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Natrona loses ‘Yellowstone’ prequel shoot to Montana; Casper setting stage to boost Wyoming film & TV incentives

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CASPER, Wyo. — Natrona County missed out on two opportunities to host television productions over the past weekend, Kelly Estes told the Casper City Council on Tuesday, September 28.

Estes said that the makers of “Y: 1883,” a television series that is a prequel to the series “Yellowstone” had been looking at shooting near Independence Rock. However, the production company decided to shoot in Montana instead because that state offers tax incentives to film and television productions that aren’t offered in Wyoming.

Estes has been contracted by Visit Casper to work on an initiative called “Film Casper” that aims to make Natrona County more attractive to film and television productions.

Visit Casper’s Film Casper efforts come as the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee look to revive tax incentives for film projects at the state level. Not having tax incentives is a non-starter for many in the film and television industries, and the state lost out on most of the 167 production inquiries made in 2020.

Visit Casper is not able to offer tax incentives to film and television productions, but is looking to streamline the permitting process in Casper and Natrona County to make the area a more appealing destination.

Visit Casper CEO and Natrona County Commissioner Brook Kaufman told the city council that the Film Casper initiative is also looking to align with the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s efforts as it works to convince the legislature to reinstate tax incentives for film and television production in Wyoming.

Wyoming previously offered tax incentives for film and television production starting in 2007, but those went away in 2018. However, with the state implementing a statewide lodging tax, Kaufman said there is hope that the legislature may have more appetite to bring the tax incentives back.

The proposal being considered by the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee calls for using solely lodging tax revenues to budget a rebate incentive program up to $3 million per biennium.

Rep. Pat Sweeney, who sits on that legislative committee, told the city council on Tuesday that one of the reasons the statewide lodging tax was implemented was to move tourism funding away from reliance on the state’s general fund.

He said that now that tourism funding is off of the general fund, there is a better chance that the legislature will support allowing the return of the tax incentives for film and television production, noting that the lodging tax model allows the Wyoming Office of Tourism to direct revenues to support special projects.

Sweeney said that he believes there are enough votes on the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee to advance the tax incentives proposal forward for consideration during the legislature’s upcoming 2022 Budget Session.

Kaufman said that even if tax incentives for film and television production are not reinstated in Wyoming, she thinks it is still important to work to streamline the permitting process in Casper and Natrona County.

She pointed to shooting that was conducted in the area in summer 2020 for “Street Outlaws.” Kaufman said the permitting process for that shoot began on the county side. Typically, a permitting process would start through Natrona County Planning and Zoning and then come to the Natrona County Commission for consideration. That process would ordinarily take at least 60 days.

Kaufman said that the Natrona County Commission did choose to expedite that process for Street Outlaws, but that there were some challenges and the production company later came to the City of Casper with some requests.

Having a more streamlined permitting process would make it more efficient to determine whether the area is suitable to host production and for the city and county to say yes or no to requests.

Kaufman said that two people in the past ten days have inquired about bringing productions to Natrona County.

Kaufman said she came to the city council with two requests. The first was to ask for support from city staff in working to streamline the permitting process within the city.

The second would be for the city council to pass a resolution establishing Film Casper as the official film agency for the city. Kaufman said she will also push for a similar resolution at the county level.

Making Film Casper the officially designated film agency would allow Film Casper to join international film associations. Kaufman said that would help to make connections with more film and television producers that may be interested in bringing projects to the area.

Estes, who recently left an administrative position within the Natrona County School District, said that he previously ran a film office for Natrona County.

That got started when he was running the Natrona County Park Department in 1996 when “Starship Troopers” production came to the county. Estes said that Starship Troopers production led to over $4 million of direct spending in the county.

Seeing that impact, the Natrona County Commissioners at the time directed him to start a film office. Estes said that he helped service “many projects” over the course of the next seven years before he took a position within NCSD.

Once he left his position with NCSD, Estes said he started speaking with Kaufman about getting those film office efforts started again. Estes said that the area gets requests for film and television production shoots “fairly often” but that the lack of tax incentives is hampering the success of securing those projects.

He said that there is at least one production request that has been put off until summer 2022. Should the legislature approve of reinstating tax incentives, Estes said he thinks there is a better chance that Natrona will be able to secure that production.

Council member Kyle Gamroth said he is in favor of doing something to make the area more attractive to film and television productions.

“I get sick of Wyoming-based movies filmed in Montana and elsewhere,” Gamroth said.

He also pointed to the economic impact that hosting productions can have for the local economy. Kaufman told Oil City in July 2020 that the “Street Outlaws” production had generated an estimated $1.8 million for the local economy. Natrona County Commission Chair Rob Hendry put the figure at north of $2 million.

Gamroth said he was in favor of supporting Visit Casper as a way to set the stage for the legislature to follow up with further efforts to better incentivize film and television productions in Wyoming.

Council member Amber Pollock said that it is “never a bad idea to look at streamlining permitting processes.” She expressed enthusiasm for the proposal and its potential to help with economic growth and development.

Sweeney said that other states have found success when giving tax incentives for film and television production and that Wyoming’s lack of incentives is making Wyoming businesses lose out on economic opportunities stemming from productions.

He said that his businesses benefitted from a Wells Fargo commercial shoot that took place in Casper in June 2016. City staff said in a memo to the city council that producers of that commercial spent around $250,000 in Casper.

Sweeney said he applauds Visit Casper and the city council for helping keep the momentum moving on a push to improve incentives to shoot in Wyoming.

“I truly believe Street Outlaws would like to come back, but we’ve got to be prepared,” Sweeney added.

He added that during testimony, the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee has heard that reinstating tax incentives in Wyoming could potentially lead to production facilities being built in the Sheridan area.

Kaufman said that the city council doesn’t necessarily need to pass a resolution designating Film Casper as the official film agency in the area immediately. She said her more immediate request was that city staff be directed to support efforts to streamline the permitting process.

City Manager Carter Napier said that with council’s approval, city staff would work to create a policy guide that would help streamline and expedite the permitting process in Casper. Having a standard guide approved by the council could allow staff to handle permitting requests without the potentially lengthier process of asking the council to approve each individual permitting request.

Napier said that with council’s direction, the city could also prepare a resolution to designate Film Casper as the official film agency.

The council on Tuesday indicated support for taking steps to assist Film Casper’s efforts to streamline and improve film and television production incentives in Casper.

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