Wyoming lawmakers to weigh film subsidy program - Cheyenne, WY Cap City News
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Wyoming lawmakers to weigh film subsidy program

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Reed Lindsay, who made a political documentary about Wyoming. (Jihan Hafiz)

August 27, 2021 by Nick ReynoldsWyoFile

Wyoming lawmakers will pursue a film subsidy program in the upcoming legislative session. The move follows several years of industry pressure.

The Joint Committee on Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources on Thursday advanced a proposal that would allow film productions to apply for up to $3 million in rebates from the Wyoming Department of Tourism for production expenses.

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Rep. Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan) was the sole opponent to the initiative.

The draft proposal aims to make Wyoming more competitive for television, film and commercial projects, which have long favored states with incentive programs. It also seeks to expand an industry that has seen little state support.

“The Wyoming field film industry isn’t a cottage industry,” Brett Hills, chief financial officer for the Wilson-based film company Teton Gravity Research, said. “It’s here, it’s expansive and it’s sustainable.”

No lack of interest

Even without a film subsidy program, a number of notable projects have filmed in Wyoming.

Hollywood movies like “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” have filmed scenes in Jackson Hole, and Rolls Royce has shot commercials in the foothills west of Sheridan. Each production injected hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy, industry officials said: in one week of filming, “El Camino’s” roughly 100-person crew spent approximately $500,000 in Wyoming, Dubois-based location scout Kate Wilshire told lawmakers.

But the film incentive program is not motivated by who has come here, state tourism director Diane Shober told lawmakers. It’s about who hasn’t.

Wyoming author C.J. Box — whose work was recently adapted into the television series “Big Sky” — sought to film episodes of the show in Wyoming, only to watch the production pursue a friendlier incentive environment in British Columbia, according to documents presented Thursday. “Brokeback Mountain,” an iconic story by Annie Proulx about two Wyoming cowboys in a forbidden romance, was filmed almost entirely in Alberta for financial reasons, according to media reports.  

It’s not for a lack of interest, industry leaders told lawmakers. According to the Wyoming Department of Tourism, the agency received 167 film inquiries during the pandemic, only to see the projects select states like Oklahoma and New Mexico.

The missed opportunities stem from Wyoming’s lack of a film subsidy program, industry leaders said.

“I’ve hosted Alison Eastwood, daughter of Clint Eastwood, World Wrestling Entertainment and numerous location scouts,” Sheridan-based filmmaker Sean Patrick Higgins told lawmakers. “There are many production companies that would love to shoot in Wyoming but ended up turning to New Mexico, Georgia or Louisiana based on the strength of local incentives.”

How it will work

According to draft recommendations provided by the Wyoming Department of Tourism, the cash rebate program would operate on two different tiers, including one for small productions and one for large productions.

At minimum, large productions would receive a rebate on qualified expenses of at least 15%, while small productions would receive 10%. Productions could earn additional rebates for accepting certain conditions in their productions, including the use of local crews, the promise of high circulation, using Wyoming-based storylines and committing to conduct all post-production work in Wyoming. Down the line, the proposal could also offer additional incentives to productions that hire veterans or displaced workers from the energy industry.

Before receiving the rebate, productions would need to subject themselves to a financial audit and offer  detailed distribution plans with circulation estimates.

The upside

Industry figures show states with film incentives see triple the amount of business than states that offer none, Higgins said. Wyoming, he said, currently finds itself well behind peers like Utah, Idaho and Montana, which established its own subsidy program in 2019.

Sheridan filmmaker Sean Patrick Higgins testifies in favor of a film subsidy program at the Wyoming Legislature’s Aug. 26, 2021 Joint Committee on Travel, Recreation and Wildlife meeting. (Screenshot/Wyoming Legislature)

Wyoming’s film production incentives rank lowest among all states in the lower-48, Higgins told lawmakers. Under the proposed incentive program, Wyoming’s station would improve to 40th.

Even that slight improvement would pay dividends, advocates said. According to figures Higgins provided, the proposed film subsidy could potentially generate up to $60 million in annual economic activity as well as 1,200 new jobs, opening the door for Wyoming to compete for anywhere from $2.6 billion to $3.9 billion in market share. (That number is likely ambitious, he cautioned: Colorado’s robust film industry attracts $1.3 billion in projects annually, while the film industry in states like Oklahoma and New Mexico generate roughly $160 million and $275 million respectively in economic activity each year.) 

Over the next six years, Higgins estimated his company alone could generate an economic impact of up to $100 million.

If structured properly, the incentives could help generate more than local spending, Higgins said; they could generate jobs.

Internationally, 95% of all soundstages are at capacity, he said, necessitating the construction of additional facilities and the hiring of more people to work them. Working roughly three jobs per year, the average film production worker in Wyoming could make anywhere between $42,000 to $150,000 for jobs ranging from electrical work to construction, he said. Higgins said the industry could help aid Wyoming workers during the current energy transition as well. 

With an anticipated capacity for 10 to 15 productions each year, Higgins said, Wyoming is well positioned to capitalize on an existing demand for content. And with titles like “Big Sky,” and “Longmire” gaining in popularity, the American West is uniquely positioned to take advantage.   

“This is not a Field of Dreams scenario,” Higgins said. “If we do bring this incentive and we do bring some soundstage and infrastructure, these folks will come.”

Complications

Though film subsidy programs have become commonplace in other states, the Wyoming Constitution has parameters that restrict handing public money directly to private corporations, according to a Legislative Service Office memo. That word of caution was enough to earn a ‘no’ vote from Jennings, who raised concerns about the program’s constitutionality as well as the prospect of government “picking winners and losers.”

“In this case we’re picking Hollywood as the winners, and the losers being small businesses around the state who have struggled in the last year to keep their doors open,” he said.

To get around the constitutional issues, lawmakers would need to write a definition for the program that would characterize film production companies as serving a “public purpose,” a vague term often applied in Wyoming to any business whose activities serve the public good. In most cases, the memo read, the merits of each project would be defined on their merits on a case-by-case basis.

Because film subsidies are a prerequisite for filming — and would  generate jobs — lawmakers could likely make the argument that granting film subsidies would generate a public’s benefit. However, attorneys with LSO warned lawmakers that the terms of the legislation be careful to address the terms of what is in the public’s benefit.

“To help address the constitutional issues discussed in this memorandum, any such legislation should clearly serve a public purpose and make certain that the state receives adequate consideration in return for any monetary incentives being offered under the program,”  the memo read. “Without these components, any such program would likely be subject to challenge under the Wyoming Constitution.” 


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.