Why the Kevin Costner production ‘Horizon: An American Saga’ picked Utah

The Legislature increased the tax incentives for filming in the state, which is one reason why Costner picked Washington County.

St. George • When Kevin Costner comes to town, tourism officials and business owners throughout Washington County not only have stars in their eyes, they see dollar signs.

About $90 million of them, to be precise.

That’s the estimated total Costner and his production company Territory Pictures expect to spend in the county and surrounding areas this year to film parts two and three of “Horizon: An American Saga,” a four-film series that will depict the settlement of the West during a 15-year period spanning before and after the Civil War.

“I think Horizon is going to be an epic production, one of the biggest productions [Costner] has ever made,” said Joyce Kelly, sales manager for the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, who met with the star over breakfast at the Bear Paw Cafe on Thursday to discuss possible film locations.

Costner is producing, co-writing and starring in “Horizon,” which will also feature a stellar cast of Hollywood luminaries such as Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Luke Wilson and Thomas Haden Church. All told, the cast and crew for the series are expected to number about 400, which will include local talent and extras.

Southern Utah’s redrock landscapes are slated to play a major supporting role.

“The state of Utah, with its intrinsic beauty, is the perfect backdrop for the story of ‘Horizon’ and can be said to be its own character in our story,” Costner said in a press release this week. “I am looking forward to bringing the production of this next installment of ‘Horizon’ to Washington County…”

Costner and crew recently wrapped up shooting part one of the series around Moab. Filming on the next two parts in Washington County is expected to begin this spring, with a fourth and final segment scheduled to be filmed somewhere in Utah in 2024.

Kelly said some crew members have been in the St. George area since January, and the production company has already set up an office and procured the use of a warehouse. Filming locations for some scenes have already been selected but are being kept under wraps to prevent the sites from being overrun.

Virginia Pearce, head of the Utah Film Commission, said Costner first approached her about the series in 2017 while filming “Yellowstone.”

“He pulled us aside and said, ‘I have a personal project, a Western I’m interested in shooting. What would it take to get it to Utah?’ "

Several million dollars, as it turned out.

The acclaimed “Bull Durham” and “Dances With Wolves” actor shot the first three seasons of “Yellowstone” in Utah before relocating to Montana, which offered a better deal, including higher tax incentives. To shoot “Horizon” in Utah, he wanted the Utah Legislature to sweeten the state’s tax incentives.

In 2022, state lawmakers accommodated the actor, raising the cap on Utah’s annual film incentive from $8.3 million to $12 million over the next two years. That meant film productions in Utah could get a tax rebate of 20% to 25% of the cost of the project up to a total of $12 million.

Moreover, the enhanced incentive is aimed at providing an economic lift to rural Utah. According to the revised Utah Motion Picture Incentive Program legislators adopted, filmmakers can get a 25% post-performance incentive if they shoot at least 75% of their production days in rural Utah counties.

“What’s appealing to us about this project is that, where ‘Yellowstone’ was focused in and around the Utah Film Studio … and Summit and Wasatch counties, this project is really about using Utah’s landscapes. It’s great to spread the love to some other communities,” Pearce said.

All told, Pearce said film production companies spent $140 million in Utah last year and employed about 3,000 crew members. For each dollar spent on the film tax credit, $7 is returned to the Utah economy, according to a University of Utah’s Kem Gardner Policy Institute study.

Without the enhanced tax incentives, Pearce added, Costner would have filmed “Horizon” in another state that brokered a better offer. Still, the star’s decision to stick with Utah is not all about money. Pearce said the actor spent a lot of time scouting Utah with commission members to find what he called an iconic “hero location” and is “thrilled with what he found.”

Kelly recalls briefly accompanying Costner to scout some locations near Virgin in 2017. In 2021, the pair conducted a more extensive search, a helicopter flyover of the entire county and nearby areas in search for suitable sites.

“He loves the state of Utah and is amazed by its vast beauty,” Kelly said about Costner. “It’s very diverse and I think it intrigues him more and more every time he comes back.”

“Horizon” also presents intriguing possibilities to the fledgling digital film program at Utah Tech University, which is in contact with production executives who will offer paid internships to film students for a variety of positions on the set and allow others to “job-shadow” the professionals.

Jeff Jarvis, dean of the university’s College of the Arts, said the opportunities “Horizon” presents jibes nicely with the department’s mantra of “authentic learning,” which amounts to students doing real work on real-world projects.

“It validates all the teaching we do, and it reinforces for the students the need to learn all the stuff that we’re teaching in class,” he said.

Utah Tech had 35 film students three years ago but now numbers around 200, noted Patrick Smith, director of the university’s digital film program.

Washington County landscapes served as a backdrop for a score of big-budget Hollywood westerns during the 1960s and 1970s, including “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Electric Horseman” and “Jeremiah Johnson.”

“That sort of dropped off, it seems, from about the mid-80s on,” Jarvis said. “Maybe this will be the beginning of a whole new era for [westerns].”

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