State officials looking to fortify the Motion Picture Incentive Fund have a big-name ally ready to help: Disney.

Mary Ann Hughes, vice president of film and television production planning for the Walt Disney Co., told the Governor's Office of Economic Development Board on Friday that Utah needs to bolster its fund in order to get bigger-budget movies and TV series shot in the state.

Utah, she said, will continue to attract "High School Musical" and other made-for-TV productions with budgets between $4 million and $5 million, but a current $500,000 cap on funded productions will keep Utah out of the running for anything bigger.

"Unfortunately, currently Utah would not work for our feature films, because $500,000 wouldn't be enough to move the needle for us," Hughes said.

Board representatives and the Utah Film Commission have tried — unsuccessfully so far — to have the Legislature remove the $500,000-per-project cap from current fund legislation. They also want the incentive to be in the form of a tax credit rather than a rebate.

The Legislature's Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Interim Committee is scheduled to discuss movie incentives at its 9 a.m. meeting Wednesday at the Capitol.

Hughes offered to provide feedback on any draft measures. "We probably will take you up on your offer to help with the legislation," board member Jerry Oldroyd said.

Hughes made it clear that with governments worldwide vying for productions, "soft money is critically important," not just in deciding production location but also whether it is greenlighted at all. If a company cannot meet its budget mandates for production, she said, "we walk away and we look at the next script."

Disney had 12 feature films produced in 2002, and 11 were made in foreign countries, "as a direct result of the production incentives that are available," she said.

In the United States, 40 states now offer incentives, and legislation is pending in four others. Connecticut has been among the busiest, with the Jerry Bruckheimer film "Confessions of a Shopaholic," John Travolta's "Old Dogs" and the TV miniseries "The Bronx is Burning" shot there.

In Utah, projects now getting an incentive to shoot must spend at least $1 million in the state, and the incentive is in the form of a rebate of up to 15 percent of their in-state production spending.

Hughes said that basing the incentive on local spending is "a little limiting," because companies often formulate production budgets before they know where they will shoot, and they also would not know about the availability of local crews early in the process.

Disney had 20 productions in Utah between 1990 and 2008. "A $500,000 cap for a low-budget, made-for-television movie works," she said.

But Utah would not have been considered for "Race to Witch Mountain," starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, she said. The film's budget is "well over" $30 million.


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