EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I is an overview of the Utah film industry in the current moment. Part II (tomorrow) will offer a summary preview of the Sundance 2024 films, which The Utah Review will cover.
There is a fortuitous historical confluence to celebrate this year, as the Sundance Film Festival is set to open tomorrow (Jan. 18) and continue through Jan. 28 with in-person premieres in Park City, Utah and Salt Lake City, along with plenty of online options during the second half of the festival.
Sundance is marking its 40th anniversary in 2024, which emphasizes how the signature event has expanded the international visibility of Utah as a cosmopolitan center for film appreciation and literacy and as a viable economic and creative entrepreneurial powerhouse for propagating independent filmmaking and for cultivating a deep comprehensive bench of cinematic talent in front and behind the scene.
As historically consequential as Sundance has been for Utah’s involvement in the film industry, the state’s connection to cinema goes back many more decades.Thus, 2024 marks the centennial of the first films ever shot in Utah, along with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Utah Film Commission.
The Utah Film Commission staff is marking the impressive milestone with a comprehensive exhibition celebrating 100 years of Utah film, which is available through the end of this year on the fourth floor of the Utah State Capitol building (see The Utah Review link for a feature about the centennial and an interview with film historian James D’Arc, author of When Hollywood Came to Utah).
The Utah Film Commission is also curating a traveling extension of the exhibit in collaboration with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. Also, the Utah Historic Film Trail will highlight markers at memorable locations seen on the big and small screens across the state. Details on 100 Years of Utah Film & Television events, exhibits and special screenings can be found here.
“Utah’s splendor is undeniable, and its century-long journey in film is a testament to that. Unparalleled scenery, breathtaking landscapes, and a vibrant creative community are what drew me to this region. It was that beauty alone that created the foundation of my movie,” Kevin Costner, who has filmed numerous projects in Utah, including the upcoming, multi-part film Horizon: An American Saga, said in a prepared statement.
ECONOMIC IMPACT AND INCENTIVES
As Virginia Pearce, head of the Utah Film Commission noted, the film industry’s economic impact in terms of the productions has been enormous over the last 10 years. Expenditures related to productions have topped $604 million, with rural spending exceeding $293 million. Some 237 productions have benefitted from various incentive programs which the state has offered. These include the Motion Picture Incentive Program (MPIP), which offers a 20%-25% post performance incentive that offers a cash rebate or fully refundable, non-transferable tax credit on qualified dollars left in the state of Utah. This incentive is ideal for narrative, documentary, and episodic series that intend to be distributed commercially. The second principal option is the Community Film Incentive Program (CFIP). This offers a 20% post-performance cash rebate specifically for projects that originate in Utah with budgets between $100,000 – $500,000. The CFIP targets new and up-and-coming local filmmakers and productions.
A significant development in Utah’s film industry in recent years was expanding the film tax credit to Utah rural communities, which the state legislature approved. Thus, these areas are now formally acknowledged as ideal locations for productions, emphasizing that producers and directors have options beyond the usual options of Salt Lake City and Park City for location shooting. The Utah Film Commission designated 19 Film Ready Utah communities for supporting productions in their area with access to locations, professional crews and vendors.
While communities such as Kanab, Moab, Ogden and those in the Utah Valley region already were well known, the commission designated a dozen other counties in the state as conducive to film and television producers and directors: Box Elder, Cache, Carbon, Davis, Emery, Garfield, Heber Valley, Juab, San Juan, Tooele, Uintah, Washington and Wayne. When D’Arc asked a Moab rancher if the movies that came to his area to be filmed were a good or bad thing, he responded by saying, “all they took were pictures and all they left was money.”
At a recent panel discussion in the Utah State Capitol, held in conjunction with the opening of the centennial exhibition, several industry professionals summarized their experiences of working in Utah. Jerusha Hess, a career writer, producer and director, who joined her husband in the making of Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, which both saw their premieres at Sundance in various years, recalled the days when she and her husband were at Brigham Young University and the lead-up to the premiere of their first Sundance project.
