An Open Letter to the Legislature on Sustaining the Film Industry (Guest Post)

An open letter to Montana senators & lawmakers ~

Greetings. I’m a Montanan. And I’m writing on behalf of an issue that affects every Montanan. Whether or not you think this directly affects you, it does. Please read below.
There is a gross misconception that incentives for filmmaking in Montana only benefits the owners of film production companies, and those in the film industry.

The FILM industry is a SUSTAINABLE, renewable resource for Montana.
The film industry impacts EVERY part of Montana’s economy – in fact, film has forever changed Montana’s economy.
In 1992, when Patrick Markey and his team brought “A River Runs Through It” to Montana, it forever changed the economy of Montana’s Tourism, with increased visits to the Parks, fishing rivers and more, as people came in droves to play and live. Every industry you can think of was impacted, from construction to coffee shops. In 1992, according to the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, 6.5 million tourists visited Montana, bringing along revenues of $930 million dollars. By 1995, the number had risen to 7.7 million visitors who spent $1.2 billion dollars in Montana.
$90 MILLION IN 3 YEARS! And the economy has grown steadily since.

In 1995, when Far and Away shot in Billings, it brought $15 Million into the local economy. That money is spent at local coffee shops, mom and pop restaurants, hotels, retail stores, ranch owners, and more…. and continues to circulate for years after.
Having Montana exposed on the big screen brings awareness to our state, and has aided in attracting the boom of larger employers and tech companies who have chosen to re-locate here.

Since the passage of the Big Sky on the Big Screen Act in May of 2005, film production has left over $37 million dollars in Montana’s economy. Failure of HB120 would mean an immediate reduction of filming in Montana. The result of that will affect ALL MONTANANS. This is not just an incentive for “Hollywood types.” This will lead to an immediate loss of jobs for Montana’s film industry workers and graduates of the film programs from both Montana State University and the University of Montana. And that’s not it….

I personally know of at least three large projects that will move production to another state if this bill does not pass. Not only would this kill Montana’s film industry the potential is far more reaching… into your backyards.

There have been 129 productions certified under the Act. There have been 20 feature films, 38 national television ads, 11 nationally broadcast television programs, and 21 additional projects such as documentaries certified and filmed in Montana since passage. 70% of the companies that claimed the credit were Montana production companies which means a greater tax benefit to the state.

The money brought by film production is new money to the state’s economy. Without the film incentive, this money would be spent in other states or countries. If you consider the larger economic picture, including indirect and induced impacts created by this new money circulating in the economy, the total economic impact since the passage of the Act is $71 million dollars. Montana’s multiplier factor for new money turned over in the economy is very conservative at 1.53

The Big Sky on the Big Screen Act is sustainable and reasonable. This tax credit offers a 14% tax credit for hiring Montana labor and a 9% tax credit for Montana expenditures. There are over 40 states that offer tax credits to the film industry. Most of these states offer a higher percentage in tax credit than Montana does. Montana needs the Big Sky on the Big Screen act to have a chance against competing with states like New Mexico (25% credit) Washington (30% credit), Oregon (26% credit) , Utah (20% credit), and Michigan (42% credit).

Big Sky on the Big Screen Act certified productions account for $9 Million, of the direct economic impact of the film industry in Montana. Failure of HB 120 would be an immediate reduction equal to this amount of impact. The long term effect would be a gradual reduction of the whole of the production industry and the new dollars it brings to the economy as Montana’s crew and production infrastructure relocated or closed due to the reduction in production.

The economic value of a certified production is exponentially more than the economic value of non-certified productions.
In 2012 alone the 61 productions that shot in Montana spent $7.1 million. The four productions that claimed the credit were responsible for $3.2 million of that impact, and received only $163,000 in tax credits.

The tax credit was designed to attract larger budget projects such as feature films and national TV advertisements and TV programming. This production activity takes place statewide and brings economic development to all corners of the state. Television series like “Last American Cowboy” which filmed for 8 months in Stanford, Avon, and White Sulphur Springs and airs on Animal Planet would not have happened in Montana without this incentive. Major motion pictures like “My Sisters Keeper” which filmed in Glacier National Park and which utilized crew members from Kalispell would not have happened without this incentive.

Again – the FILM industry is a SUSTAINABLE, renewable resource for Montana. It’s not stripping from the earth, and detracting from the beauty we all love.

From tourism, to hotels, to restaurants, and mom & pop retail stores, the film industry exposes the world to the beauty of Montana and sparks people to come visit our beautiful state. And while the films are being produced here significant money is being spent here.

If not Montana, they will go to Canada, New Mexico, or Texas.
It’s up to you.

Yarrow Kraner

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • On 23 January 2015, HB-120 was approved 17–3 by the taxation committee in the House. On 27 January, it was approved on the second reading in the House 60–40. And on 9 February, HB-120 was tabled in the House appropriations committee. There appear to be enough votes to blast it out of committee without expending a silver bullet, so this handout to the poor and humble moviemakers may yet be approved. But should it be approved? I think not. We have the scenery, they have the deep pockets. Let’s tell these beggars to put away their tin cups and get out their checkbooks.

  • Montana must compete for business. It’s a little embarrassing when films about Montana like Open Range and Cut Bank are shot in Alberta. The economic after affects are substantial as tourists continue to come to share the experience. Field of Dreams shot in Iowa, another Costner movie like Open Range , has a steady stream of tourists to see the field years after.

  • In a perfect world, none of the states (or Canada) would be giving the film industry tax breaks and subsidies. The same should be true for any industry. It kills me when states compete against each other to lure industries with tax breaks and other financial incentives. Businesses should pick their locations because of an educated and skilled workforce, and other resources, quality of life, proximity to markets … and then pay their fare share of taxes.

    I am a bit biased in this argument. In my former life, I benefited greatly from the Big Sky on the Big Screen Act: as a camera operator, grip, gaffer, production assistant. You name it, I did it. Usually long hours and hard work but it paid damn well.

    So until the states get together and agree they’re not going to kowtow to the film industry anymore, I’m in favor of HB120.

    Thanks for writing this post, Yarrow.

  • Kathleen Williams (D-Bozeman) introduced HB-120 at the request of the Department of Commerce. Twenty Republicans and 40 Democrats voted Aye on the second reading. One Democrat, Andrew Person of Missoula, voted Nay, as did 39 Republicans. Knudsen, Regier, Essmann, Wittich, indeed most of the usual right wing suspects, were among the Nays.

    After prevailing on the second reading, HB-120 was referred to the appropriations committee where it was tabled.

    It could still be rolled into a larger bill, and therefore is not listed as probably dead. I suspect it’s become a GOP hostage in the budget wars.

    I fully understand the arguments of Pete and Craig. But I disagree with them. The way to a better world is to stop bribing business with tax breaks. That’s a race to the bottom that no one should want to win.

  • Conner: “The way to a better world is to stop bribing business with tax breaks. That’s a race to the bottom that no one should want to win.” Agreed.

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