ST. GEORGE — The timeless red vistas of Southern Utah will continue to take center stage in movie-making thanks to the passage of HB78 on Capital Hill. 

The bill builds on legislation passed in 2022 that set up the Rural Motion Picture Incentive program with a sunset date of 2025. Under the recently passed bill, the cut-off or “sunset date” for film incentives has been removed and there will only be a review.

Actor Luke Wilson in “Horizon: An American Saga,” filmed in Southern Utah, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, St. George News

“This bill has a positive impact on our rural areas by encouraging film producers to film in our beautiful landscapes of Utah,” Sen. Ron Winterton told St. George News. “When filmmakers come to Utah, they find a business-friendly economy as well as local employees who are kind and have excellent work ethics.”

Most states have film programs to incentivize producers to film in their state. Winterton said that Utah’s beautiful landscapes and rich film history are unique. And Utah competes against other states to draw in productions in films, commercials and music videos. Winterton said five states spend equal to or more than Utah for their film programs. There are 12 states that budget less than Utah for film programs.

The 2024 bill removes the sunset date. The legislation was initially proposed to have a two-year sunset date to ensure oversight on the new program and ensure that it was successful. Winterton said data shows “this program is clearly successful.”

The Rural Motion Picture Incentive Bill is utilized by many film projects, including those of Kevin Costner and his Territory Pictures film company. Winterton said Costner would only have filmed “Horizon: An American Saga,” in Utah with the incentive program. Costner’s film has four chapters that span 15 years of the American West’s pre-and post-Civil War settlement.

Some scenes of Costner’s production were filmed at a Native American Indian Reservation near St. George. Warner Bros. Pictures will distribute a New Line Cinema presentation of the Territory Pictures production, “Horizon: An American Saga,” films in the United States States of America.

The first chapter will be released June 28 and the second part will hit theaters on August 16. Costner is also building a studio for Territory Pictures near the St. George Regional Airport.

“We are happy that it has brought in so much economic growth to Utah,” Winterton said. 

Director and actor Kevin Costner’s in “Horizon: An American Saga,” filmed in Southern Utah, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, St. George News

When the legislature created the Rural Motion Picture Incentive Program in 2022, it added $12M per year to the already existing $8M statewide film program. Winterton said that Utah had a total of $20M to use for film rebates.

Winterton explained the $8M can be used throughout the state, but the $12M is exclusively for films shooting at least 75% of days in rural non-Wasatch Front counties, such as Southern Utah.

“The $12M rebate program can only be used for money spent in Utah, like Utah crew, cast, hotels, restaurants, equipment, set material and money spent to film on privately owned rural land,” Winterton said. “This bill is to remove the sunset date. It was originally proposed to have a sunset date for two years to make sure there was oversight on a new program and that it was successful.”

Motion Picture Association of Utah President Jeff Johnson told St. George News that the bill was fine-tuned with no sunset clause, so it wouldn’t expire.

“We are thrilled with the removal of the sunset clause. The film industry has been great to the state of Utah, especially in rural areas,” Johnson said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars of investment to our state and thousands of good, clean, well-paying jobs for all sorts of Utahns both in the film and the hundreds of industries and businesses that support film.”

According to the Utah Film Commission data based on the spending for projects in the last two years, the Utah Film Industry Economic Impact FY2022 – FY2023 direct spend from Rural Rebate Productions was $93 Million. It was based on 11 projects approved through the Rural Utah Rebate Program.

Actress Sienna Miller in “Horizon: An American Saga,” filmed in Southern Utah, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, St. George News

The non-rebated projects, such as commercials and reality TV, brought in an additional $37 million. Projects included the “Talk about the Toyota” commercial in Kanab at Cave Lakes and a Range Rover commercial.

“These commercials are only made possible because we have the film production infrastructure like the trailers, set equipment and other set material that’s already in the state from other film projects,” Winterton said. “Having the infrastructure already available in the state a production is filming in is what makes non-rebated projected possible because they don’t have to haul it all in state.”

The Utah Film Commission also stated that the median hourly wage on productions of $29.70 is higher than the Utah state median hourly salary of $15.70.

Data showed that 5,238 Utah jobs were created for rural film projects, and 1,309 of those employees live in rural counties. Winterton said that number could increase as more people live in rural counties due to steady employment. He added that 43% of production expenditures went towards Utah crew wages.

The Utah Film Commission data also showed in 2024, $93M is estimated to be spent in Washington, Cache, Carbon, Garfield, Grand, Juab, Summit, Tooele and Wasatch counties. Winterton added that money spent by productions go directly to residents of rural counties and on average, productions spend $100k-$250k per day.

“Many films are done during off-seasons, which provide much-needed revenue to rural businesses when the tourism season is off-peak,” Winterton said.

Ava Duran, Paiute Restoration Pow Wow Princess 2023-24, visits the film set on location for “Horizon: An American Saga 2,” directed by Kevin Costner (right), copyright Territory Pictures, Inc., Ivins, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Fred Hayes, St. George News

In 2022, Utah saw a 35.5% increase in Motion Picture & Sound employment. That ranks Utah #1 in the country in growth in this employment sector.

In Washington County, data shows that filmmakers and crew rented 180 rooms and more than 40 houses during one month of filming.

Winterton added that restaurants also see a tremendous benefit from projects that come to Utah. For example, during a 50-day shoot in Grand and San Juan counties, a production gave out $3M in food per diems. In Grand County alone, $3M was spent on essential services and $4M was spent on hotels in one year.

“The Utah Association of Counties has voted to support this bill,” he said. “They believe this rural rebate program is the best tool they have to encourage more production as well as direct and indirect spend in rural, non-Wasatch Front counties.”

Winter also addressed concerns from fellow legislators not wanting to give kickbacks to Hollywood actors with tax payer dollars. Winterton stated the Film Commission must pre-approve these film projects. There is a limit on the amount of the rebate as well.

“Let me be clear — this is a rebate,” Winterton said. “In other words, a postproduction, tax reduction for expenses, explicitly spent in Utah. Filmmakers need to retain their receipts and are only able to get a tax reduction on expenses spent in rural Utah.”

Some examples of these might be catering, hotels, local actors, materials and props, or tour guides and rentals.

All of these expenses, directly feed into our rural economies and give a major boost to their economic growth. I believe this strikes a balance of both giving film companies, an incentive to bring their business to Utah, while still protecting taxpayers’ dollars so that we’re not paying the salaries of big movie stars.”

The legislative session ends at 11:59 p.m. Friday, March 1.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2024 Utah Legislature by clicking here.

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