WHY UTAH IS IDEAL HOME FOR FILMMAKERS
About Napoleon DynamIte, which had its premiere in 2004, Hess said, “We were hungry and we just desperate to eat.” She added that the project had briefly sidelined her studies and that it took a moment for BYU to confer her degree. Hess said that their budget for Napoleon Dynamite was $200,000, which was “huge for college kids like us,” she added. When the comedy premiered at Sundance and the audience laughed at the sight of Napoleon Dynamite on the school bus, Hess recalled that she and her husband were relieved,“they get it and we’re going to be able to eat.” Napoleon Dynamite also is one of the Sundance films receiving a 4K restoration for an anniversary screening (Jan. 24, 7 p.m., in Park City) during this year’s festival. The original 35mm cut negative was digitally scanned at a 4K resolution by Disney and Searchlight Pictures. All color and restoration work was also performed at 4K resolution, which was approved by the director (Jared Hess’s.
As for why she and her husband have stayed in Utah as their film careers expanded, she said it has made logistical sense to stay in Salt Lake City and commute to Los Angeles, which she explained was still shorter in time than if they lived in Pasadena. One of their most recent projects, an exceptional animated short titled Ninety-Five Senses, has been shortlisted for a potential Academy Award nomination this year. The film was made with the Salt Lake Film Society’s MAST program. MAST provides grants, training and mentorship to animators and filmmakers, with a special emphasis on projects that change minds and change the world. Its program includes a fellowship, labs, mentorship, career advocacy, networking, contests, productions and funding
Amy Redford, who lives in Salt Lake City and whose father founded Sundance, talked about the innate scrappy spirit to accomplish things in Utah and how the mountains play an important part in framing cinematic narratives.This was evident in her most recent project What Comes Around, a narrative based on a play by Scott Organ. Redford said in an interview with The Utah Review last summer that he decision to film the project entirely in state was a given from the outset. The production team is packed with Utah professionals and Geralyn Dreyfous, co-founder of Impact Partners and Gamechanger Films and the co-founder of the Utah Film Center, was executive producer. The film also was made possible through the Utah Film Commission’s Motion Picture Incentive Program.
In the same interview, Redford explained that she is grateful for how the Park City community came out to support the project, adding that they “were so generous towards us.” The Utah landscape became central for finding the ideal home for the characters of Beth and Anna, she adds. “The home is an oasis for the two of them yet Beth was starting to bust out of it a little bit so there was an intentional contained feeling within the home,” Redford said . “But when you leave the home, you also have the expanse of the mountains. For me psychologically, the mountains have always been a source of humility and they implicate me in my truths. Whenever I am in the mountains I have to level out as a human being.”
One cinematic magnum opus currently on the books in Utah signifies a return to the genre that launched the state’s film industry a century ago: Kevin Costner’s Horizon: An American Saga Chapter 1 & 2, which are slated to premiere on June 28 and August 16, respectively. Based on a visit he made to Moab last summer to speak with Costner, D’Arc said that Costner has the same intuitive love of the land and is a man of the soil just as famed director John Ford was generations ago. “It was remarkable how he [Costner] never looked at the script even once from 8:45 in the morning to seven in the evening. It is this experience that is a perfect segue from one century to another in the story of Utah film and it is a story that no other state can duplicate.”
ACTIVITY IN 2023
While 2023 sprinted to a fast start, capitalizing on the momentum of film production traffic that had rebounded nicely since the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions of dollars in film productions slated in Utah grounded to a halt, with the strikes by the Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists that waylaid many Utah-based production and technical professionals, which also affected caterers, make-up artists, electricians, gaffers and suppliers of lumber and construction materials.
One saving grace came in smaller independent film productions, nimble and agile in their design. Among the twelve that saw production in 2023 was By His Hand, a film by brothers Taylor (director, writer and producer) and Ethan (writer and producer) Paur. The feature-length film, which is now being edited for a target completion date by fall of this year, is a narrative about a couple who are being pursued by a man after they left a religious cult community.
The Paur brothers’ feature project emerged from a short film by the same which saw its premiere at the 2021 Fear No Film program at the Utah Arts Festival. As The Utah Review noted at the time, “By His Hand … is a worthy thriller pitting a religious cult’s leader against a young man who realizes just how much his elder has abused his power through coercion. Featuring all-Utah talent and production crew, the film is indicative of the core strengths that have made the state an appealing destination for industry professionals.” The short was completed just right before the COVID-19 pandemic halted many activities, beginning in March 2020.
The expanded film, which is being made through Scryer Productions LLC, qualified for the Utah Film Commission’s CFIP incentive. In an interview with The Utah Review, the brothers talked about the latest work and its Utah-driven story. Taylor explained that the narrative sprung from his own experiences during his youth with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: “While the short dealt with darker and colder themes, we wanted the feature story to jump to lighter vibes and feelings of catharsis.”
