The 'Lone Ranger' Rides ... In Colorado

6:00 AM PST 08/21/2012 by Matthew Fleischer

After years of no tax incentives, the Centennial State -- having just hosted Johnny Depp and company -- is suddenly getting serious about landing independent productions.

After dust storms and bad weather in New Mexico plagued the filming of Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, the production picked up shop and settled in for three weeks of shooting in the tiny mining town of Creede, Colo.: population 450. And there, everything clicked.

"As a location, Creede fulfilled a unique need for the production of The Lone Ranger," says the film's Colorado location manager, Julie Hannum. "The primary set was constructed around an old mining town built more than 100 years ago and incorporated some of the mine's original buildings. It gives the movie an era-specific authenticity."

The movie, which is promising a revamp of the Lone Ranger lore, follows in the footsteps of such famous Westerns as the original True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which also filmed in Colorado. The state's canvas of untouched mountain wilderness, forests, deserts and historic Wild West-era structures made it an obvious choice for such films. But with today's enhanced tax incentives offered by competing states, The Lone Ranger's decision to shoot in Colorado is something of an outlier. The project, which Jerry Bruckheimer is producing at a budget that sources say has grown as high as $250 million (though Disney has denied that number), is the first major Hollywood effort to shoot in the state since 2007's Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman starrer The Bucket List. The Coen brothers scouted Colorado for their 2010 True Grit remake but settled on New Mexico thanks in large part to that state's meaty production tax breaks.

"We have a lot of great-looking stuff, but you can't make a picture just on the looks," says Colorado film commissioner Donald Zuckerman. "You need money."

And after years of watching neighboring states like New Mexico become production powerhouses, Colorado decided it wants in on the action. In May, after seven failed attempts, the Colorado legislature passed a new production tax-incentive initiative. The program, which went into effect July 1, provides a 20 percent cash rebate on production costs on films, TV shows, commercials and music videos that hire at least half their crew locally. The new program also offers producers a 4 percent to 5 percent loan guarantee on the budget of their film -- something Zuckerman says is unique to Colorado.

"Producers will get more money here up front than they will get in states like New Mexico, Louisiana or Utah," he says.

Don't expect Hollywood to come running right away, however. The entire program has a cap of $4 million for its current fiscal year -- and Zuckerman says the state has no intention of giving it all to one film. (The Lone Ranger, which employed a crew mostly from New Mexico and began filming before the incentives took effect, was not eligible.)

"We're not after Hollywood. We're after independent production. There's a business to be had doing smaller productions. They hire local people," he explains.

The hope is that by establishing a beachhead in the indie world, Colorado's film program can convince skeptical lawmakers that the state's scenic beauty can translate to more production gold.

Certainly, the presence of a multimillion-dollar film like Lone Ranger has been a boost for the state, which has since had to deal with the shadow cast by the July 20 Aurora theater massacre. The Ranger production reportedly dropped as much as $7 million into the local economy.

Creede Mayor Eric Grossman says hosting the film crew was a boon to his otherwise tourism-dependent former mining town: "It was like winning the lottery, really. We haven't had a year like this since the silver boom in the 1890s. Our April sales tax numbers alone were up 200 percent."

With testimonials like that, it's hard not to imagine Colorado lawmakers kicking the door open for more production. But Zuckerman says that with so much competition from neighboring states, he'd be happy to settle for slow and steady growth.

"We're going to try to show the legislature that it works," he says. "That this is something good for the state. Right now I don't see us as much of a threat to states like New Mexico. We're just getting our feet wet."

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COWBOY PICS AT HOME ON THE RANGE: Colorado, with its varied geography, has hosted scenic Westerns -- and even a sci-fi feature

1956 The Searchers: While the John Wayne classic, directed by John Ford, is most closely linked to Utah's Monument Valley, it also filmed in the Colorado towns of Aspen and Gunnison.

1969 True Grit: Wayne performed his Oscar-winning turn as Rooster Cogburn throughout the state -- courtroom scenes took place in the actual Ouray County Courthouse.

1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Parts of the Paul Newman-Robert Redford starrer filmed in Telluride, home to the annual film fest.

1991 City Slickers: For his comedy, Billy Crystal and his posse headed to the railroad town of Durango.

1996 Independence Day: Will Smith fought aliens from the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

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