Amelia Nielson-Stowell: Locals strut Utah's stuff at Sundance Film Festival

Published: Friday, Jan. 29 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Leigh von der Esch, left, talks to Katy Scerbakova and producer Jeff Most at a Utah Film Commission brunch.

T.j. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

PARK CITY — Long before the A-listers fly into Utah and long after Park City's Main Street reverts back from Rodeo Drive, there's a tireless group behind the filmmakers, actors, reporters and publicists still working at the Sundance Film Festival — the Utah Film Commission.

Their ultimate goal: sell the state.

"People are frequently so taken with the area that they want to come back," said Leigh von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism. "We get to strut what Utah has to offer."

Von der Esch worked as the state's film commissioner for 20 years and helped on the first Sundance Film Festival in those early years. It was the Utah/U.S. festival then and was formed in the Utah Film Commission offices. Robert Redford later took it over.

She notes the commission would have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get access to filmmakers at Hollywood parties. But during the 10-day festival, the industry is in their backyard.

So film commissioners come prepared. They know a motion picture filmed in Utah is a giant advertisement for the state. And they have to be on their toes, as dozens of other U.S. film commissioners are at the festival doing the same thing.

"We have the red rocks, but we also have the lakes, rivers, snowcapped mountains," said Tara Penner, the Moab to Monument Valley film commissioner. "Our scenery sells itself."

As head of the longest-running film commission in the nation (since 1949), Penner has a film crew based in the area.

They are working on filming the Disney/Pixar flick, "John Carter of Mars," and could next be working on "127 Hours," a biopic about Aron Ralston (James Franco will star), a mountain climber who amputated his arm after getting trapped under a rock in Canyonlands National Park.

Penner was not allowed to talk about the film, but the Governor's Office of Economic Development approved a $2.8 million incentive for Danny Boyle (director of "Slumdog Millionaire") to film the movie in Utah.

It was a similar story for this year's much-buzzed-about Sundance horror movie "Frozen," which was filmed at Snowbasin ski resort near Ogden. The filmmakers got a cash rebate tax credit through the lucrative state incentive program.

"When you shoot a movie called 'Frozen,' you know what you're in for," said Tim Williams, the movie's executive producer. They used a local crew that was able to shoot in a blizzard at high altitude and 85 feet off the ground.

Over at the Utah Filmmaker's Brunch earlier this week, John Wilson, film commissioner for Davis County, tucked a "look book" under his arm to share images of the filming locales in Utah's smallest county.

"Even a small-budget production can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars for us," said Wilson, one of seven regional commissioners in Utah.

Tourists snap pictures of the "High School Musical" set at Salt Lake's East High, take road trips through Moab to take in the sights from "Thelma and Louise" or traverse to the Salt Flats to see where Johnny Depp stood in "Pirates of the Caribbean."

"It makes a good economic impact on the state from a lot of different perspectives," said Spencer Eccles, director of GOED. "That's one of the key things that's helped us in this recession."

There's a symbiotic relationship between tourism and film.

"When (Utah is) put on film and gets played over and over again, it creates interest," said Marshall Moore, Utah Film Commission director.

A California native who moved to Utah after working on a film production in the state, Moore said the ultimate goal is to bring a filmmaker to Utah to see the destinations. During Sundance, they're already here.

"That, for us, makes our job easier when promoting the state," he said.

e-mail: astowell@desnews.com

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