Longform

Colorado hopes to lure filmmakers with a new plan

Colorado's film industry is a bit like Billy Crystal, whose 1991 hit movie City Slickers was set in the modern-day Wild West and largely filmed here. It used to be a leading man, roping cattle and scoring starlets. Now it does voiceover work for cartoons.

Despite our state's scenic beauty, filmmakers have stopped making movies in Colorado because it's cheaper to film elsewhere, especially in states that offer hefty tax breaks and rebates on money spent filming there. Two of those states, Utah and New Mexico, often stand in for Colorado in movies featuring the Centennial State.

But Donald Zuckerman, a movie producer who sits in the director's chair at the state Office of Film, Television and Media, has a plan to change that — a plan that he hopes will work where previous ones have failed. Zuckerman has proposed doubling Colorado's measly 10 percent cash rebate in order to bring its incentives in line with competitors such as the aforementioned New Mexico (25 percent) and Utah (15 to 25 percent). To sweeten the deal, Zuckerman wants to add another ingredient to Colorado's incentive package: a guarantee that the state will back up to 20 percent of a producer's bank loan — for a fee to be negotiated between the state and the moviemaker.

"I'd like to see people actually making movies here," says Zuckerman, who has nearly twenty films to his credit since 1995. "Right now, the only movies that are made here, for the most part, are little homegrown movies. They're usually very low-budget, half a million dollars and under. We haven't had a Hollywood-type production, even smaller independent films, come here in about four years."

One of the last was Imagine That, a 2009 flick in which Eddie Murphy plays a too-busy suit-and-tie dad who discovers that his daughter's blanket can tell the future, business-wise. The $55 million film flopped at the box office (imagine that), and two top executives at Paramount Film Group were sacked shortly thereafter, which did nothing to improve Colorado's image as a place to make movies. Come to think of it, Colorado's film fortunes are also a bit like Eddie Murphy: once Axel Foley, now Dr. Dolittle.

To help, Governor John Hickenlooper has proposed setting aside $3 million in the state's budget for film incentives. Hickenlooper and others have touted it as an investment in economic development. Film crews spend mad money on location — hiring local set builders, lighting experts and makeup artists, renting facilities and equipment, and housing and feeding actors and crew members. But in what promises to be another tight budget year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised skeptical eyebrows.

Harris Kenny, a Denver-based policy analyst for the libertarian Reason Foundation, says he can understand why. "At the end of the day, this is a budget item; this is money being given out at the expense of other things," says Kenny, who opposes what he calls "Hollywood handouts." "When it comes to the budget, it is a fixed pie."

However, those who work in the entertainment industry say their slice is an important one. "That $3 million," says Duke Hartman, co-founder of Denver-based reality-television production company High Noon Entertainment, "is quite modest to create jobs and maintain jobs in the state and keep a healthy production community so that folks like High Noon have those resources in Denver and we don't spend our lives having to shoot in New York and L.A."

The beauty of the Rocky Mountains started appearing in films more than a hundred years ago when it was captured in silent Westerns and in promotional clips such as photographer Harold Buckwalter's 1905 film Denver in Winter, in which city folk strolled about in short sleeves to showcase the mild climate.

Colorado continued to make cameos, some more extensive than others. Parts of the Westerns Cat Ballou (1965) and True Grit (1969) were filmed here, as was the 1978 Clint Eastwood fist-fighting love story Every Which Way But Loose. Chevy Chase stopped in Durango for the 1983 classic Vacation, while Bruce Willis came to Denver to film a scene for 1990's Die Hard 2, and Steven Seagal stopped by a few years later to play a chef at the Wynkoop Brewing Company, which became the fictional Mile High Cafe in Under Seige 2: Dark Territory. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels played idiots at the Stanley Hotel, better known as the inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining, in 1994's Dumb and Dumber. And Denver saw steady film income in the '80s and '90s from the television show Father Dowling Mysteries and a string of Perry Mason movies.

The past decade saw fewer movie stars come to work. Among them: Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett, who co-starred in a 2007 movie called Resurrecting the Champ, about a young sports writer for a fictional Denver newspaper who catches his big break when he finds who he thinks is a former boxing champ living on the streets. John Elway even makes an awkward cameo. But Jackson and Hartnett's scene with Elway, which takes place at his restaurant, is one of the only ones actually filmed in Denver.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar