Made in America: Utah

On the set of "High School Musical 2"

The state might not have incentives like Louisiana or New Mexico, but its skilled labor force and unique landscape draw more specialized shoots.

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Producer Bill Borden was putting together a low-budget, made-for-cable movie and was having trouble finding a good location. The project, Disney Channel's "High School Musical," required the right mix of outdoor aesthetics and a strong talent pool -- and Borden had to pull it off for next to nothing. Then, the film's director-choreographer, Kenny Ortega, clued him into a secret he had discovered while staging dance numbers for the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City: Other states might have better tax incentives, but Utah has one of the biggest collections of dancers this side of the Great White Way.

"Actually, all the performing arts are a big thing in Utah," says state film commission director Marshall Moore. "There are private dance companies" -- including three professional troupes in Salt Lake alone -- "and there are dance companies in schools at different levels."

Ortega's discovery has led to a miniboom in musical production in Utah. In addition to last year's surprise smash "HSM" and its sequel -- which drew a record 17.6 million viewers to Disney Channel when it premiered in August -- Borden and producing partner Barry Rosenbush have shot the upcoming "Lock and Roll Forever" for Disney Channel in Utah, and they're planning to return next year to shoot the MTV tuner "American Mall" in Provo, as well as "High School Musical 3."

The influx of musicals comes at a good time for Utah's motion picture and television production industry, which has lost business in recent years to aggressive states like Louisiana and New Mexico, which offer enticing 25% tax credits, compared with Utah's 15%. But, as Borden knows, when it comes to formulating a film budget, the raw percentages of a state's tax credits do not tell the whole story.

"We make dance movies, so for us, (the talent) is critical," Borden says. "We need 30 or 40 dancers. If we were in New Mexico or Shreveport (La.), we'd be bringing all those people in."

And it's not just the skills of Utah residents that impress filmmakers.
"Kenny told me, 'There's such a good feel amongst this group of people,'" Moore says. "He said it was different than any other place he'd been. He felt comfortable with the talent level here and, more importantly, their attitude."

The good vibes extend beyond on-camera talent.

"The work ethic was amazing," says Robert May, producer of the upcoming SenArt Films feature "Bonneville," of the crew on that film, which stars Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen. "And pretty much anyone who's worked with the crew there says the same thing. There doesn't seem to be the sense of entitlement that you experience in other places. We had a lot of strange weather conditions, and they'd say to us, 'Why don't we just keep going, because weather's on our side right now.' They'd be the ones that would advocate going the extra mile."

Crew members are not only good-natured, they're also plentiful. According to Moore, Utah has accumulated enough experienced film workers to staff five major productions at a time, thanks to the presence of a succession of TV shows over the past 15 years, including "Touched by an Angel" (1994-2003), "Promised Land" (1996-99), "Cover Me" (2000) and "Everwood" (2002-06).

An abundant local crew not only saves on lodging costs and per diems, it also determines how well a production can take advantage of an incentive, because most tax credit programs are based on in-state spend, and out-of-town hires don't count.

"New Mexico has a great incentive, but they're so busy that it's impossible to get a crew," says producer Susan Johnson, who shot one feature in Utah last year (Sony's "Wieners") and is preparing to shoot another ("Jerusalem Avenue"). "You end up bringing in people from Los Angeles and New York, so that eats up your incentive right there."

Crew or no crew, May was prepared to shoot "Bonneville" in incentive-rich New Mexico, even though the film is set partly in Utah. But the New York-based producer was won over by the five-star treatment he received from the Utah Film Commission when he came scouting.

On his trip, May witnessed another advantage Utah has over states such as Louisiana and New Mexico: its diversity of terrain, which makes it a good fit for road movies like "Bonneville" and "Wieners." Within an hour of downtown Salt Lake, there are deserts to the west and mountains (covered with snow in the winter) to the east, a smattering of small towns and farming communities, and a wealth of suburbs capable of standing in for a wide range of American locations.

For those based in Los Angeles, it also makes for an easy commute, as director Paul Feig discovered while working on last year's Warner Bros. comedy "Unaccompanied Minors" in Salt Lake.

"It's a quick one-and-a-half-hour plane flight, so I could go home on the weekends when we weren't in production," Feig says. "And I pulled a lot of favors getting name people who I've worked with to come in and do one scene here and one scene there, and it was really easy to fly them in."

According to L.A.-based author, actress and radio personality Sandra Tsing Loh, who has a small part in the film, the good feelings start as soon as the plane touches down.

"Everyone is always pleased with the Salt Lake City airport," she says, "because it's so neat and so clean compared to LAX, and the shuttle drivers are so cheerful, so everybody is like, 'Look how beautiful it is! Look at the clean air! We should all live here!'"

In spite of all the advantages, motion picture and television production in Utah has declined recently. While the number of film productions has remained steady at 23 per year for the last two fiscal years, no TV series has been shot in the state since "Everwood" was canceled in 2006. Last year, in-state spend on TV production was down to $610,000, compared with $23 million the year before, and film production has also fallen, from $144 million to $109 million.

