Gehrke: Utah film incentive could help rural communities benefit from their spectacular backdrops

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke

It’s a good bet that when those Hollywood folks comes to Kane County, it’s “Chef Shon” who is feeding them.

When a commercial decides to use Utah’s iconic redrock landscape for its backdrop, it can mean big money, according to Shon Foster, owner of Sego Restaurant in Kanab.

“Let’s say it’s Calvin Klein, they’ll bring for a week shoot as much as $20-30,000,” Foster said. “That’s a big crew. But there are bigger ones. When Jaguar-Land Rover was coming through, it was $100,000.”

When it’s not film crews, there are smaller commercials or location scouts who can bolster business. Or, as was the case when HBO’s “Westworld” was filming in the area, a surge of business at his restaurant that made a few thousand dollars’ difference each week.

It’s money he uses to pay his employees and buy food and supplies — money that can mean a lot in a small town of about 4,500 people.

When Nicolas Cage starred in “Looking Glass” a few years ago, the crew moved into a hotel that normally closed for the winter and spent roughly $2 million in the state.

Last year, film, television and commercials shot in Utah generated about $70 million. It’s not a ton, but it could be a lot more, and part of what is holding Utah back is that other states dangle juicier incentives.

The state’s film community, as my colleague Scott Pierce reported last week, says Utah is losing out to places like Georgia and New Mexico, which offer much larger tax breaks.

Under Utah’s incentive, filmmakers can receive a tax rebate for up to a quarter of what they spend here. It is about average as far as incentives go in surrounding states. But the incentive is capped at about $8.3 million per year, an amount that can get sucked up by just a few large productions.

Georgia, by contrast, gave $800 million in tax breaks in the most recent year, but attracted enough films that the governor’s office estimates it generated $9.2 billion for the state’s economy.

Utah isn’t going to compete on that level. We probably aren’t even in a position to compete with New Mexico, which has capped its incentives at $50 million. But we shouldn’t be sending production companies to the competition because our incentives have run out. Think about it — even BYUtv is threatening to move productions to Georgia.

“Without the film incentive we’re at a disadvantage and it’s important for us to be competitive with these other states,” said Kelly Stowell, executive director of Kane County’s Center for Education, Business and the Arts.

That competition among states, critics argue, creates a “race to the bottom,” a battle to see which state can give away the most tax breaks. Those critics aren’t wrong, and I’ve voiced concerns about tax breaks given to companies like Merit Medical and proposed for behemoths like Facebook.

But the film incentive has a benefit most of these tax giveaways don’t. Instead of attracting jobs to areas most economists say are at full employment, these film incentives can bring dollars to Utah’s rural counties, like Kane County, which frankly haven’t shared equally in the state’s robust economic growth.

This week, the Sundance Film Festival kicks off. It’s a big deal, drawing actors, directors and movie moguls from all over the planet to Park City. Tickets to the films cost $27 each — if you can get them. Parking is $30 and up. Lodging, if you’re coming from out of town, is more than you can afford. The average Utah family has been priced out of Sundance, yet last year Utah taxpayers kicked in $1 million to help what once upon a time was a quaint celebration of independent film.

Wouldn’t that $1 million be better invested in helping less affluent parts of the state? A recent study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found that every $1 invested generates $7 in economic growth, meaning we could see an additional $7 million pumped into rural economies. And that doesn’t even measure the national and international attention that comes with the state being featured as a movie setting.

Not surprisingly, that’s where a lot of these projects want to be. The same Gardner study in 2016 looked at 367 film permits issued the previous year; 100 of them were in Grand County alone. Another 50 were issued in Washington County, and a combined 61 in San Juan, Kane, Garfield and Wayne counties.

In a year when legislators are sitting on a massive surplus, it makes sense to significantly increase Utah’s film incentive — perhaps even double or triple it — and include conditions that prioritize productions outside the Wasatch Front.

That extra boost could invigorate our rural economies and enhance Utah’s reputation on the silver screen.