“Why don’t movies film in Montana?”
Actually, they do. Kind of. Sort of. Kelly Reichardt’s latest, “Certain Women,” is currently a darling at festivals around the world; the Rami Malek vehicle, “Buster’s Mal Heart,” was one of the most hotly-anticipated movies at the Toronto International Film Festival this year; and “The Triangle,” an offbeat, unsettling horror flick, can currently be viewed on iTunes. Each of these is a quality independent feature, but they’re definitely not mainstream. Unless you’re incredibly film-savvy, they probably aren’t even on your radar. So movies are made in Montana … just not the movies you’re thinking of.
A better question to ask would be “Why don’t studio features film in Montana?” With bigger budgets, bigger crews, bigger names attached to their talent and better distribution, studio features are the movies you’ve heard of. “The Revenant” is one of the only studio features to film in Montana in recent years—though by “film in Montana,” I mean the crew was here for three days and 30 seconds of Montana made it into the final cut. (It was, admittedly, a killer 30 seconds. Remember that waterfall scene? That’s Big Sky Country through-and-through.)
So why don’t more studio features choose Montana? Why do indies with a budget above $4 million stray away? Why did a movie like “Cut Bank”—which not only takes place in Cut Bank, MT, but literally takes its title from the town—film in Alberta?
Short answer: because of the government.
Slightly longer answer: inaction on the part of Montana’s government has left Montana as a virtual non-competitor in the state-by-state fight to draw big-budget films into their borders.
For many productions choosing a filming location, the deciding factor comes down to what incentives a state can offer them. Back in the 90s, states started adopting incentives programs as a method of enticing productions into their borders and out of Canada, the granddaddy of killer incentives programs. (To this day, Canada remains a major competitor for American locations because of its ridiculously tempting program and lookalike locations.) Most incentive programs are tax incentives, meaning that out of all the money productions spend in-state (on resident crew, on local goods, on lodging, etc.) productions can receive a certain percentage of that money back (typically 20-30 percent, depending on the state).
State governments pay for productions to film in their states because movies—especially big studio films—burn through money like nothing else, stimulating local economies and giving jobs to local film crew. A good movie can also lead to a boom in the state’s tourism industry (i.e. “A River Runs Through It” and the rise in fly-fishing tourists in Montana). Currently, 38 states in the U.S. offer an incentives program of some kind, and Montana is one of them. Kind of.
In 2005, Montana introduced the “Big Sky on the Big Screen Act,” a tax credit program that offered productions 12 percent back on all in-state expenditures. However, Big Sky on the Big Screen sunsetted at the end of 2014 and wasn’t renewed during the 2015 legislature. (It died in committee after very little discussion.) With the loss of Big Sky on the Big Screen, the Big Sky Grant Program became Montana’s sole incentive to offer productions. The grant program differs from the tax credit in that it’s completely discretionary—after a competitive application process, only a few projects are selected to receive grant funding. And there is limited funding available.
With a $1 million annual cap, the Big Sky Film Grant has proven capable of drawing independent productions into the state. That’s because, for a film with a $2 million budget (which is small cash in the movie-making game), a $250,000 grant is pretty tempting since it’s akin to getting about 13 percent back. But to a large studio feature with a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars? A couple hundred thousand dollars is of little consequence, and when big-budget productions can get a better deal elsewhere, studio features have no reason to choose Montana.
Admittedly, Big Sky on the Big Screen had its faults. By only offering 12% back, it wasn’t strong enough to compete with states like Georgia, Louisiana, New York or California, all of which offer anywhere from 25-30 percent back. But Montana’s tax incentive should have been reworked, not abandoned. Incentives are the reality, and by not offering one of our own, Montana is jeopardizing the livelihood of the state’s filmmaking community. Without a real incentive, productions won’t even consider coming to Montana, and all of the Montanans who work in the state’s film industry will need to find work elsewhere.
Montana manages to snag one or two quality independent features every year, but the state has the potential to do so much more. Think back to the 90s, to when “A River Runs Through It” became the quintessential portrait of Montana; to when “What Dreams May Come” used Glacier National Park as a stand-in for Heaven; to when Tom Hanks’ brother ran across a bridge for a quick shot in “Forrest Gump” (seriously). When the Montana legislature convenes again in 2017, it is likely another tax incentive will be proposed—and whether or not it passes will determine Montana’s future as a competitive filming destination.