Our Souls at Night, a 2017 Netflix film starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, was shot in Colorado, with communities such as Florence, Colorado Springs and Denver benefiting from the dollars spent by the production, which was lured here in part by $1.5 million in incentives made available through the Colorado Film Commission. But right now, the commission's funding looks likely to be limited to $750,000, the same amount to which its $3 million budget was slashed last year. That's too low an amount to attract major Hollywood films, and as evidence, Donald Zuckerman, the state's film commissioner, reveals that Redford wanted to make his next movie here but decided against it when he learned that no economic incentives were available.
"Robert Redford went to CU," Zuckerman points out, "and he had a good experience on Our Souls at Night. About a year ago, maybe less, we got a call from his executive producer saying he was perhaps interested in making the next picture he directs here. It was supposed to start this winter, and they wanted us to tell them what we could do with incentives. But after we said we couldn't give them anything, we never heard from them again."
Zuckerman has become accustomed to such conversations. When the commission's budget was cut to $750,000 last year, he told us that this funding level meant the agency would have to concentrate on local productions and assorted educational outreach efforts. With other states — notably New Mexico and Georgia — becoming major destinations for Hollywood films thanks to incentives that are much more aggressive than Colorado's, he had been hoping legislators would bump up the fund to at least $2 million in 2018. "That's how much we were in the governor's budget for," he points out.
But uncomfortable headlines that followed a report from the state auditor made this a much longer shot, and the general assembly's joint budget committee subsequently recommended that the total stay at $750,000.
Here's how Zuckerman explains the auditor's findings: "We had a couple of projects — Furious 7 and a number of things the Discovery Channel was doing here — that wouldn't sign the state contract. Lawyers at both companies saw something in there that made them fear they were risking their copyright should things go awry — and since Fast and Furious has a copyright that's arguably worth billions of dollars, they weren't going to potentially endanger that to get a $700,000 incentive. As a result, they started work before the contract was signed, and under state fiscal rules, they're not supposed to be able to collect funds" under those circumstances.
In order to address this issue, Zuckerman continues, "we met with Bob Jaros, the state controller, and we agreed on how to change the contract so the state gets what it wants but we don't have the issue where a big company isn't willing to sign the contract because there's language in it that's potentially painful. So that was fixed years ago, but it was in the auditor's report."
In Zuckerman's view, the joint budget committee isn't trying to punish the film commission for its previous transgressions. Rather, it simply "wants us to take a year with the new rules and guardrails and see how it looks after that."
The revised procedure has been codified in Senate Bill 103, which passed and was sent to Governor John Hickenlooper on March 12. It can be accessed below.
In the meantime, though, plenty of Hollywood business is going elsewhere.
"The incentives really cost very little," Zuckerman allows. "We have numbers showing that we've had 56 projects that drove $98 million in production. The estimated taxes collected by state and local governments were $12 million and the incentives were $14 million — so the net cost of the state to get $98 million worth of business was $2 million. And in the last fiscal year, 2016-2017, we actually can show that the state turned a profit."
At least a couple of Hollywood productions came to the state even after the incentives were cut: Director Jason Reitman shot briefly in the Durango area during the past year, and the Christian Bale Western Hostiles visited southern Colorado near Westcliffe for three or four days. But the folks behind the latter had been willing to do a lot more.
"We did a serious dance with them when we had a little money to offer," Zuckerman recalls. "We showed them a zillion locations and had discussions with the director and producer. But they thought we could give them more money, and when we didn't have it, they went to New Mexico."
Despite the latest bad news when it comes to funding incentives, Zuckerman isn't quite yet ready to raise the white flag. His hope that incentives will be restored and perhaps boosted "is the reason I'm sticking around, frankly. I came here to grow an industry in Colorado, and I think Colorado would benefit tremendously from having that industry here. We had a setback with the audit, but I'm hoping next year there's going to be a lot of changes for the better."
Until then, however, Zuckerman doubts that any Hollywood films will do significant location shooting in the state. "It's an incentive business now," he maintains. "That's just the way it is."
Click to read Senate Bill 103.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.