Film | Hints 'n' Tips

When Less Is More: Why Making Films in Utah is a Smart Move

A major element to getting work in the Utah film industry is word-of-mouth references. Case in point: in 2013 I worked on a feature film as Second AC (Assistant Camera) and a Production Assistant with a young camera operator and must have made an impression on him because this year he recommended me (and a few other people) for a position on a film for which he was hired. When I interviewed for the job, I was asked for crew recommendations and passed on a list of about a half dozen or so local filmmakers that I knew and admired. Of those individuals, one was hired and he recommended some others for the project as well, among which was hired a costume designer. In the end, the producers were very happy with the work created by this word-of-mouth chain.

The production was coming from Los Angeles and bringing in film industry veterans from LA to head up key departments while relying on local hires and other independent contractors to fill the rest of the crew positions. As independent filmmakers in a struggling local industry, we were excited to be working for an LA-based production. But this wasn’t a big-budget project. Sure, the producers were from LA but this wasn’t a major studio film or even a DCM (Disney Channel Movie). It was a low-budget feature with a tight shooting schedule and a relatively small crew. Many of the crew-members—myself included—were wearing multiple hats, carrying out varied responsibilities and straddling departments.

As we were told to expect, the first few days were quick-paced and a little confusing but once we had some key questions answered and knew what to expect—which included the unexpected—we were able to adjust to the situation and proved to be more adaptable to the demands of the project than even the producers who were more accustomed to working on higher profile films with much larger budgets.

What was most interesting to the local hires was that even though this was a “low-budget” project, it was still better funded than most of the films and series that we have produced on our own. Where the LA producers were often frustrated by this limitation, we found ourselves in very familiar territory and were able to bring to the production a kind of experience and background that proved to be integral to the film. On more than one occasion during the shoot, we managed to surprise the LA people with our resourcefulness and creativity, utilizing talents and connections that we locals almost take for granted.

During principal photography, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work and philosophy of independent filmmaker—turned Hollywood wunderkind—Robert Rodriguez (“El Mariachi,” “Spy Kids”) who happily embraces limited operating budgets. When he was working on the first “Spy Kids” movie, the studio backing the project offered to double his budget. He turned it down. His reasoning: “Low budgets force you to be more creative. Sometimes, with too much money, time and equipment, you can over-think…” Independent, micro-budget filmmakers like ourselves rarely have this problem.

After principle photography wrapped, the director told some of the crew how he had initially turned down the opportunity to direct this movie because he didn’t know how to work within the constraints of such a limited budget. He looked at a bunch of us local hires, knowing that we were filmmakers in our own right, and said, “I knew that you guys could do it.” Hell yes, we could do it. A lot of independent filmmakers dream about having the resources of even a six-figure budget. After scraping by on shoe-strings for so long, learning how to get the most from every penny we spend, we’ve learned several tricks and methods for not only putting every dollar on the screen but making it look like we spent more than we actually did. Being able to do that and pay your cast and crew a fair wage instead of just a token payment—or worse, “deferred” wages or “points on the backend” for a project that honestly might have limited distribution prospects—would be a dream come true.

One concept that a lot of people outside of the industry are surprised to learn is the reality that it’s easier to get funding for a multi-million dollar project than for a film with a budget in the range of even hundreds of thousands of dollars. As long as the story and talent in front of and behind the camera is solid, and there are some recognizable names associated with the production, it’s more likely to get a return on an investment of millions whereas a six-figure project, even with a guaranteed distribution plan, might be an inevitable write-off for investors.

This particular production greatly benefited from the experience and professionalism of Utah’s independent filmmakers and the talent and resources they brought to the table. A movie that would normally have taken 30 days to shoot was completed in less than two weeks. Even with relatively limited funding, by bringing this project to Utah, the producers were able to hire local filmmakers that take every project they do seriously and treat every production they’re a part of as a work of art, worthy of their best efforts.

One should consider the nature of the film industry, where information regarding budgets, casts and “above-the-line” personnel is often considered proprietary and isn’t usually shared publicly until after the film is distributed. You may have noticed that I didn’t drop any recognizable names related to this production. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t work with people you would recognize, only that in my writing about the local film industry and filmmaking community, I’m choosing to focus on the local talent behind the camera.

Professional film producers from California, across the country and around the world should take note the next time they have the opportunity to shoot their project outside of Hollywood. Utah doesn’t just offer a variety of interesting and beautiful locations, competitive financial incentives and tax breaks to visiting productions, there’s also a wealth of talent and uniquely experienced local filmmakers to hire.

 

Joseph Puente is founder of The Utah Filmmakers Association. Born in Los Angeles and residing in Salt Lake City, Mr. Puente is a five year U.S. Navy veteran.

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