Utah’s tree-lined suburbs and sweeping landscapes of red bluffs, deserts and lakes have increasingly dotted the silver screen in recent years, serving as the backdrop for several popular movies and TV shows including “Hereditary,” ‘’Westworld,” and the Disney Channel series “Andi Mack.”
The Beehive State has seen considerable growth in its television and film productions since 2015, with total dollars spent by productions more than doubling to about $87 million, according to a recent report from the state-sponsored Utah Film Commission.
That growth can be credited to an aggressive strategy by state officials to court bigger production companies and promote scouting locations for TV series that provide more jobs and longer economic investments than movies, said Virginia Peace, the director of the Utah Film Commission.
Still, Utah struggles to compete with British Columbia and New Mexico, locations with similar looks that can offer better tax breaks for productions.
The state currently offers up to a 25% tax credit or cash rebate on money spent by productions in the state, with the program capped at about $8 million each year. The program is considered conservative compared to other states such as Illinois and Georgia with larger breaks and no cap.
Utah enjoyed steady success in the entertainment industry throughout the 20th century as the site of the Sundance Film Festival and several high-grossing films including “Footloose,” ‘’The Sandlot” and “Forrest Gump.”
But production slowed in Utah during the early 2000s as other states introduced more competitive incentive programs.
State legislators initially balked at incentive packages that required significant front-loading of state funds to support tax breaks and incentives for production companies. The stronger, revised incentive program proposed by Republican Rep. Greg Hughes was finally put in place in 2012.
Pearce, who began leading the film commission in 2014, leveraged Utah’s proximity to Los Angeles and its unique scenery to attract more producers to the state.
Her strategy helped cultivate a strong partnership with Disney, which has filmed at least 20 movies in Utah and recently wrapped up filming its show “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” set to premiere next month.
Susette Hsiung, the executive vice president of production for Disney Channel, has worked on productions in Utah for about 20 years.
She said Disney has benefited from Utah’s family-friendly atmosphere and diverse filming locations.
“The locations have unique looks . when we needed a herd of buffalo for (the film) ‘Buffalo Dreams,’ we found buffalo near Salt Lake City, easily,” she said. “And when we filmed (snowboarding film) ‘Cloud 9,’ we shot at a resort in Park City.”
Utah’s entertainment boom is part of a national trend in which several states with a strong production incentive program are experiencing “exponential growth,” Van Stevenson, a senior vice president at the Motion Picture Association said.
Stevenson pointed to Louisiana and New Jersey as other states with blossoming entertainment industries by increased funding, new sound stages and legislators enticed by the industry’s promise to generate jobs and millions in revenue.
Utah has tried to keep pace with its rivals by investing in new production facilities and larger crews throughout the state.
Several movies ranging from Christmas tales to thrillers are currently filming in Utah.
Hsiung said she would consider shooting more Disney productions in Utah but raised concern about the tight incentive program.
“It’s difficult to constantly go back and ask if there’s enough money, especially when you’re working with a smaller budget on children programs,” she said. “The tax incentive program makes a big difference.”
Still, Pearce said she is optimistic about Utah’s future in show business.
“We’ve made great progress in the past five years ... when people film here for the first time, the main thing I hear is how impressed they are with the crew and resources they can find here,” she said. “That’s why they come back.”