Colorado's Film Industry: Lights, Camera – No Action?

The state used to dominate in the movie space, but those days are gone

Colorado once ruled the Rockies when it came to Hollywood shoots. John Wayne with an eyepatch, Clint Eastwood with an orangutan, Jim Carrey on a moped — these iconic Hollywood moments were all filmed in Colorado.

But the game changed in the 1990s, as film incentives came into vogue in neighboring states as well as Canada, and other countries began offering tax credits and rebates. Production in Utah and New Mexico boomed as it flatlined in Colorado.

With hit shows and movies like “The Walking Dead” and “Black Panther” shot in the state, Georgia enjoyed $2.7 billion in direct spending from film and TV productions in fiscal year 2018. The Peach State handed out $800 million in tax credits as incentives to producers — more than double California and second in the world to only the United Kingdom — the year before.

Meanwhile, Colorado's 2018-19 budget included $750,000 to incentivize film and TV production, less than 1 percent of Georgia's program, and down from $5 million in 2014. The direct spending by production companies was about $8 million in Colorado last fiscal year. 

That represents a big drop from the mean. The Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media awarded $16.1 million in incentives from 2013 to 2018, resulting in $111 million in direct spending in the state. The net cost of $2.8 million to the state translates to a 40-to-1 return on investment. The incentives are reserved for productions with a certain percentage of local crew members, so it also helps foster a workforce with the right skill sets for future productions. 

"There was an incentive, but it was very small, 10 percent," says Donald Zuckerman, director of the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media since 2011. "For five years prior to my arrival, nothing had been made here from out of state."

But that changed after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill with $5 million in production incentives in 2014, followed by $3 million in each of the subsequent two budgets.

The incentives helped attract such big-budget productions as “The Fast and the Furious” sequel “Furious 7,” Quentin Tarantino Western “The Hateful Eight,” and “Our Souls at Night,” starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

“Furious 7” shoots on the Pikes Peak Highway and Monarch Pass led to about $13 million in direct spending. "We got them here with a $700,000 incentive," he says.

Zuckerman assesses “Our Souls at Night” as "a really fantastic victory." A $1.5 million package led to $17 million in direct spending.

Then there's the indirect spending that comes thanks to the starring roles in movies and shows that have global audiences. Beyond a $35 million spend for exterior shoots and 9,000 hotel-room nights, "There were over a billion hits on the internet on stories that mentioned ‘The Hateful Eight’ and Colorado and Telluride," Zuckerman says.

He also laments a missed opportunity: Producers of Spike Lee's “BlacKkKlansman,” based on a true story in Colorado Springs, put out a few feelers before production began in late 2017. "We didn't have any [incentives] left," Zuckerman says. "It would have been a nice get."


Photo Courtesy of Colin Floom

State funding fell from $3 million to $750,000 in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 budgets, and the impact was palpable. "We only did one feature film this fiscal year," Zuckerman says. "It's very low-budget."

The lesson? "We don't have trouble getting people to come here when we have money," Zuckerman says. "We are in Gov. (Jared) Polis’ budget for $2 million this coming fiscal year. If the Budget Committee decides to go with it, it will help. It will also prove the point, when you take it down, there's less business. When you take it away, there's no business."

But it's still lower than the state's 2016-17 funding, and just about a quarter of Utah's.

Then there's New Mexico, with a $50 million package.

John Bourbonais, owner of Bourbon Street Productions in Colorado Springs and a cinematographer, director and virtual-reality producer, has worked on shoots in states supported heavily by tax incentives, and found the local crew bases "had a lot of depth."

Colorado is lacking by comparison. "From a camera perspective, we don't have a lot of depth," Bourbonais says. "These markets are nurtured for decades. With that kind of annual commitment, the crews get more and more robust. You don't just have one craft services company, you have a dozen."

Bourbonais notes that it's taken 25 years for New Mexico to foster its local film industry, and that's taken on a bigger magnitude in the post-“Breaking Bad” era: Netflix bought ABQ Studios, the state's largest production facility, in fall 2018. The $30 million deal (which was heavily subsidized by the state of New Mexico and city of Albuquerque) is expected to bring in $1 billion of production in the next decade and create up to 1,000 jobs.

Noting that Netflix plans to shoot 23 series a year at the studios, Bourbonais does some back-of-the-napkin math: Each season of each of those series will require a camera crew of about nine people, and the breakneck schedule will keep eight crews – about 72 people – working year-round at Amazon alone.

"There aren't 72 camera operations of that stature in Colorado," he says. "It's just sort of basic math."

“Breaking Bad” and spinoff “Better Call Saul” came in the wake of “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” shooting in New Mexico. “These were major motion pictures that were shot there," Bourbonais says. "The scenery was right, the crews were right and the tax incentives were right."

Bourbonais says the incentive pullback in 2016 hurt the industry in Colorado. "We were just starting to build momentum," he says. "I can't say we're any further along than we were five years ago. There just isn't the consistency in the commitment."

Patrick Hackett of Neon Sheep Pictures in Denver is series producer and director of PBS's “Urban Conversion” show that recently shot its third season in Arvada and former president of the Colorado Film and Video Association.

Hackett describes "a boom of activity” after the incentive boost in 2014. "There was a ton of features being shot and a lot of locals were working. Practice makes perfect. Constantly working makes people better. You're learning from people who have done these jobs for 25, 30 years. They're veterans of their crafts."

And big productions provide entry-level work for local production assistants. "You can start bringing up the new wave of crew base," Hackett says.

The wave crashed, however, when state funding dropped two years ago. "When the incentives go away, out-of-state producers don't see this as an option," Hackett says.

He says several industry peers have left since 2017. "They're picking up and going to Georgia. They're moving to Atlanta. They're moving to New Mexico."

Why? "They have the infrastructure,” he says. “The industry has been there long enough that people think it's legitimate." 

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