Colorado faces uphill battle to be market player

"True Grit" (1969) was shot on Colorado's Western slope

State most attractive to TV productions, advertisers

Ask Ken Seagren to reflect on Colorado's boom years, and he recalls the late 1980s and early 1990s. That's when Viacom Prods. transformed Denver into a production hub for such shows as "Father Dowling Mysteries" and "Diagnosis Murder," not to mention numerous telefims including two dozen "Perry Mason" mysteries starring Raymond Burr.

"There was always at least one, if not two big Viacom shows shooting at the same time," says Seagren, president of grip and light company Lighting Services. "And these were shot for months, typical TV-type schedules, so there were like 200 Teamsters working."

But by the late 1990s, the boom had gone bust.

Canada had initiated a series of incentives, luring away TV movie business that had been the state's staple. Then, in 2002, Louisiana passed a generous production tax credit package, kicking off an escalating domestic incentives war that has since spread to about 40 states.

Sure, Colorado still has its good looks, from the lush majesty of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains to the arid beauty of the Sand Dunes National Park, the largest sand dunes in the U.S. But its 10% tax rebate can't compete with states like Michigan, which boasts a 42% tax credit, or its neighbor to the south, New Mexico, which offers a 25% rebate.

"Within a span of 15 years, the industry has gone from 'location, location, location' to 'incentive, incentive, incentive,' and it's almost to the point where that is the only thing they look at," says Kevin Shand, director of the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media. "I was in a meeting with a producer a couple of months ago and she said, 'Listen. Until you hit 25%, I'm not even going to consider you. You're not on my radar.' "

To help boost its profile, Colorado recently made it a little easier to qualify for its incentives. Previously, a project needed to spend 75% of its below-the-line budget in Colorado and 75% of its cast and crew had to be state residents. As of July 1, the below-the-line spend clause has been eliminated and the percentage of Colorado residents required to work on a project was reduced from 75% to 25%. The legislature also lowered the minimum spend for out-of-state production companies from $1 million to $250,000.

Shand believes the reduced requirements will help draw productions that drop in for a week or two for colorful backdrops, as they have throughout the state's history, from 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "True Grit" to 1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

He also hopes this will attract low-budget indies that need the state's practical locations. "I think our market is the guy doing the $1 million-$10 million movie," Shand says. "Because in a lot of the big-budget incentive states, how much attention is a $1 million or $5 million movie going to get? They want the guy who's going to spend $20 million or $50 million. If we can get somebody here to spend $5 million, we'll be happy."

While its film market has never hit the big time, Colorado has made a steady impact in television.

This year, the state also opened up its incentives to TV commercials, an enduring staple of the state's production economy. It's a particularly popular destination for auto and tire manufacturers, due in part to the ease of moving quickly from winding mountain roads to ultra-modern urban landscapes.

"Denver's up against the foothills, so it's minutes to the mountains," says Seagren, whose company has worked on commercials for most of the major automakers, as well as spots for brands such as Nike, McDonald's, Budweiser and Coca-Cola.

Once known as "the cable capital of the world," Colorado's TV commercial industry has been buttressed by the presence of telecommunications companies such as Dish Network and Liberty Media (whose holdings include the Denver-based Starz Entertainment), both of which have their headquarters in the state.

"[This] gave us the ability to do national work right in Denver," says Monty Miranda, who co-founded the commercial production company Incite Films after earning a cinema degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1990. "I got the opportunity to do the first TiVo commercials and the first Redbox commercials with McDonald's."

Colorado is also a force in the world of reality TV, thanks to High Noon Entertainment, which is set to deliver more than 400 hours of programming to eight networks for the 2010-11 television season, including VH1's "Tough Love," TLC's "Cake Boss" and Food Network's "Ultimate Recipe Showdown."

The company was founded in 1997 by Jim Berger, Duke Hartman and Sonny Hutchinson, who had worked together at local NBC affiliate KUSA-TV from the 1980s through the mid-1990s. Early on, it had success selling shows to Scripps (HGTV, Food Network, etc.), based in Ohio, and Discovery Networks (Animal Planet, TLC, Discovery, etc.), based in Maryland, but cable channels in Los Angeles and New York were less receptive.

"There was a prejudice against Colorado back then," says Berger, High Noon's CEO. "Then, about seven or eight years ago, we put a really smart young team in L.A. We wanted them to get in business with MTV, VH1 and Lifetime, and that's what they've been able to do.' After this, "we opened up an operation in New York last year with the sole intent of getting more business going with A&E, History and others like them based there."

(While postproduction for most High Noon programming is done out of its main offices in Millennium, Colo., only four of its shows are actually shot in the state: "Food Network Challenge," VH1's "Secrets of Aspen" and DIY's "Disaster House" and "Dominator.")

The TV business aside, Colorado still leaves a lot to be desired for those on the local-talent side of the business, most of whom must reach outside the state to score a gig in the big leagues.

Agent Kathleen Ham of Denver-based Donna Baldwin Talent says she has no trouble finding clients who will work locally for voice-overs, commercials and industrials. But if they want a movie role, her clients frequently have to drive six hours to Albuquerque, N.M., for a 10-minute audition. And Miranda, who shot his debut feature "Skills Like This" in Denver, had to move Los Angeles in part to get new work. He is planning to shoot his next film, "Liquid Sky," in Boston, where he can take advantage of Massachusetts' 25% tax credit.

Anecdotes like this further frustrate Colorado's film boosters, who admit there's little chance they'll ever have a truly competitive incentive.

Year after year, the state's production community pushes hard for an increase -- and every the legislature votes it down. It doesn't help that the state has a long history of fiscal conservatism, a constitutionally mandated balanced budget and the same recession-induced revenue shortfalls afflicting other states.

Many members of the state's production community are optimistic that this fall's elections could bring in a new governor, more willing and able to push through an improved incentive -- namely Democratic candidate and current Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, cousin of Emmy-winning filmmaker George Hickenlooper.

"Colorado's perspective is, 'We will invest in an industry, but we're not going to subsidize it,' " Shand says. "So, no, we're not going to get 'Terminator 16' here. But we will get a week or 10 days of a 'Bucket List.' And, I'm happy with that."

Eight people to know in Colorado

Kevin Shand
Director, Colorado Office of Film, Television & Media
Contact: (303) 592-4075,,

Greg Babcock
Location manager
Credits: "Resurrecting the Champ," "Catch and Release"
Contact: (303) 868-3184,

Jim Berger
CEO, Highnoon Entertainment
Credits: "Cake Boss," "Food Network Challenge"
Contact: (303) 712-3280,

Tim Drnec

Special-effects supervisor
Credits: "The Dark Knight," "Spider-Man 3"
Contact: (303) 922-2202,

Kathleen Ham
Actor and voice-over talent agent, Donna Baldwin Talent
Contact: (303) 561-1199,

Sarah Liles
Production head, Futuristic Films
Contact: (303) 557-9670,

Heidi McLean
Founder, Crew Connection, for video-crew referral; and the payroll service, PayReel
Contact: (800) 352-7397

Ken Seagren

President, Lighting Services
Credits: "Imagine That," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith"
Contact: (303) 885-7736,