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

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.

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.

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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.” 

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  1. The growth of a new industry is certainly worth investigating, as other states have. Why should those movies be made elsewhere if they can be made in this great state? The legislature needs to craft the best guidelines for Wyoming. Wyoming needs to be known for more than fossil fuel there is opportunity here still untapped.

  2. Great Expectations.
    But believing that Wyoming with its prevailing attitudes , skewed demographics, and available tech labor pool is somehow a good fit with industrial scale filmmaking is very unrealistic. The actual pragmatic expectation is tempered by the lack of working knowledge about how the movie industry really works, and how it interfaces with the other economic sectors. For one thing , the big production houses are nearly all unionized. Example: No SAG card, no workee much.
    Perhaps the biggest thing working against Wyoming as host to moviemakers is the perception outside of the state is that Wyoming is a province of regressive , conservative to a major fault, and medievally dogmatic . That is mostly accurate seen thru the prism of the movie producer. If a movie is to be made here, thes tudio and or producers have to bring every bit of the equipment and nearly all the crew here to do it, and take it with them when they wrap. Having glorious scenery and settings is simply not enough to lure the entire movie machine here… just send the Second Unit tiger team to get the background vistas and whatever ends up on the green screen back on the real stage.

    When will Wyoming learn it cannot mandate that to live and work in Wyoming you must first conform to the Wyoming Way . We insist on that ( tolerance of Teton County’s aberrations being the exception ). We offer the movie industry very little up front. They really have no incentive to set up shop here. Let’s not be delusional about that …

  3. The state has been trying to pick winners and losers- they’re just not very good at it. Instead of putting all our development money into extraction industries (to the point of suing other states that have figured out that they don’t need our coal for God’s sake) maybe it’s time to look at some potential winners that actually have a future in the 21st century.

  4. We have to look at things in terms of real world consequences.
    Once the camel gets his nose under the tent you won’t keep him out.
    Hollywood makes no effort to hide their political opinions, bullying and lack of morality.
    States that respect election integrity get blacklisted. Just ask Georgia.
    So how would that work? You set them up for rebates and all looks fine. Then…
    Bam! They threaten to pull the production unless you do as you are told and change your politics to suit their perception of reality. If local towns and businesses have already made investments to service a production company the result can be devastating. Don’t think that can’t happen.
    That is the deal killer, unless you put it in writing that such bullying will not be tolerated and will be punished financially…. to compensate for any losses sustained locally due to breach of contract. I’d like to see if the production companies would agree to those terms. I think not. Everything is politics now.

  5. I talked to Craig Johnson and wondered why Longmire was not produced in Wyoming. His answer was Wyoming does not support the movie industry. He said there is only one paid employee in Wyoming government that promotes the industry with help. He told me New Mexico had twelve full-time people dedicated to nothing but bring in the film industry. Longmire is about a Wyoming sheriff, Yellowstone was produced in Utah. I remember Shane and other movies were shot in Wyoming. We are so tied to oil and gas nothing else exists. We have not diversified while all the states around us are booming.

  6. This all sounds good, but some due diligence needs to be done before blindly accepting the proposition that state film subsidies are a good investment. Do a google search for “economic benefits of film subsidies,” and you will find there has been a lot of research done that brings into question whether the subsidies are in fact more of a benefit than the costs.

  7. It is funny that “conservative” Wyoming is thinking of helping “liberal” Hollywood. Doesn’t one always attack the other?

  8. Good news. Sorry Longmire wasn’t mentioned as a six year production of a story set in Northern Wyoming but filmed in New Mexico. The C.J. Box series is new, one season- hoping for more.

  9. Outside of Jackson, it seems that the only way we can get people to do business in the state is with bribes. Filming is worthy if the payback is real but we may be paying people who would be here either way like TGR. Lower taxes, or breaks on expenses, for the businesses already here that contribute millions to our economy aren’t worthy, apparently.

    Choosing winners and losers, and favorites for handouts seems like the wrong way to address our economic desperation but it appears to be the only one we have.