Take 2 for Utah’s Film Industry

written by: Glen Warchol

Hollywood is returning for incentives, professional crews and, of course, jaw-dropping scenery.

Magna is a Utah city best known for the 1,215 -foot Kennecott Copper smokestack west of town. It wasn’t always that way. Up until the end of World War II, Magna had a thriving Main Street. But the mobility of the family car and the resulting growth of suburbs put downtown Magna into a slide from a business-and-shopping center to a suburb of Salt Lake City with empty store fronts.

Photo Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin
© 2017 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

But this year, Main Street Magna is once again booming with the filming of Disney’s break-out ‘tween hit, Andi Mack. The series, into its second season, has been described as a “charming, coming-of-age” dramedy following the adventures of the 13-year-old Andi Mack (played by Peyton Elizabeth Lee) and her family and friends. Ironically, the series could be too spicy for many Utah viewers. Andi turns 13 at the same time her older sister Bex returns home. Revelation: Bex is Andi’s biological mother and the woman Andi thought was her mother is actually her grandmother. Somehow, with pre-teens across the nation watching, Andi works through it with the help of her family, her friends Cyrus and Buffy and her crush Jonah Beck.

Perhaps more astonishing for Disney, Andi Mack last year became the first series in the company’s history to develop an LGBTQ storyline when Andi’s friend Cyrus (played by Joshua Rush) realizes he has feelings for a male classmate and shares those conflicted feelings with viewers in a scene overseen by child development experts and screened by GLAAD and PFLAG. Clearly, this is not Mickey’s Disney.

Photo Disney/ABC Television Group
© 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Best of all, it happens entirely in Utah where the series hires 200 extras and crew, rents storefronts, pumps $110,000 into the Utah economy and may make Magna’s downtown an entertainment hub on the national map.

The twists and turns of Andi Mack reflect the recent interest in Utah as a location for films and television. No one in the Utah film industry can forget the boom days of Touched by an Angel that produced nine seasons and 211 episodes from 1994 through 2003. Then film business in the state stalled, with the exception of occasional commercials and a film or TV special. The main culprit was Utah’s incentive program, which couldn’t compete with those of Vancouver, British Columbia; Georgia; New Mexico or Louisiana. Utah’s Legislature, relishing the state’s reputation for fiscal restraint, didn’t support incentive packages that required front-loading significant funding to later pay out in tax breaks.

In 2012, with the help of Speaker of the House Greg Hughes, a revised incentive program was put in place that offers significant film projects a 20 percent tax break and up to 25 percent if the film uses a 75 percent Utah cast and crew or films in a rural location. So far, studios – including Fox, AMC, Disney, HBO and ABC – have spent $269 million in Utah since the program began.

The recent growth is significant: In 2016 the state issued 356 film permits, that grew to 602 in 2017. “We’ve had a really stellar couple of years,” says Utah Film Commission Director Virginia Pearce. “We’ve seen a lot of stories, a lot of films, made here.”

And a television series, like Andi Mack, is the grail. While less prestigious than major films or critically acclaimed small movies, a series provides a long-term economic investment and crew job security. A typical series spends 6-12 months shooting and spends $25-50 million in a location, the commission figures. “We’ve done a lot of work to put ourselves on the radar of television producers,” Pearce says.

Renee Anderson, then-Magna City Council Chair, who owns a tattoo parlor on Main, agrees. “Filming in Magna is always fantastic and Andi Mack has boosted Magna quite a bit. They have made the streets more beautiful by fixing storefronts, painting and putting up awnings.”  A pizza parlor that was the scene of the first season finale saw its business increase, she says.

photos Courtesy of HBO (Left & Top Left) and Paramount network (top Right).

Utah’s new success, Pearce says, results from more than incentives—Utah’s still aren’t as good as other states and Canada. But Utah ups the ante with a pool of 1,600 trained crew members (Touched by an Angel seasoned many of them), quick flights to Los Angeles and, of course, fantastic scenery. “We are competing against these big film programs, but we are competing successfully because we have amazing locations—mountains and red rock, within an hour of cities and towns,” she says.

