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Should Utah pony up more money to bring shows like ‘Yellowstone’ back to Beehive State?

Senators debate film industry incentives

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Kevin Costner and Brecken Merrill in an episode of “Yellowstone.”

Brecken Merrill as Tate Dutton, left, and Kevin Costner as John Dutton in an episode of the third season of “Yellowstone.”

Cam McLeod, Paramount Network

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would more than double subsidies for films that shoot in the Beehive State sparked a passionate debate Tuesday about the popular television series “Yellowstone” and whether the entertainment industry deserves special incentives.

SB167 would increase the maximum tax credit the Governor’s Office of Economic Development can award to a motion picture during a year from $6.7 million to $15 million. The bill would cost $8.2 million in ongoing funding from the education fund.

Bill sponsor Sen. Ronald Winterton, R-Roosevelt, told the Senate he looked into running the bill when the Paramount Network series starring Kevin Costner stopped filming in Utah last year and moved to Montana due to tax incentives.

“This is money that left our state and went to Montana,” Winterton said.

He said the first two seasons’ filming brought $35 million and $40 million per year in local spending to his district in rural Duchesne County and surrounding areas.

The owner of the primary ranch location for the show said it brought “immediate and significant support” to ranching operations in the area, according to Winterton. 

In Utah, the incentives are given as rebates and credits only after film companies demonstrate they spent a certain amount of money in the state.

“We’re talking about filming crews, we’re talking about support crews — they spend money at our hotels, restaurants, retail, transportation, vendors. They bring in a large sum of money that continues to revitalize these cities. They increase the profile of the state,” Winterton said, as tourists also visit because they see Utah on film.

“We want to be able to get them back,” Winterton said.

The lawmaker said he has spoken to representatives from Paramount Pictures, and the company plans to create two offshoot series from “Yellowstone.”

Winterton said the company indicated it wants to shoot another series in Utah, “but it’s very vital for the film industry in our state to stay competitive to others. There are states that have no cap on their incentive program, then they also come, like ‘Yellowstone,’ they come and poach them away from us. So we’ve done all the leg work, and then we allow people to take them away for a few dollars.”

But not everyone was convinced.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he watched “Yellowstone” and noted both nudity and violence. 

“I’m not a huge fan as I was watching the show, to not find Utah mentioned once,” McCay said.

“We have a production company that decides it wants to take a show about Montana to film in Montana,” McCay said. “It seems like they’re in the right place.”

“If a show wants to come here about Utah and make a show about Utah and Utah farmers, and Utah issues, and rural Utah and the beauty we have to offer a state,” McCay said, they should consider offering incentives to them instead.

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Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, speaks in support of SB167 in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. The bill would more than double subsidies for films that shoot in the Beehive State

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-Salt Lake City, said film productions in the state “cost us nothing.”

“They come and dump their money, and then they don’t buy homes. … We put lots of money lots of places, and I think we need to put some money here,” Mayne said, adding that we “want to show Utah off.”

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she has friends who work in the film industry, but many need to travel to other states for work.

“I think it’s an established career path, and I think we should invest in it,” Riebe said.

Yet other lawmakers questioned whether the state should shell out money to one specific industry when information about its economic impact on the state is conflicting.

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, contended that the industry doesn’t bring that large of a return on investment into Utah’s economy.

“Why is this industry special enough that the taxpayers need to fund 20% of the industry’s operating expenses?” he asked.

As the state’s income tax rate stands at 4.95%, Fillmore questioned paying for 20% of a film company’s operating expenses, calling it “shoveling taxpayers’ money out the window without any hope for a return.”

Senate Majority President Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said the issue is about more than just “Yellowstone.” Southern Utah has been and continues to be the filming location for a variety of documentaries, movies, music videos and commercials, he said.

“There’s an awful lot of other industry that’s going on and potentially could go on,” he said.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, expressed concern about getting into a “bid war” with Montana.

“We’ve got the film in the first instance, and then someone from Montana did something and they got a bigger portion. Now, we’re being asked to come back and ante up. So this is already state three of the bid war between Utah and Montana. Let’s not pretend it’s anything otherwise,” Anderegg said.

The Senate did not vote on the bill Tuesday. Winterton promised to do more research on the economic impacts of films in Utah before the bill gets discussed again.