They revisited the original locations in the short, which was filmed on Antelope Island and the Fielding Garr Ranch there, which conveyed the sense of isolation and desolation in the midst of civilization. For the feature, they have expanded the options including the shallow solar evaporation ponds on the Great Salt Lake along with the industrial settings along Beck Street in North Salt Lake. The fact that these contrasting settings are located within an hour’s drive makes for efficient, affordable filmmaking on a modest production budget. “In conceptualizIng and writing the film’s characters and storylines, we realized how Utah as a silent character is baked into the story and is an inextricable part of how the narrative takes shape,” Ethan added.
The past year also included theatrical releases as well as premieres on AMC+, Amazon Prime Video, Bravo, Peacock, Apple TV+, Disney+, Food Network, Great American Family, History Channel, Netflix, Hulu and Discovery Channel. Others included Love in Zion National: A National Park Romance for the Hallmark Channel as well as a sequel to one of the most watched holiday films on Hallmark, with the original titled, Haul Out the Holly: Lit Up. The sequel, Haul Out The Holly 2 generated Utah spending of more than $2.62 million. The made-for-television holiday films, which are popular every year when they are broadcast, are among the most effective projects to generate quick economic impact for their respective Utah hosts.
One of the most critically acclaimed projects which had its Sundance debut in 2023 came from Utah based filmmaker Luis Fernando Puente who made I Have No Tears, and I Must Cry. (The film was just selected for the week of Jan. 22 as Short of the Week.) This was a 13-minute narrative short entirely focused on Maria Luisa and her husband Jorge, as they are being interviewed by a U.S. immigration officer for Maria Luisa’s green card. The short has had quite a run at film festivals since then (30), along with seven prizes (including Dallas International Film Festival, Grand Jury Price for Narrative Short Film; Cine Las Americas International Film Festival: Texas Archive of the Moving Image, Best Hecho en Tejas; best of fest and best narrative short at the Nevada City Film Festival; 44 CineFestival San Antonio: Winner Best Texas Short Film and The Utah Short Film of the Year honors at Utah Arts Festival’s Fear No Film along with a Fear No Film Award for Cinematography).
Last June, An untitled episodic series from Paramount was approved for the Utah Motion Picture Incentive Program to film in Summit County at the Utah Film Studios, with an estimated Utah spend of $40 million. With last year’s strikes now settled, it is anticipated that the project will proceed in 2024, which will infuse a good amount of cash into rural communities.
UTAH FILM CENTER
Considering that Sundance’s feature-length juried slate is about 27% slimmer than in recent years, the fact that three documentaries which received Utah Film Center’s fiscal sponsorship were accepted. Mariah Mellus, the center’s executive center, said that “these three particular films resonated with the center because of how they not only capture what the world looks like in 2023 but also the concerns of history being neglected or forgotten and what it means to protect and preserve for the future what is lost when one generation passes.”
The three documentaries include a World Cinema Documentary Competition entry: Eternal You (directed by G Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck) about how startups are using artificial intelligence to help grieving relatives communicate with their loved ones who have died. The other two, in the U.S. Documentary Film Competition, are Gaucho Gaucho (directed by and Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who also made The Truffle Hunters, a 2020 Sundance documentary that also received the center’s fiscal sponsorship) and Porcelain War (directed by Brendan Bellomo and Slava Leontyev). Gaucho Gaucho is about Argentinian cowboys and cowgirls while Porcelain War follows three artists who decided to stay in Ukraine and fight in the war with Russia. (NOTE: More about these films in Part II of The Utah Review’s curtain raiser and then later in-depth coverage during Sundance).
Mellus explained the films epitomize the kind of artistic excellence the center looks for in how the filmmakers illuminate the possibilities of human connection and ways to advocate for communities, which is central to the film center’s mission and criteria for determining if projects merit fiscal sponsorship.
More recently, The Right to Read, a documentary by Jenny Mackenzie with LeVar Burton as executive producer, which focuses on improving literacy in the early childhood years, has gained national attention and has been picked by PBS. In the last 11 years, nearly 50 fiscally sponsored films have premiered at Sundance (including the three for this year) and at least 28 have amassed one or more major honors not only at Sundance but also at other film festivals and in the international film industry. Among them have been the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which has won more than 50 festival awards: The Invisible War, which included an Academy Award nomination for best documentary, previous Sundance premieres including Truffle,Hunters, Plan C and Feels Good Man, and Emmy-nominated productions including Allen v. Farrow, Belly of the Beast and Citizen Ashe.
