By Mark London Williams
“We have both union, and non-union,” says Leigh von der Esch, director of Utah’s state film commission, describing the pool of available production crew in the state of salt lakes, angelic visions and heavily marketed film festivals. But at the same time, she adds, “we are a right-to-work state—it’s the choice of the worker, frankly.”
And on behalf of its underemployed film and TV workers (von der Esch estimates production has dropped off 45% in the last two years, in part thanks to locally filmed Touched by an Angel winding up its nine-year run), the Republican-dominated state legislature surprised everyone by agreeing to an initial state-sponsored subsidy to lure more production back to an area that began screen life as John Ford’s favorite location for “oaters.”
Then again, since the incentive involved a tax rollback, perhaps it’s not such a surprise after all. Von der Esch sums it up as a “sales and user tax exemption on machinery and equipment purchased, leased or rented” inside Utah—equipment precisely like that sold and rented out by Bryan Clifton of Redman Movies and Stories, who’s enthusiastic about the new legislation, including the newly appointed task force he’s part of to find even more incentives to bring filmmakers in.
While von der Esch is careful to note that the tax breaks “in no way compare to what Canada is giving away”—also allowing that Utah is competing against lucrative price-break programs in states like New Mexico and Louisiana—Clifton is more adamant that one of the great draws is the “pretty unique situation” of having so much available in so concentrated an area—a zone around Salt Lake City that Clifton describes as running about 100 miles north/south and 80 miles east/west. Kind of like the greater L.A. area.
So while other states may appear to offer greater initial tax rebates to willing producers, Clifton says the Honeybee State’s draw is that you can get a better quality crew cheaper.
He also acknowledges other incentives coming on line—notably the offer of free production offices on what had been the state fairgrounds, a complex of “60 acres, office buildings and practical locations.” But it’s the use of the word “cheaper” that may have workers in areas where productions are moving from a little concerned.
Von der Esch is insistent that it’s not simply a matter of luring work from other areas that motivates Utah’s legislature and film commission. Instead, it’s a larger rising-tide-lifting-all-boats vision of spawning an indigenous community of filmmakers and productions that already includes a thriving cottage industry of “LDS-themed movies,” tackling issues and perspectives important to Mormon viewers, as well as a Sundance-seeded/BYU-trained indie scene, of which Neil Labute is perhaps the most famous alumnus and from which recent Sundance hit Napoleon Dynamite sprang.
They want productions ideally utilizing fully Utah crews, Clifton says, though both he and von der Esch also cite the boom in reality TV programming as a reason those crews find themselves with much less work—as they do in other places.
But Clifton would also like to see more commercials and video shoots come down the I-15 to round out the picture, and it’s possible to see that picture in larger terms than merely a free-for-all competition among states in a badly broken “free” market. Absent federal initiatives to keep production jobs from being globalized to lower-wage areas, von der Esch sees Utah’s recent initiatives as one part of a larger effort to lure “production back in our country—back in the United States.”
Whether states rolling back taxes on incoming productions creates a critical mass for stateside production workers remains to be seen. The first step, for Utah, will be to see if it even works there, and that tale will be told in the months to come.
By Mark London Williams