What Utah lost when ‘Yellowstone’ left — and what it stands to gain from the film industry

When Paramount’s hit show left Utah, it took the millions it was spending on rural economies with it

If the dramatic cinematography in Paramount’s hit series “Yellowstone” invoked dreams of moving to Montana to work on a ranch under the state’s sprawling, open skies, Marshall Moore has a reminder — “Most of Montana is actually Utah.”

About 75% of the show’s first three seasons were shot in the Beehive State, using Utah Film Studios, of which Moore is the vice president of operations and marketing, as a home base. Some of the Montana scenery depicted in the show is actually Heber City, Oakley, Kamas, Grantsville and Logan.

But the show’s fourth season, which started airing in November, was filmed almost entirely in Montana. When Paramount moved north, it took the millions it was spending on rural Utah with it.

The drama focuses on the Dutton family, which operates a controversial Montana ranch bordering Yellowstone National Park. Led by family patriarch John Dutton, as played by Kevin Costner, the ranch is entangled with issues surrounding land management, rural-urban tensions, and the relationship between big government and local stakeholders — issues impacting real ranchers across the Mountain West.

Perhaps that’s a reason for the show’s high viewership, with Paramount publicists claiming it’s “cable’s biggest show.” The season 3 finale drew more than 10 million viewers.

And while “Yellowstone” features the sometimes fraught relationship between industry and government, a real-life drama took place between Utah lawmakers and Paramount that led to the show packing up and moving to Montana. That drama was markedly less sexy than what takes place at the Dutton ranch, but at its heart were several million dollars in tax incentives.

A corral inside Thousands Peaks Ranch, where some scenes from the TV series “Yellowstone” were shot, is pictured in Oakley, Summit County, on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Productions that meet several requirements, including spending a minimum of $500,000 in Utah, are eligible for a 20% to 25% tax rebate as part of Utah’s film incentive program. However, the program is stunted by its annual $8.3 million cap.

When the state has several large productions vying for a rebate — as was the case with both “Yellowstone” and the Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” remake — the cap limits what each show can receive, regardless of how much it is spending. Despite receiving around $7 million in rebates for seasons prior, the available kickback for Season 4 was substantially smaller.

So Paramount moved production to Montana, where the state Legislature raised its cap on incentives to $10 million before the 2021 session, then bumped it up to $12 million during the session.

The production left a void — a $30 million void, to be exact — which is what Moore said the show came close to spending every season. In three years it spent roughly $80 million in the Beehive State.

“This was the largest show that has ever come to the state of Utah,” Moore said.

The production itself employed around 250 people full time, he said, and scores of other part-time contractors, extras and stunt doubles.

While Paramount is required to show receipts to prove where it spent its money before receiving a rebate, the financial impact from the show likely goes beyond that cumulative, three-year $80 million amount.

Those coming in from out of state booked hotel rooms and long-term rentals. They ate out at restaurants, went skiing, fly fishing — Kevin Costner even hired a guide to go hunting.

“In the tourism industry, they get excited when there’s a convention that comes to town and they stay in hotels for a week, right? Having a show like ‘Yellowstone’ is like having a five-month convention,” Moore said.

The show would use Utah Film Studios for stage space, creating the set for the Duttons’ master bedroom, the fictional governor’s office and various scenes with a green screen background. But the production would often travel to rural corners of the state, giving tourism economies a nice boost during their offseason.

“That was one of the things that was really hard to see be taken away,” said Moore. “Even I was getting calls asking, ‘What’s going on with “Yellowstone?” They were hiring this, buying this. Now we don’t have any of that business.’”

And after three seasons of filming in Utah, Moore said the cast and crew were equally upset over leaving Utah. In the film industry, “long term” usually translates to one year — having three years of relative stability is a nice, sometimes rare, luxury.

“I talked to dozens of people on that crew and some of the cast. They were really sad and heartbroken. They had made a home here. Some of them had basically bought homes here, you know, and put their kids in school,” said Moore.

Utah’s place in the film industry

Stakeholders in Utah’s film industry tell the Deseret News there isn’t much to complain about when it comes to the state’s incentive program, other than the annual cap. “Our incentive is actually really good. It’s just underfunded,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Motion Picture Association of Utah. “You’re having to pick and choose.”

Moore said his ideal cap would be $20 million. Johnson said “if we double (the $8.3 million cap), we double the amount of work that comes into Utah.”

