Film and TV

Film Commish on How Colorado Can Stop Losing Huge Movies to Other States

The Magnificent Seven, the Denzel Washington-starring remake of the Western classic, is among the most successful movies of the season; it's earned more than $65 million domestically and has topped the $100 million mark worldwide in its first thirteen days of release. But while the flick showcases scenery and settings of the sort that can be found in abundance throughout Colorado, it wasn't shot here.

Instead, it was made in New Mexico — and Donald Zuckerman, Colorado's film commissioner, has a simple explanation for why its makers chose to go there even though the state he represents would have looked just as good on the big screen, if not better.

"New Mexico spends $50 million a year on film incentives," Zuckerman says. "We've been spending $3 million."

The latter amount is a vast improvement over what was available from Colorado a decade earlier. As reporter Melanie Asmar noted in a 2012 Westword feature, Colorado's Office of Film, Television and Media was the first of its kind in the country when it was established in 1969. But in 2003, then-governor Bill Owens eliminated it in a budget-cutting move, and when his successor, Bill Ritter, revived the office in 2009, the state only offered a 10 percent rebate to filmmakers — less than half of the 25 percent deal in New Mexico.

Although legislation in 2012 doubled the Colorado rebate to 20 percent and earmarked the aforementioned $3 million per annum, Zuckerman acknowledges that the amount of funding for the program remains paltry in comparison to what's up for grabs in New Mexico and Utah, as well as places such as Louisiana and Georgia, which have seen their film industries boom in recent years thanks to aggressive and plentiful rebate programs.

Granted, more producers are shooting their films in Colorado than prior to Zuckerman's arrival and the launch of the rebate boost. A prime example is Our Souls at Night, a Robert Redford-Jane Fonda Netflix effort currently being made in southeastern Colorado.

[Here's an Instagram shot from the shoot that captures stand-ins for Redford and Fonda.]

But Zuckerman reveals that Colorado's still losing out on plenty of other movies, including Hostiles, a forthcoming Christian Bale-Rosamund Pike Western helmed by Scott Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to a Best Actor Oscar in 2009's Crazy Heart, as well as Mosaic, an in-the-works HBO film by Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh.

Zuckerman doesn't begrudge the decisions made by these filmmakers, largely because of his own experience in the movie industry prior to taking the commissioner gig. He has a slew of production credits, including seven films made by George Hickenlooper, the late cousin of his current boss, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. The governor got to know Zuckerman well thanks to 2009's 'Hick' Town, which was directed by George and focused on John's activities as mayor of Denver during the previous year's Democratic National Convention.

At the same time, though, Zuckerman would clearly love to expand Colorado's incentive program. Problem is, he can't begin lobbying legislators, and explaining why a larger investment in funds would result in even more revenues for the state (not to mention invaluable publicity), until the governor gives him the go-ahead.

Below, in a de facto essay assembled from our wide-ranging conversation, Zuckerman makes a pitch for Hick and the Colorado General Assembly to do just that. Along the way, he shares plenty of scoop about productions lost, productions found and how Colorado can benefit from getting a larger slice of the Hollywood pie.

"I'm the film commissioner, and I would like to see us step up our game. It's not entirely up to me. We need the governor's office and the legislature — in particular, the legislature, which really allocates all the funding — to want to do this. Because we're losing productions that would love to shoot here.

"I had a conversation with Scott Cooper, who's currently directing Hostiles. They actually scheduled to shoot here for two days, down south somewhere.

"Coincidentally, he had lunch with a friend of mine, who I've produced two movies with. They sit down in L.A., they're talking, and Scott says, 'I'm going to make this movie. It's an 1892 Western.' It's basically a road trip, as written, from New Mexico to Montana. So my friend introduces me to Scott, and the best I could do was make a relatively anemic offer, because we don't have a lot of money.

"He told me he expected his road budget to be $35 million. So even to have a local spend of $25 million in New Mexico, he'd get 25 percent of that — so maybe he'd get $6 million to $7 million to make the movie in New Mexico.

[Here's an Instagram photo of Hostiles shooting in New Mexico.]

Another shoot till 4am! can't wait to watch the sunrise #nightshoot #hostiles #lovingit #thankful

A photo posted by Q'orianka Kilcher (@qoriankakilcher) on

"We really engaged with him. We sent him photos, because if you were really making a trip from New Mexico, they have a desert there — and we have a desert. You'd go across the Rockies, and we have the Rockies. They don't really; there are some mountains in Taos, but not like ours. And they wanted a railroad, and we sent him photos of railroads. We have six or seven different historic railroads. And he loved them. He loved Bent's Fort.