It all comes down to competition. When Utah launched its incentive program with a 10% tax credit in 2004, there were only 15 other states offering film incentives. Today, there are upward of 40, and many have programs far more generous than Utah's. This year, the Utah state legislature approved a measure raising the tax credit to 15% and the annual cap from $1 million to $4 million. But that hardly compares to Connecticut, which last year established a program featuring a 30% tax credit that counts labor and equipment brought in from out of state.

"Other states are offering larger incentives because they're trying to build an industry from scratch," Moore says. "We have two rental houses. We have crew. We have guys with picture cars, guys that have trailers. It's all here. So we don't need to build an industry. We need to sustain the industry here and grow it."

The scary thing for Utah's film community is that states like Louisiana and New Mexico seem to be building their own industries quite successfully. In addition to bulging production slates and ever-increasing crew bases, both states boast state-of-the-art studios. New Mexico has the new $74 million Albuquerque Film Studios, and Louisiana has three major production facilities in Shreveport alone, with another on the way.

The best Utah has to offer at this point is Stone 5 Studios, which can only accommodate independent productions or small studio features, according to Bryce Fillmore, the studio's head of distribution. And while Stone 5 has hosted a variety of secular features, such as the upcoming "Beau Jest," starring Seymour Cassel and Lainie Kazan, a large portion of its business is dedicated to producing films targeting the state's large Mormon market through its HaleStorm Entertainment shingle, such as the 2006 comedy "Church Ball."

But for those not looking for large soundstage space, like the producers of MTV's "American Mall," Utah's mix of talent, locations and positive attitude, combined with its 15% credit, can be enough to seal the deal.

"We looked at New Mexico and Arizona for the money," Borden says, "but in the end, the Provo Towne Center mall gave us a great deal to be there, and they're being extremely flexible about how we can work there, which we really needed. So that made our choice."

Production Incentive: Utah gives approved productions with an in-state spend of $1 million or more a 15% rebate on Utah expenditures, with a cap of $500,000 per project. The program has an overall cap of $4 million per fiscal year, which runs July 1-June 30, so filmmakers need to get in line early -- or they won't get in at all. The state also has a transient room tax exemption, covering sales-related taxes for accommodation charges for stays of 30 consecutive days or longer, and a sales and use tax exemption, which frees film, television and video productions from paying sales tax on machinery and equipment at the point of purchase.

Onscreen: Utah in Hollywood

John Ford Films: The legendary director shot nine Westerns against the backdrop of the Monument Valley's majestic red rock buttes, including such classics as "Stagecoach" (1939) and "The Searchers" (1956).

"Footloose" (1984): The small towns of Payson and Lehi portray a backwards burg where rock music and dancing are banned.

"Thelma & Louise" (1991): Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis end it all by driving off Shafer Overlook in Canyonlands National Park.

"Mission Impossible II" (2000): In the opening rock-climbing sequence, Tom Cruise dangles from the face of Dead Horse Point, a high plateau between the Green and Colorado rivers.

"Everwood" (2002-06): Set in a small town in Colorado, the series was actually shot on location in Ogden and Salt Lake City.

"High School Musical" (2006): The telepic was filmed almost entirely on location at East High School in Salt Lake City, where singing and dancing are everywhere.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (2007): A vast stretch of cracked earth on the Bonneville Salt Flats portrays the purgatory realm of Davy Jones' Locker.


When in town: For a state that's home to the world's largest concentration of Mormons (60.7% of Utah's citizens are church members), its capital, Salt Lake City, has a surprisingly robust nightlife to appeal to industry types on location.

The Bayou, Circle Lounge, Kristaufs, The Metropolitan, Red Door
Utah has an array of quirky laws covering the sale and consumption of alcohol. Waiters can't suggest a drink; you have to ask for it. The alcohol content of beer sold at bars can't exceed 3.2%. A metered dispenser puts no more than 1 ounce of primary liquor in a mixed drink. Secondary alcoholic spirits may be added as the recipe requires, but the total alcohol content can't exceed 2.75 fluid ounces. "If you're drinking mixed drinks, that's fine," director Paul Feig says. "But when a 1-ounce martini shows up, it looks like they've given you someone else's unfinished drink."

Bombay House (Indian) Producer Susan Johnson recommends the chicken korma.
Cucina Toscana (Italian) Go for the cuisine and the Old World hospitality of proprietor Valter Nassi. "He is the biggest character ever," Feig says.
Market Street Grill (Seafood, steak, pasta) "It sort of feels like you're in San Francisco," Johnson says.
Red Iguana (Mexican) "There's always a line," Feig says, "but they've got the best moles I've ever had."
Takashi (sushi) Serving raw fish this far inland might seem dicey, but Salt Lake Magazine recently named Takashi the city's best eatery.