Johnson, who also worked as the casting director for the first three seasons of “Yellowstone,” said the state’s film industry grew to be one of the biggest in the country during the late ’90s and early 2000s. But it’s been stagnant since, due to the annual incentive that he called “a roadblock towards really growing the film industry.”

Nearly 200 TV shows or movies have been shot in Utah since 2004. But the incentive program pales in comparison to Georgia, which has hosted numerous Marvel Studios films and currently has no annual cap on tax incentives, or New York, which boasts a $420 million cap.

Utah’s unique geography and its abundance of both desert and mountain landscapes gives the state an edge when competing with the likes of New York or Georgia for motion pictures like “Yellowstone.” But it doesn’t have a monopoly on open skies, and neighboring New Mexico, which has a $130 million annual cap on incentives and doesn’t require a minimum spending amount, is emerging as a regional go-to for Western-centric films. The state’s film industry recently made headlines following the fatal shooting on the set of “Rust” involving Alec Baldwin that killed cinematographer Halnya Hutchins.

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“They believe in the film industry. They have a governor who believes in the film industry, and when you have that belief, and the Legislature gets behind it, then you get incentives that draw companies like Netflix, who has a base of operations there,” Moore said of New Mexico.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, on the other hand, said he doesn’t see Utah “just throwing money at anything that will come.”

“We’re probably not going to keep up with New Mexico. ... I don’t think it’s our job to subsidize all the films,” he said.

During his monthly press conference in November, Cox said he loves “when we get to make films here.” But he said he looks at the issue “purely through an economic lens.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, foreground from left, appears with actor Kevin Costner, production designer Ruth De Jong and writer-director Taylor Sheridan in the lodge at the Chief Joseph Ranch during a visit to the set of the television series “Yellowstone” in Darby, Mont., on Dec. 7, 2017. For the first three years of the TV series, crews shot the majority of scenes in Utah, but did shoot some in Montana. | Kurt Wilson, The Missoulian via AP

“I have to look at what the return on investment is for that. And historically, some of the studies that we’ve seen have shown that there isn’t a great return on investment there. There is maybe a little bit of a halo effect for sure. Now, I will say sometimes when they’re filming in rural parts of the state, that’s very good for rural areas and so that has to be taken into consideration,” the governor said, noting he’s eyeing another upcoming study of the economic impact of film production.

Johnson said Utah is already incredibly appealing for film powerhouses like Paramount, which despite moving “Yellowstone” to Montana is still considering the Beehive State as a location to film future projects. The tax incentive doesn’t need to match states like New Mexico — it just needs to be sustainable, he said.

“We don’t need to be Georgia and we don’t need to be New Mexico. We need to be Utah, but we need to compete.”

A piece of the rural economy puzzle

Ahead of the Utah Legislature’s upcoming session, one lawmaker is trying to amend Utah’s film incentive program. Sen. Ronald Winterton, R-Roosevelt, is sponsoring a bill that “exempts certain rural film productions from limits on the total amount of refundable motion picture tax credit incentives.”

If passed, it would eliminate the incentive cap for rural productions — something the film industry says is the sole roadblock to productions of “Yellowstone’s” caliber moving to Utah.

Winterton said the film industry’s potential in the rural part of the state cannot be understated, pointing to a recent car commercial shot in Kane County that resulted in over $1 million being spent across the county during the offseason.

“That means the hotels really didn’t have anything going on, the restaurants were at a very low payroll ... so when they do stuff like that, that is big for those rural counties and cities that really need a boost.”

Winterton has become a recent champion for Utah’s film industry, sponsoring a bill aimed at raising the annual incentive cap to $15 million in 2021. His district is largely rural, and includes parts of Duchesne, Summit and Wasatch counties that felt the economic boon from “Yellowstone,” and are reeling from its departure.

Roughly a quarter of filming days take place in rural Utah, and more permits are granted in rural areas than urban areas, according to a recent study conducted by the international consultancy Olsberg and presented to lawmakers at the Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee.

The study also found that for each dollar spent on the tax credit, $5.10 is circled back into the state’s economy — and that film tourism has resulted in $6 billion in profits throughout Utah.

“Film brings economic activity to rural Utah right away. Literally, as soon as they start shooting they are spending money in those communities,” said Johnson.

Thousands Peaks Ranch, where some scenes from the TV series “Yellowstone” were shot, is pictured in Oakley, Summit County, on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News