The fiscal sponsorship program has proven its concept especially for filmmakers who are not just looking to submit their films to Sundance but to give them life extending to national and international film festival circuits as well as distribution in theatrical channels and broadcast and streaming platforms. Once a project is accepted into the program, the film can take advantage of the film center’s role as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, making it easier for donors to contribute directly to the project of their choice. It has become a win-win model for all stakeholders, including donors who contribute to specific center’s fiscal sponsorship initiatives.
Donations are completely tax-deductible, and filmmakers receive 94 percent of the donations, as the center only uses six percent of each donation to cover administrative expenses. And, every film that receives fiscal sponsorship is eventually presented at one of the many free, public screenings the center offers every year.
Undoubtedly, the fiscal sponsorship program has boosted Utah Film Center’s international profile in film. Mellus cites Geralyn Dreyfous, one of the cofounders of the center and an internationally known executive producer, as an essential source. This includes such projects as the 2022 documentary Navalny, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature last year.
“She has traveled the world and always looks for the most compelling and powerful stories and has been the best recruiter for identifying projects that merit our attention and build the reputation of our film programming,” Mellus added. In fact, many projects come from “return customers,” as she explained. Dreyfous is cofounder of Impact Partners and Gamechanger Films. This year, Impact Partners has four documentary films in Sundance: Eternal You, Gaucho Gaucho, Sugarcane and Union.
Two films that have premiered at Sundance in which Dreyfous is credited as executive producer are shortlisted for Academy Award nominations, which will be announced next week. Premiering at Sundance in 2023, Beyond Utopia. directed by Madeleine Gavin, chronicles the astounding journeys of families who are attempting to defect from North Korea, aware that severe terms of imprisonment or execution await them if they are caught. The film won the audience award in the U.S. Documentary Comepeition at Sundance and The second is Sam Green’s documentary, 32 Sounds, which premiered online at Sundance in 2022. Green’s film, a cinematic composition of unique structure, integrates science, physics, music and sound design so exquisitely.
In an interview with The Utah Review, Dreyfous said she was drawn to Beyond Utopia in the same way that Navalny, which was directed by Daniel Roher, had raised awareness about how societies that move toward a totalitarian regime attempt to block all access for others to observe and confront what is happening. “The footage they managed to get out involved a lot of bravery,” she said, adding that many used a system much like the Underground Railroad where brokers were paid to help document and ensure the footage ended up in the hands of those documenting the story. “The conditions snowed just how much people were willing to forgo and sacrifice on the ground.” Beyond Utopia has stood out for relying not on re-enactments of defections but on real-time footage documenting the escape to safe passage.
Dreyfous encourages locals to take a longitudinal and progressive view about the Sundance legacy. “Utah has been very blessed to have Sundance here and how leadership has been required from the state to see Sundance as a stakeholder which has helped many to appreciate film as an essential part of the quality of life locally as well as its economic impact on the state.” Indeed, as the focus this year is on how rural sections of Utah have long benefited from the film industry throughout the last century, State Rep. Jeff Stenquist has introduced legislation to make the film tax incentive permanent, which originally has been set to expire this year. In press statements, he said that $12 million in incentives could translate to well over $100 million in revenue generated in Utah. The bill had its first reading this week.
Last fall, the Utah Film Center resurrected the Artist Foundry, which had been discontinued during the pandemic. “The program brings the desserts of the fiscal sponsorship opportunities full circle by infusing the same sense of creative entrepreneurship for local filmmakers,” Mellus explained. “The goal of the Foundry is to connect filmmakers with expertise about the best practices so that their projects can be taken from an idea to a completed film ready for audiences.”
Upcoming for the Artist Foundry will be a comprehensive Business of Filmmaking workshop series. Topics include obtaining insurance coverage, filing taxes, pitching films for release and distribution and raising funds from multiple sources for production.
Mellus believes the Artist Foundry will encourage local filmmakers that they do not necessarily need to flock to Southern California to carve their niche in the industry but that the ecosystem in Utah is extensive enough to support their creative ambitions. “We already have an established tradition of filmmaking in Utah will organizations such as Spy Hop and outstanding programs at the college and university level, which have built a good support system.”
For complete details about Sundance films and tickets, see the festival website.
Follow The Utah Review daily for reviews and interviews on films through the festival, which ends on Jan. 28.