From “Longmire” to “Yellowstone,” Wyoming goes over big on the small screen.
But Wyoming residents won’t see any familiar sights on those programs. Series inspired by the works of Wyoming authors Craig Johnson and C.J. Box were filmed in New Mexico and Canada, respectively. More painfully for Park County, “Yellowstone” – a series named after the area’s primary attraction – films in Montana, said Ryan Hauck, executive director of the Park County Travel Council.
“That series has produced tons of infrastructure and sales tax dollars in Montana, and that could and should have been in Park County,” Hauck said.
Hauck, Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, and others attribute the lack of film and television productions in Wyoming to the lack of a statewide financial incentive for such productions.
“Of course, we could go after shows like Yellowstone, but we’ve found that the first question these productions ask is, ‘What is your film incentive?’” Hauck said. “For Wyoming, that’s where the conversation usually ends.”
That’s why, over the last two years, Newsome and other members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Natural Resources Committee have been pushing for the implementation of a statewide incentive.
Earlier this year, the committee brought House Bill 93 to the general session with this purpose, Newsome said, but it failed introduction on a vote of 32-28, due to a required two-thirds majority to introduce a bill during the budget session.
With no such requirement in the upcoming general session, the committee has drafted a new version of the bill Newsome is relatively optimistic will gain some support in 2023.
“I think it’s written very well, and I think it’s a good iteration (of the bill),” Newsome said during a Park County Travel Council meeting Sept. 15. “…I think it’s really doable.”
The bill, as currently drafted, would fund the film incentive program with $3 million in statewide lodging tax dollars every two years. The Wyoming Office of Tourism would distribute those dollars to qualifying productions, including movies, television series and commercials. Productions would be reimbursed for up to 30% of their expenses.
The proposed film production incentives are not the state’s first. In 2007, the Wyoming Legislature initiated a statute allocating $1 million toward in-state projects through the Wyoming Film Industry Financial Incentive program. The funds were administered by the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s Film Office with a goal of bringing the entertainment industry to Wyoming. The statute sunset in 2018.
Since the incentive would be funded through lodging tax dollars, there would be no financial impact to Wyoming taxpayers if it is reinstated, Newsome said.
Hauck said bringing the film incentive back in some form would be good news for Park County.
“The first benefit is infrastructure,” Hauck said. “When films or commercials are shot here, they need to build infrastructure, whether that be a set or a building, and when they’re done, they leave behind facilities that the county can use for other purposes. The second benefit is the immediate economic impact of having these crews here, purchasing clothing and hardware and food and potentially creating jobs. For a movie, that is a couple months of economic impact. For a TV series, that is years of impact.”
In addition, watching Park County vistas on the big and small screens serves as an advertisement of sorts for the county, which could bring in tourists who might never travel to Park County otherwise, Hauck said.
“People love to visit the places they see in movies or commercials,” Hauck said. “It’s kind of like how Kanye boosted our economy when he was here, just because people wanted to be in the same place as him. I truly believe people will visit Park County simply because they see it on TV.”
While Hauck and others see the good the incentive can do, it is not universally supported by legislators, Newsome said. Several legislators on the travel committee, including Rep. Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette, and Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, have questioned the constitutionality of the incentive.
“(I am concerned about) the constitutionality of this,” Knapp said during the travel committee’s Aug. 31 meeting. “…I can’t think of one other industry or business that the state reimburses expenses for in exchange for jobs.”
Similar incentives have been implemented in nearby states such as Montana, Colorado and New Mexico, and have not received legal challenges, according to a memo from the Legislative Service Office.
The new film incentive bill was approved by the travel committee during its Aug. 31 meeting, and it will advance to the general session in 2023. Newsome said she was optimistic about the bill’s chances, but said supporters of the bill should be prepared to fight.
“There’s not widespread support for it, sadly, so we really need to reach out … especially to those new legislators,” Newsome said. “…We just need to keep chipping away, and the more we can reach out, the better our chances are.”