See accompanying article, "On Location," on p. 21.) In that same time period, production days doubled from 600 to over 1,300 per year. Filming activities include feature films, TV movies and series, documentaries, TV commercials, corporate and training videos, and magazine ads.

Take One

Utah's history as an entrepreneurial state has connections to the film industry as well. Utah was one of the first states to create an official film commission. After the filming of "Stage Coach" in Moab in 1949, Utahn George White became a one-man film commission there. Over 40 years old, the Moab Film commission is still going strong, attracting gems such as "Thelma and Louise." In 1974, Governor Rampton created the Utah Film Commission.

However, what some term as the earliest "unofficial film commission" flourished in Kanab in the 1920s. In 1925, "The Vanishing American" was filmed in Monument Valley the same time "Deadwood Coach," starring Tom Mix, was being filmed in Kanab. Whit Perry, who ran a lodge and tour services to the surrounding national parks, realized the economic potential of filmmaking in Utah. It was mainly because of the efforts of Whit Perry and his brothers that Kanab developed into "Little Hollywood." This area became one of the few that the major studios would use outside their own lots. The 50s and 60s were the peak of Little Hollywood; the last feature film done there was Clint Eastwood's "Outlaw Josey Wales" in 1973.

Wide-Angle Shot: The State Film Commission

When filmmakers express interest in Utah, they most often contact the Utah Film Commission. The state commission then gets the filmmaker in touch with local film commissions whose areas have the type of scenery needed. The state commission shares leads with local commissions on a regular basis.

"Our mission is three-pronged," said von der Esch of the Utah Film Commission. First, the commission follows the trades to see what movies are in development and knocks on producers' doors, soliciting their business. Second, they go through movie scripts, evaluating Utah as a possible location for films. And third the commission provides marketing services such as a direct mail piece that promotes Utah as a location site and a directory of products and services available in Utah (this is updated every six months). It also participates in the Sundance Film Institute.

Film producers often depend on a film commission's artistic judgement in suggesting locations for various scenes. "You increase your credibility with producers if you can read the script accurately enough to recommend the right locations," said von der Esch. "Grateful producers will often send business your way."

The state film commission devotes 50 percent of its resources to travel and marketing aimed at getting out-of-state clients. The other 50 percent is used to produce a free directory of services and vendors available in Utah and a location book for free. The state film commission comes under the umbrella of the Department of Economic and Community Development.

Close-Up: The Local Commissions

Presently, Utah has local film commissions in Moab, Kanab, Washington County (St. George area), Park City, and Central Utah (Provo/Orem area). Liaisons exist in areas such as Toole, Ogden, Monticello, and others. State and local film commissions around the country work to promote their regions to film makers. In Utah, the cooperation between the state and local film commissions is high, according to local film commissioners.

The local commissions do receive some funding from the state commission. "Utah is the first state to receive a "pass-through" program. Last year, the Legislature created a fund for pass-through monies to go to local film commissions," said von der Esch.

Both local and state commissions can serve as useful liaisons between government, private business, and filmmakers. For example, if a production company needs to block off part of a road to film during a certain time of the day, the commission will contact UDOT to get that done.

Challenges for Private Business

Utah vendors of support services expressed some frustrations the amount of films that come to Utah and the amount of funding that film commissions receive from the state to market Utah's support services. The general consensus among the vendors Utah Business spoke with was that they were very satisfied with the film commissions, but that the commissions' effectiveness was hampered by state funding - even though the governor and legislature have doubled the state film commission budget over the past five years.

Jim Platt, president of the Utah Actors Screen Guild, believes that the biggest challenge facing the film commissions and vendors is educating the state legislators about the economic importance and potential of the film industry. He observed, "The return dollar from filming is 16 to 1 (compared to 7 to 1 from the skiing industry), and more of the money spent by film crews stays in Utah. But the state spends more on promoting the ski industry because it's more visible.

"The frustration for private industry is this. We've got everything the film crews need. But the state doesn't do enough to promote the support services available here - I don't think state government recognizes the build-up of those services here and the importance of advertising them. The state film commission doesn't have the budget to do it." Platt says that the competition for the high dollar return is fierce.

Von der Esch of the state film commission says there's much in the way of marketing she would do if she had more money. "Our staff, other film commission staffs and budgets all combined statewide are quite modest compared to other states our size," she said. "Saundra Saperstein, the Marketing Director, squeezes more visits to producers per marketing trip in Los Angeles and New York, than one could imagine is physically possible. I wish our print budget and client marketing budgets would allow Saundra to plan the types of ad campaigns and events I see other film commissions doing. Also, Lawrence Smith, Producer Services Executive, covers a tremendous area in his scouting. More frequent use of a plane would allow him to cover more ground and showcase an even greater portion of the state." There is however, only so much a state agency can provide, and the state film commission feels it must tread carefully when it comes to promoting vendors in as impartial a manner as possible.

"People need to realize that we are a marketing agency - not a regulatory or employment agency," pointed out von der Esch. We have to avoid favoritism with vendors. It's really up to the film companies - as it is in most businesses - to check out the credentials of potential vendors. The commission's responsibility is to let filmmakers know that Utah is here. Private industry's responsibility to let me know immediately about new technology or services they offer so I can get it into our resource manual.

Rick Larsen of STS Production believes that perhaps private business in Utah should pull together and promote itself better. "Private industry seems to want too much from state government. It's not up to the state to market every industry that comes here. Maybe businesses should pool resources together and come up with promotional activities and tools instead of asking for money from one particular state agency."

Support service vendors in Utah also face the challenge of artistic fluctuations in theme and setting, the issue of union versus non-union in a right-to-work state, finding out about possible work, and film companies that are slow to pay their bills in times of recession.

Credits from the Producers

What do film producers think of filming in Utah? The consensus seems favorable. Bill Borden, with A&M Films which did "Midnight Clear," said, "Utah's government is very cooperative. California's is less so because of the amount of filming that goes there. The state film commission is of great help-they introduce you to the state. And the film crews in Utah are just as good as any you'd find in California."

Rupert Hitzig, director of "The Aquarian Effect" (which will start filming in Utah soon), has a number of films in Utah, "Utah is a self-contained motion picture studio. It's more economical and practical to film in Utah, because all the locations you need are here."

Lachlan French, producer of "The Aquarian Effect," moved here from Los Angeles. "The crews are just as professional as any as we've dealt with. Our entire film crew is made up of Utahns. I think Utah will soon experience a mushrooming of film talent coming here to work - and live, as I did."

PHOTO : E.G. Marshal on a Salt Lake City set for a "Retirement America" informercial with Harland Stonecipher, and Director Tim Nelson.

PHOTO : Suzanne Pleshette on the set of "Battling for Baby."

PHOTO : Stars on Utah Sets: A. Peter Strauss in "Space Hunter" B. John Wayne in "Comancheros" C. Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis in "Thelma and Louise" D. Richard Dix & Louise Wilson in "The Vanishing American" E. Burt Reynolds in "Trade In" F. Wilford Brimley & Richard Farnsworth in "Boys of Twilight"
COPYRIGHT 1991 Olympus Publishing Co.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Bullinger, Cara M.
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Previous Article:Robert Redford: leading man in Utah's film industry.
Next Article:Filming on public land.

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