Utah offers a varied palette for filmmakers. Craggy deserts to the south, green mountains to the north and urban locations that can stand in for cities around the world. Touched by an Angel once turned Salt Lake City’s Regent Street into a Beijing byway.

“I heard from people who are tired of the look of Georgia that has dominated the market for so long,” Pearce says. “Producers are looking for something new. Utah has a unique look, but it also offers a standard-Americana look. Disney loves us for that reason. They shoot a lot here [35 productions] because they want an Anytown, U.S.A., look. For other films, Federal Heights can look like California and Exchange Place looks like Boston.”

Apparently, Disney believes downtown Magna offers perfect exterior shots for Andi Mack. Besides a free hand to do renovations, the filmmakers found a cooperative community, including a beauty shop that lets them film inside. The production crew of a YouTube series, Youth and Consequences, filmed at Ogden High School, was stunned when the city council gave them a thank-you plaque. “Utahns are not jaded over the film industry,” Pearce says. “The crews and casts are excited that the location communities  are excited.” 

Also, Utah, famous for John Ford Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s, is seeing a resurgence of the genre, most with a modern twist. “Utah is the iconic American West,” Pearce says. “Jonathan Nolan found it perfect for Westworld [a high-tech Wild West-theme park].  And, of course, Monument Valley is iconic [the butte-dotted valley has starred in films from John Ford’s The Searchers to Forrest Gump.]”

Photos Courtesy of HBO (Left & Top Left) and Paramount network (top Right).

Taylor Sheridan, who made the critically acclaimed modern western Wind River, is shooting part of an upcoming television series Yellowstone in Utah. Kevin Costner, who is living in Park City, plays the patriarch of a modern-day ranching family. Westworld and Yellowstone “are modern westerns that showcase the New West,” Pearce says. “Filmmakers now are attracted to everything of the West—the pioneer spirit, the anything-goes attitude and the current issues of gentrification and land-use rights. These are all interesting subjects for filmmakers to tackle.”

Unfortunately, few film scripts identify the scenery as specifically Utah (an exception is 127 Hours that was based on a true story). Wind River is supposedly in Wyoming, Yellowstone in Montana and The Searchers famously was in a very fictional Texas. While Pearce would love for Utah’s scenery to be shouted out: “It’s more about what the script calls for.”

Photos Courtesy of HBO (Left & Top Left) and Paramount network (top Right).

If anything, the Film Commission, citing the new boom, would like to see an infusion of money from the Legislature to fund more incentives. For the record, the incentives are not paid until post-production audit, when the money is already spent. “Incentives are the cost of doing business,” Pearson says. “We have done so well, we are running low on money. It would make sense to grow our film program. We’re all trying to figure out what growth would look like.”

So far, the film industry lured to Utah has hired 4,700 local employees and paid more than $110 million in salaries, providing a compelling argument for increased investment.

Two films at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival benefitted from incentives: Damsel (shot in Summit County) and a thriller, Hereditary, shot in Salt Lake City. “The films showcase two of the big location draws we talk about,” Pearce says.

In addition, two documentaries at Sundance were Utah-based, but did not ask for tax incentives: Quiet Heroes, about the AIDS crisis, and Believer, about Provo-based Imagine Dragons’ lead singer Dan Reynolds dealing with his church’s stand on the LGBTQ community.

“Our pitch is about the resources we have here to make it a cost-effective location. We offer crew on the ground, couple it with location—and that’s the draw,” Pearce says, adding, “Once they work here, they always come back.”

See more inside our 2018 Mar/Apr Issue.

Glen Warchol
Glen Warcholhttp://www.saltlakemagazine.com
The late, great Glen Warchol passed away in 2018. His last billet was on the editorial staff here at Salt Lake magazine but his storied career included stops at The Salt Lake Tribune, The Desert News, The New Times and others. His stories haunt this website like ghosts in a machine and we're always happy to see them. RIP Papa Warchol.

Similar Articles

Most Popular