Wyoming has big plans for the state’s film industry

Mar 9, 2012

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The Wyoming Film Office has grand plans for the state’s film industry, and it’s making progress. A prime-time network sitcom, and a major Hollywood movie have filmed here in the past year, but shooting in the Cowboy State still brings its own challenges. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez filed this report.

(TV Show, “Modern Family.”)
Airplane Pilot: We’re beginning our initial descent into Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Thank you for flying United.
Phil Dunphy: I reckon we’ll be landing soon.
Claire Dunphy: Phil, honey, you promised. Not till we got there.

(Theme music)

REBECCA MARTINEZ: When ABC decided to shoot the season premiere of Modern Family on a dude ranch near Jackson, it was a huge score for the Wyoming Tourism Office. After years of planning, and lobbying and recruiting, major production was going to take advantage of, and broadcast nationally, some of what Jackson had to offer on its popular sitcom.

(Clip from “Modern Family”)

Dylan: Wow, look at the mountains.
Haley Dunphy: They’re amazing.
Dylan: I’ve never been this far from home before. And now I’ve never been this far. And now I’ve never been this far…
Claire Dunphy: Where’s a cliff when you need one?

MARTINEZ: Heather Falk manages tourism for the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. She says there was a huge uptick in visits to their website after the show aired.

HEATHER FALK: When people start to recognize different scenes and can relate it back to Jackson Hole, I think, it’s the domino effect. Oh, we should go there again. Oh we should go skiing there. Oh, I should get married there. And it just rolls with it.

MARTINEZ: The Wyoming Film Office, which is part of the Wyoming Tourism Office, estimates Modern Family spent almost two-hundred-thousand dollars in Jackson during filming. Wyoming’s always been a popular place to shoot commercials because of the open roads and scenery, but big-budget movies and TV shows have preferred filming in places like New Mexico and Canada, where the governments offer big financial incentives, like tax breaks. Even movies that took place in Wyoming, including “Brokeback Mountain,” “2012” and “Did you hear about the Morgans” were shot elsewhere. Film Office Manager Michell Howard says that means they paid for food, lodging, equipment and crews elsewhere, too.

MICHELL HOWARD: When we went to the Legislature in 2007, we had been working on an incentive program and just doing research on really, what we were losing from not having this industry here, and the economic impact of what we were missing out on.

MARTINEZ: In 2007, the Wyoming Legislature approved a cash rebate for any production that spent five-hundred-thousand dollars in the state. Not much happened. Then, in 2009, the bar dropped to offer a rebate for projects that spend two-hundred-thousand or more. They’d get back 12-percent of what they spent, or 15 percent back if the storyline took place in Wyoming. Gov. Matt Mead supports measures like these to draw productions to the state.

MATT MEAD: I think it’s a good return on the investment. Modern Family came in... They estimate that was over 10 million dollars of free advertising for Wyoming, which is… That's a lot of money.

MARTINEZ: So far, 13 projects have taken advantage of the rebate incentive. One of them is Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” an upcoming movie about a slave-turned-bounty hunter that will hit theaters in December. Michell Howard says “Django” housed its crew in the Snow King Resort and hired horse wranglers and a snow machine. The production spent more than five-hundred-thousand dollars in the area. The Film Office has been inviting production company representatives on Familiarization – or FAM – Tours, to become acquainted with  filming locations and local crew in Wyoming.

HOWARD: And those seem to have been really effective. We brought the production designer out for Django Unchained in June, and I think, that’s probably why we ended up getting that project.

MARTINEZ: This turn toward a pro-film Wyoming is the kind of thing K. Harrison Sweeney has been hoping for. The Wyoming native moved to Hollywood years ago, where he’s acted in TV shows and video games. Now he’s directing a zombie movie in Wyoming, and wants to run a production company in his home state full-time.

K. HARRISON SWEENEY: I’m not gonna be able to do my films there unless I’ve got reliable cast and crew who are also experienced and able to work on their own outside of the projects that I do. I can’t have everyone depending on me who want to do film in the State.

MARTINEZ: Other filmmakers have made similar complaints, and the Film Office wants to develop competent technical crews within Wyoming.  It talked Central Wyoming College into creating an associate’s degree in film production. Professor John Little launched the program in September, and he said his students are talented and ambitious.

JOHN LITTLE: I got a Joe Johnston, I’ve got a George Lucas. I might even have a Steven Spielberg in my class.

MARTINEZ: Students there are thrown into hands-on into planning, shooting and post production projects. Many of them have already assisted on professional commercial shoots and PBS documentaries. Little foresees the Wyoming film industry becoming richer in the next decade.

LITTLE: The idea is we train the students to produce film, thereby increasing the infrastructure that’s here available to film companies that otherwise would have to bring their own people. So it’s a much less expensive proposition for them.

MARTINEZ: Little knows not all film students from Wyoming will stay here, but the one who do will strengthen the industry.

Wyoming filmmakers say there’s another problem, a Catch 22: it will be unlikely to draw a steady stream of big-budget productions outside of Jackson without a Wyoming company that can rent out a sound stage, expensive cameras and complex lighting equipment… And a company like that is unlikely to set up without a steady stream of work.

But smaller production productions can make so with less, and the Film office is happy to welcome them to the Cowboy State, as well.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez