The following is a transcript of an investigative report on Full Measure News. Click on the link at the end of the transcript to watch the video story.
Fallout from the coronavirus shutdowns just keeps coming. Newly-released numbers show film and television production in Los Angeles fell to its lowest point in a quarter century in 2020. More movie productions have quietly relocated from Hollywood to other destinations that are delighted to have the business. In fact, the competition for movie money is growing fierce. Today, we’re off to Montana, which is among the states searching for stars.
Nestled in Montana’s scenic boondocks is a small Western town that isn’t what it seems
From the church, to the jail, it’s a movie set.
Carter Boehm: So, the movie we're doing is called Murder at Emigrant Gulch.
Carter Boehm is executive producer in charge of Murder at Emigrant Gulch. He’s creator and owner of this western set, Yellowstone Film Ranch, near Livingston, Montana. He rents it out for movie productions for about $10,000 a day.
Sharyl: This movie set was only built because of a novel incentive program Montana has put into place to attract Hollywood dollars. The idea to make it worthwhile for producers to come here to the middle of nowhere to make their films.
Boehm helped lobby for the incentive program called the MEDIA Act, The Montana Economic Development Industry Advancement Act. It offers filmmakers tax credits that basically knock a third off their expenses.
Boehm: And this is all because of the tax credits that Montana passed, which we helped lobby for. And this now turns Montana into a super movie industry.
Abram Boise/Project Manager: This town employed over 25 employees full-time for over a year. And we had about 50 different contractors that we were working with, all Montana residents.
Montana joins a list of states, including Georgia and Louisiana, in a heated competition for Hollywood dollars seen as a clean industry providing well-paying jobs.
Boehm says Montana’s incentives have saved about $1.5 million dollars of their $5 million-dollar movie budget. Without them, he says wouldn’t have filmed here or put dozens of people to work building the town movie set.
Even before the tax credits, Montana was a movie destination. Allison Whitmer is Montana’s film commissioner.
Allison Whitmer: Started with Thomas Edison, came here in 1897, filming tourists in Yellowstone National Park. And then with the advent of cowboy movies and the 1910s and 20s had several pieces of those. And then we had a resurgence in filmmaking in the 1970s, and of course in 1991 came A River Runs Through It, and ever since then, we've been a favorite destination for filmmakers.
There was The Horse Whisperer in 1998.
Most of the 2019 film Robert the Bruce, set in Scotland, was filmed in Montana.
And the TV show Yellowstone is now made in Montana.
Whitmer: Yellowstone is a very well-received Paramount television series. They've been filming both in Montana and primarily in Utah. And this year they moved their entire production from Utah to Montana.
It’s Whitmer’s job to guide the stepped up effort to attract more, bigger-budget films under Montana’s MEDIA law.
Whitmer: There are counties in Montana where their entire operating budget for a year is less than a million dollars. And we have some Montana counties where their population is less than 1,000 people. So, bringing those dollars into the community really makes a difference.
One analysis found that during 18 months from January 2019 to June 2020, including the Covid-19 shutdown, 117 productions were filmed in Montana. They spent $23.9 million in 31 of Montana’s 56 counties, supported 280 jobs, and contributed $1.3 million in local tax revenue. But it’s not easy to show financial success with the new incentive program. Of all the productions, only five of them were ones that participated in the MEDIA Act Tax Credit.
On top of that, the state spends taxpayer money to give the tax incentives.
Sharyl: What didn't you like about the idea?
Alan Redfield: That it's a tax credit, period.
Alan Redfield headed the state’s House Taxation committee when the MEDIA law passed. He says it may help some Montana communities, but it leaves others out in the cold.
Sharyl: So, you don't doubt that there may be some benefit to some people?
Redfield: There could be a great benefit to some people. But overall, I don't believe the state overall will benefit.
Redfield: Because how many people are going to eastern Montana? Are you going to help those people out there? And where's the scenery that they really want to film and some of the cities?
Whitmer insists Montana risks getting crossed off the list on the front end if it doesn’t match what other states are offering.
Whitmer: So, Georgia and California, of course, right now are the big leaders in filmmaking with Louisiana and New York right up there. And Montana has such amazing beauty and wonderful vistas and places to film that the filmmakers who introduced the legislation really wanted to be competitive. And so, we feel that this tax incentive is competitive with the other states. We feel like we're in the top tier of competition.
Her idea that Montana will lose opportunities without the tax credit is supported by Kim Barnard, line producer of a film starring Demi Moore: Please, Baby, Please filming here at the historic Hotel Finlen in Butte, Montana.
Sharyl: Did the tax incentive program play any role in getting Montana considered or was it other stuff?
Kim Barnard: A hundred percent, yeah.
Sharyl: How did they get on your list before your eyes, when you're looking at places you can film?
Barnard: We look for the tax incentive. Who has the best tax, which state has the best tax incentive and which state can offer us what we need because on a low budget indie, all of that is super important.
Even with the bad luck of coronavirus shutting down production for months, it turns out there are even more limitations in Hollywood. Costume designer Ashley Heathcook likes working in a rural setting.
Sharyl: Do you notice any benefit of working here, especially during coronavirus?
Ashley Heathcook: Yes. I do think that less populated areas is probably safer for everyone. Anywhere where there's low numbers and not a big population.
While critics say plenty of films would come to Montana without the incentives, Boehm and his western film studio are banking on the idea that more movies and Hollywood money are on the way.
Boehm: I hoped to say, "Build it and they will come." And thank goodness they are coming.
Sharyl (on camera): The nonprofit group Film LA says feature film production there in 2020 fell by nearly 56% compared to the year before.