"But we didn't get it. They went to New Mexico. There was one shot they said they couldn't get there, so they decided to come here for that one shot — and we're not giving them any incentive money, because it's two days' work with a small unit.

"That's one example. And another slightly frustrating example was Steven Soderbergh had an $18 million to $20 million HBO movie [Mosaic's eclectic cast includes Garrett Hedlund, Sharon Stone, Beau Bridges and Paul Reubens, of Pee-wee Herman fame.]

"They called us, and they were very interested in going to Breckenridge. It takes place at a ski resort, and the town has to abut a mountain. We made an offer, and the executive producer called me back and said, 'It was yours for the taking. But we'll get over twice as much if we go to Utah.' Utah has a 25 percent incentive and a much smaller population, and in their current fiscal year, they allocated $8.8 million.

"It's not from a lack of interest that this is happening, and as you know, we have Our Souls at Night, which did come here — the Robert Redford-Jane Fonda movie. They're shooting currently, and it's great — and it's especially great that they're shooting in places like Florence and Cañon City and Colorado Springs.

[This Instagram photo shows the turnout at an Our Souls at Night call for extras.]

"I'm a movie producer, and I can tell you that when you're looking to make a movie, and ifthad a script and it called for mountains, I could go to northern New Mexico, I could to Utah, I could go to Alberta. Why would I go to a place that offered me very little incentive money when I could go to someplace that was offering a lot more?

"There's a certain hubris here. When I first came to Colorado five and a half years ago to start this program, I'd talk to people and they'd say, 'Of course they're going to come here. We're Colorado. We're more beautiful.' Well, nobody had come here in five years at that point. [An exception was the filming of 2009's Imagine That, a bomb for Eddie Murphy.] And now we are getting some things.

"We got The Hateful Eight here, and we have Our Souls at Night here, and Furious 7 did second-unit work here. They shot in Monarch Pass, and they did these car-drop scenes out of C-130s. But we're not getting a lot of other things. We could have probably gotten things like the remake of The Magnificent Seven if we could have incentivized it.

"There's a certain dynamic where people say, 'Ah, you're giving all this money to studios. They're rich.' First of all, it's a business deal, so they're going to go where they get the best treatment. And we also had a real challenge in that we had very little crew here.

"We hadn't been making anything sizable here, and this is a business where the skilled labor is all about craft. People need to do it over and over again in order to get good at it. It's not just, 'Hey, carry this from here to there.' It's, 'How do you light this set?' And people who light sets all the time are good at it, they're well-paid. Real skilled labor.

[This photo shows a member of Hostiles' New Mexico crew with cast member Wes Studi.]

Myself and #wesstudi at the #Hostiles wrap party ... #FilmCrew #NMFilm #Avatar #SantaFe #ThePalace #Props

A photo posted by NewMexGiant (@newmexgiant) on

"We've had an incentive program for a little over four years, and we're slowly but surely building a crew base. We've had four movies go this summer, and now we have the fifth one going. That never happened the five years before I got here; I know it didn't for a long time before that, because I looked at who had come here.

"Louisiana has a 30 percent tax credit. Georgia has a 30 percent tax credit. We have a 20 percent rebate. It's not bad, but it's not nearly as good.

"We just had Amateur, which is an inner-city basketball movie that Netflix is doing, shoot here. And we have a couple of things radically going for us in our favor if we had some more incentive money. One is what I call proximity. Studios or independent filmmakers, people really want to go where it's easy to get to.

"We have three major airlines. This is a hub from L.A., and many people come from L.A. — and there's something like a flight an hour here. That's good for New Mexico, too, but it's not so good for Louisiana. If you want the look of Louisiana and you're going to go to Shreveport, it's going to take you two flights to get there. So it takes you half a day. Here, people can fly from L.A. in a little over two hours, and they can fly from New York in four.

[This Twitter photo shows the crew of the Netflix movie Amateur, which recently shot in Colorado.]

"Another thing is the psychology involved. If you have a great incentive system in Detroit, which they do — they have a 42 percent incentive — you go to a movie star, and the movie star is like, 'Why do I want to work in Detroit? What am I going to do on the weekend?'

"But we don't have that problem in Colorado. You say to somebody, 'We want you to come to Colorado,' and we've got such a great image that nobody is going to say, 'I don't want to work in Colorado.' They're going to say, 'Great. If I work in Colorado Springs, I'll go to Aspen on the weekend, or I'll go to Vail on the weekend, or I'll go to Denver on the weekend,' and on and on and on.

