In the past two years filming for major motion pictures has made a comeback, and the Utah Film Commission projects that 2012 will be a “watershed year,” with film crews spending $56 million in the state. Lured to Utah by cash rebates, Sony Pictures and Disney were encamped in Moab for most of the summer.
The resurgence began in earnest in 2010 with Disney’s John Carter of Mars, which spent $20 million filming all over Utah, and 127 Hours began shooting soon thereafter. This summer, shooting for After Earth, starring Will Smith, and the Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp, have poured money into the Moab economy. Tara Campbell is director of the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission:
"We’re definitely over $5 million, just from this summer, for economic impact. They were spending this money in our hotels, our restaurants, our gift shops. It could be approaching closer to $10 million. When we had John Carter of Mars and 127 hours we were close to $14 million dollars that year, left in the community."
Spending included rental of high-end homes, and the leasing of private land in the back country to film big explosions that the BLM won’t allow. For weeks the Disney crew labored in a sweltering tent village that many referred to as “Mouse-schwitz.”
Was Moab ready for the return of big movie shoots?
"Yeah, yes, definitely," says Campbell. " I will say that a lot of our crew had moved away just because there was such a lull in the larger projects, and it wasn’t enough going on to support someone financially. We need to have crew here that are readily available and experienced."
There was a time when more than a hundred skilled locals were regularly employed in TV and film production. Budgets are tighter now. For the Lone Ranger, Disney mostly hired entry-level production assistants, who worked on short notice for $7.25 an hour. Michael Rivette, a 30-year film crew veteran, was one of the few Moab old-timers working on the sets.
"No one called me to be a grip, and I’m eminently qualified. I don’t know about everybody not being available or they didn’t really try hard enough. So I usually end up getting called,' Can you be here in ten minutes, or tomorrow?'"
Utah’s cash rebates favor larger projects, but Rivette says it was the smaller shoots that put money in his pocket: "Movies alone will never bring the business back to town, because we’re not Hollywood, and we don’t have studios."
In 1991, “Fossil Point” became forever after known as “Thelma and Louise Point,” and Moab’s glory days in the movie business were launched. At the time, Miso Tunks had a film tech-support business in Salt Lake City, which he moved to Moab. This summer, Tunks happily worked as a skilled set dresser for Disney.
"In Utah we do have some super-unique scenery. And the look of Canyonlands was really popular in the 90s, and there was a myriad of commercials that came through. It was a great time. There were tons of jobs. There was a really good skilled crew base here, between Salt Lake and Moab. My hope is this is the next wave of it, and that I’ve stayed around town long enough to catch the next wave."
Nobody expects the commercials to come back to Moab during a recession. But it turns out there are ways now to make new commercials without coming back, according to Tunks: "Digital post production, where you can take the 1999 or 1995 Toyota Tacoma truck out of the picture and put in the 2012 or 2013 into the same background plate, which we shot in the 90s, and that’s all stock footage now."
Joe and Doni Kiffmyer -- they are brothers -- have mostly moved on to other things, but they were part of the old Moab crew. One thing that hasn’t changed, the Kiffmeyers agree, is that being a lowly PA can still be a viable way to break into the business.
Doni: "Usually starts out as an office fluff. You gotta run errands go get coffee, stuff like that. You gotta go through your seasons of apprenticeship."
Joe: "We all did everything,"
Doni: "I mean, you drove one of the five-ton trucks maybe, or the motor home."
Joe: "Pick up this bundle and carry it over here. Or come back here and pick up another bundle. We’ve got this six tons of sand to move. Go to the airport and pick up the producer. You’re off in a brand-new rental car, going down from fossil point, yeah, you’ve got to pick him up in an hour (laughing) and he doesn’t like to be kept waiting."
Utah is locked with 40 other states in an “arms race” to offer film incentives. At some point, Greg Hughes, from Draper, is expected to introduce legislation to continue cash rebates for the big movies. State film boosters argue that the movies also bring tens of millions of dollars worth of “media exposure” and “publicity value” to Utah.