James V. D’Arc: Is it sunset for movie production in Utah?

(Photo courtesy of the Paramount Network) Kevin Coster as John Dutton and Luke Grimes as Kayce Dutton in “Yellowstone.”

In the hit Paramount Network television series, “Yellowstone,” John Dutton (played by Kevin Costner), the patriarch of a sprawling Montana ranch, looks out on a stunning vista of mountains and pastureland, dotted with cattle, and tells his grandson that this is the West that he’s fighting to save from land-grasping white and Native American developers. It is an elegiac moment in this otherwise action-packed contemporary cowboys-and-Indians drama.

For the past three seasons of “Yellowstone,” the primary filming location has not been in Montana, but rather in mountains and valleys of Utah, with production headquarters at the Utah Film Studios in Park City. Dutton could have just as well been talking about preserving Utah as a movie location.

As Scott Pierce reported in The Salt Lake Tribune (June 19 and July 17), more than $80 million that has been poured into the Utah economy by this series alone has come to an end. Why? Because Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, chose not to move to a vote an expansion of the existing program championed by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, and supported by the Motion Picture Association of Utah, to increase by $10 million the amount rebated to motion picture and television production companies for the money spent in Utah.

The Motion Picture Incentive Program offers companies both in and out of state a rebate of up to 25% of the money spent by them on goods, services, and personnel in the Beehive State. To keep the making of “Yellowstone,” Disney’s “High School Musical” series, and the dozens of other productions in Utah and continue receiving the millions of dollars they add to Utah’s economy, it would seem that the decision to appropriate this modest increase would be a foregone conclusion. I regret that Wilson did not see it the same way.

As one who has spent more than 30 years chronicling the history of motion picture and television production in Utah, I am astonished that Utah has said “adios” to the “Yellowstone cast and crew that includes producer-writer-director Taylor Sheridan and its star-executive producer Kevin Costner. By all accounts, the cast and crew are sad to leave Utah, as the series will be produced entirely in Montana, a state that, unlike Utah, upped the ante and convinced Paramount to move its operations to the Big Sky State.

Why Utah rejected gaining many times in revenue to its citizens their increased investment has yet to be explained. What did Montana figure out that Utah did not?

Wilson’s decision goes against our state’s enviable relationship with the major studios in Hollywood — and to indigenous production companies — for more than a century. For it’s size, Utah’s attraction of movie companies has historically rivaled that of any other state. Utah has been the primary or ancillary location for more than 1,000 feature films, television movies and TV series episodes — not counting the hundreds of TV and print commercials — from 1913 through 2019. Beginning in Cedar City and Kanab, then expanding to Monument Valley, Moab and finally in northern Utah, movie production skyrocketed during the 1930s through the 1950s and up to the present time.

When, during the early 1960s, other states including Arizona, New Mexico, the Carolinas, Georgia, Michigan, and even Canada took notice of Utah’s economic and tourism benefits from film production, they campaigned for the financial windfall that Utah had enjoyed almost singlehandedly for decades. In response, Gov. Calvin Rampton, with Robert Redford at his side, traveled to Hollywood and lobbied vigorously for the return of movie companies to Utah. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Devil’s Brigade,” “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and dozens more productions began a renaissance of filmmaking in Utah. Among them was the CBS-TV series “Touched by an Angel that, during its nine-year stint in Utah from 1994-2002, added $215 million to Utah’s economy.

In addition to their obvious economic benefits, movies made in Utah are, in the words of Leigh von der Esch, former head of the Utah Film Commission, “Utah’s billboards that go all over the world.” John Wayne, who made seven movies in Utah, said that “Utah is where God put the West.”

“Yellowstone” is one that we have lost. It appears that “High School Musical” may be next if the incentive fund is not increased yet another year.

I asked one Utah rancher, on whose land many movies had been made, if the movie industry is good or bad for Utah. He looked at me intently and replied, “Let me put it this way. Yes, it is good, because all that they take are pictures. All that they leave is money.”

I urge that the Utah legislators invest in a sure thing before more productions, now or in future, ride off into the Utah sunset and into another state’s sunrise.

James V. D’Arc

James V. D’Arc is the author of “When Hollywood Came to Utah” (Layton: Gibbs Smith, 2019), now in its third revised and updated edition. He lives in Orem.