"They know Colorado, so we have that great brand. All we've got to do is build it. And I know it sounds trite, but if we build it, they will come.

"Once we started to establish the fact that we have crew here, the phone's been ringing. And we don't turn down the bigger productions, but we can't offer them enough to make it worth their while. And we could offer them significantly less and they'll come.

"We offered Our Souls at Night $1.5 million and their projected local spend is $17 million, so they're getting one/eleventh, they're getting 9 percent. They're not getting the 25 percent they'd be getting if they'd gone to Utah. So they came for us. But they won't come for nothing.

"Our Souls at Night is an interesting example. Netflix is paying for it. You could argue they're a rich company. But the fact is, they may not make money on that picture. They're trying to build a core business. And we've run numbers, and we can show people that the State of Colorado, between state and local places, will collect more in sales tax alone than we're paying for them to come.

"So now you put that aside, because the state is actually making a profit here. But then you have all these people who get a job here doing what they want to do.

"One of my arguments is that content creation of all kinds, whether you're creating ads, movies, television, gaming, whatever, is one of the fastest-growing, most important businesses in the world. Forty years ago, there were three TV channels. Now there are hundreds, and there's all kinds of content being created for handheld devices and the like. The market has changed dramatically. It's very fragmented.

[Actor Adam Beach is also featured in Hostiles.]

I was bad #hostiles

A photo posted by adam beach (@adamrbeach) on

"So do we want to be in the content-creation business? Or do we say, 'Screw it. We don't need to be in the content-creation business. There are other businesses we can be in.' And there are. There are plenty of other businesses. But the people who make content, if they're here, we're going to have better newscasters at our local TV stations creating the news. We're going to have better people at Rocky Mountain PBS creating the Colorado experience. People who do it get better at it, assuming they have some innate talent, which most people do.

"And the other thing is, what does it do for the image of the state? For instance, Our Souls at Night shot at the Pioneer Day parade in Florence — and they shot it at the actual parade. It wasn't a production device.

"Most people, when they hear Florence, Colorado, they think supermax. But now, this being a Netflix picture, tens of millions of people around the world are going to see that movie, and some portion of them are going to say, 'Oh, I wonder where that is. Florence, Colorado? Oh, what a cute town! Look at the buildings there. That looks like a fun place to go.'

"And then someone's driving down I-25, and they've got their kids in the car, and after seeing the movie, they go, 'Let's take a detour and go to Florence.' Or, 'Let's take a detour and go to Cañon City,' whose reputation is based to a large extent on a major state prison. So people will discover these places.

"It's anecdotal, but the fact of the matter is, the Stanley Hotel, where The Shining was written, does 80,000 people a year, paid, on their ghost tour. In Iowa, how many years ago was Field of Dreams made? And still, 40,000 to 60,000 people a year drive from Georgia or Florida or wherever to go whack a ball or catch a ball on the field of dreams. The image that people get of a place is enhanced by the experience of seeing it in a movie.

"I work for the governor of the State of Colorado. I'm in the governor's Office of Economic Development. I need the governor to sign off on [lobbying for more film-incentive funding]. Once the governor does sign off on it, I can do it. Now, we've spent a number of years letting people know we've built a crew base and we're getting real productions that want to come here. Hopefully the governor and key representatives will say, 'Hey, let's do this. Let's grow it.'

"George Hickenlooper was a director I worked with a lot. We made seven movies together. And we made something about John Hickenlooper when he was the mayor and the Democratic National Convention was here. And John Hickenlooper would go on TV and he'd be asked, 'Was it worth it to pay $60 million or $70 million to get the convention here?' And he would say, 'You know, a CEO of a major company could be thinking of opening a branch office somewhere, and before, they didn't think about Denver. Now they think about Denver.' And I think the same thing happens with movies. Somebody's watching a movie and they're saying, 'I was thinking about opening a branch office in Des Moines or Austin. But let's look at Colorado Springs.'

"Colorado Springs is where the two hero houses are for the characters Robert Redford and Jane Fonda are playing in Our Souls at Night. I haven't seen them yet, but I'm sure they're adorable. And all of a sudden, after seeing that kind of thing in a movie, people's image of a place changes. And because the image of the place changes, it gets on a list. So I think this kind of thing is great for Colorado. I think a lot of people believe it is."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts