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Covellite International Film Festival celebrates another year in Butte

Film festival volunteer Justine Conlan opens the big red doors to the Covellite Theater on Friday evening just before on the start of a show during the Covellite International Film Festival in Butte. 

As filmmakers and festival goers gather in Butte this week for the Covellite International Film Festival, some industry insiders in the state are eagerly awaiting a new bill that will provide tax incentives to those who shoot films in Montana.

The bill, called the Montana Economic Industry Advancement Act, goes into effect July 1 and will offer a 20 percent production expenditure tax credit to films shot in the state.

Filmmakers can save even more, up to 35 percent of their total base film production investment, with other add-ons, such as incentives for hiring Montana crews, employing students or filming in high poverty counties.

There are, however, a few catches. Filmmakers must spend at least $350,000 before receiving the credit and are required to include a Montana promotion in the film. Tax credits are also capped so that the total claims for credits cannot exceed $10 million per year.

The new bill is music to the ears of Covellite festival organizers Don Andrews and Brian Boyd, who, in addition to running the festival, operate Butte-based Covellite Studios.

Andrews said he and Boyd received calls from filmmakers in their circle who wanted to know more about Montana as a location the day the bill cleared.

Montana Film Commissioner Allison Whitmer, who heads the Montana Film Office, said she too got inquiries soon after the bill passed. Many in the industry, she said, apparently had been following the bill's status.

Montana hasn’t had a film tax incentive program since 2015. This, Andrews and Boyd have said during previous interviews, made it difficult to pitch Montana as a location, so much so that films set in Montana often ended up being filmed in other states.

“I don’t think people understood what a block that was,” said Andrews, reflecting on life before the bill.

“You know, 30 other states have tax incentives and yours doesn’t,” he continued, noting that conversations with filmmakers researching locations often stopped dead in their tracks once the topic of incentives came up.

Hosting a major production can have a significant economic impact on a community. There’s spending on lodging, food and supplies that a film can bring to a community, but films can also have an impact on visitation.

Whitmer pointed out that the effects of the film “A River Runs Through It,” which came out in the 1990s, are still being felt throughout Montana.

The film brought romanticism to fly-fishing, and Montana saw an increase in visitation from tourists wanting to try their hands at the sport because of it.   

“Still people are coming to Montana to see the beauty,” she said.

Incidentally, Southwest Montana — an organization charged with promoting tourism in, you guessed it, southwest Montana — is hoping to cash in on film tourism with a website it unleashed after the March 2018 release of the videogame Far Cry 5.

The game is set in the fictional locale of Hope County, Montana and its backdrop was shot at various locations throughout the state. A short narrative film associated with the game was also produced and was shot in Anaconda.

The website, Visithopecounty.com, is intended to entice Far Cry fans to travel to Montana and live the Montana experience shown in the video game - minus the gratuitous violence.

According to previous reporting, the short film, called “Inside Eden's Gate,” brought $300,000 to the Smelter City, with $250,000 spent on things like hotel rooms, transportation and props, plus $50,000 for local labor.

As for Boyd, he noted that part of the Covellite’s mission has been to encourage filmmakers to stay in Montana and experience what the region has to offer.

And who knows, maybe they’ll end up making a movie in the Big Sky State.

But getting more movies made in Montana, he said, requires a workforce.

“We see infinite possibilities for storytelling (here in Montana) but really it takes a village to make a good movie,” Boyd said.

When asked what local and state leaders need to do in order to grow the film-industry workforce in Montana, Boyd stressed the importance of supporting independent projects. Doing so, he said, helps locals gain experience and strengthen their resumes for when bigger-budget projects come knocking.   

“It’s another positive tool for filmmakers to utilize,” said Whitmer, reflecting on the bill.

However, she pointed out, some incentives for filming in Montana don’t come in the form of tax breaks.

There’s also the wide rivers, the jagged mountaintops and broad, sweeping landscapes.

And you can’t put a price on those. 

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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