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Legislative panel OKs film-incentives hike

Utah hoping to lure big-budget films, TV series with changes

For months, state economic development officials have wanted to find a way to bolster Utah's film industry. Now, they have a script.

The Legislature's Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Interim Committee on Wednesday unanimously endorsed a draft bill that reworks financial incentives to better Utah's chances of landing big-budget movies and TV series.

The bill retains some of the current structure by allowing a cash rebate of 20 percent of a project's spending in Utah, up to $500,000. That is expected to be attractive to films with budgets of a few million dollars. But a noncapped 20-percent tax credit also will be available, designed to lure blockbuster films and TV shows.

"I'm thrilled to tell you that this bill will both save and revolutionize the film industry here in the state of Utah," Jason Perry, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, told the committee.

The current incentives are at 15 percent. But Perry said 20 percent is "in no way the highest" among states. Utah also has other attractions, including its crew talent and landscapes, he said.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard made similar comments, describing Utah's film incentives as "moderate, compared to what other states are doing, but all we need is moderate."

"We're still not the highest bidder," Perry said, "but when you combine that with opportunities available in the state, we start winning all these opportunities, not to mention the fact that that is also the sweet spot for us to start landing some movie studios here in the state."

The bill also provides preference to productions shot in rural Utah or that have Utah content. That content could include recognizing that the production was made in Utah or using "Utah as Utah" rather than making it appear to be in some other locale.

Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission, said Kevin Costner recently visited Moab and wants to shoot two large-budget westerns in Utah. "We know we have the natural resources, and with a competitive incentive program, we could land two films like this easily, because he wants to go here," Moore said. "He wants to shoot where John Ford shot and that was here in Utah."

Moore also said better incentives could help Utah get more TV series, such as in 2002, when both "Everwood" and "Touched by an Angel" were in production. "It's been a while, and I think we're due to where we can host not just big-budget (film) productions but more than one television series," he said.

Leigh von der Esch, managing director Utah Office of Tourism and former film commission director, said productions can boost tourism. Utah has seen an example of that already with East High School attracting fans of the "High School Musical" film series. She noted that "Field of Dreams," "Crocodile Dundee," "Northern Exposure" and "Dallas" have yielded high tourist numbers for their production sites.

Several film producers attended Wednesday's meeting, and the bill has gained industry support, said Perry,

who joked that Utah could become "Saltywood."

"I've heard this financial incentives program for films as simply a giveaway of tax money to promote Utah's interest and Utah's glory, if you will, and make the rich folks richer," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden. "But it's so much more than that. It's a classic example of priming the pump. It creates jobs, both direct and indirectly, increases the taxes, it pumps up Utah's economy, and that's exactly what we have to have. The return on the dollar spent is so huge, and it's not just the top-level folks. This goes all the way down."

Hillyard said that despite it being a committee-backed bill, he wants the measure to go through the full legislative process during the general session. He's also awaiting a fiscal note for the bill to determine any economic impact on state coffers.

Figures supplied by the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget show that the film-production industry during the past fiscal year resulted in $54 million in spending in Utah, with a total economic impact of $138 million. The industry resulted in 1,099 total jobs, $27.5 million in personal income and $2.9 million in new state tax revenue.