Scenic vistas attract filmmakers, but steep tax incentives also drive away some out-of-state productions.
With its scenic vistas, Colorado has been a destination for filmmakers since the earliest days of cinema. Through the 20th century and beyond, the state has played a part in films of all sizes, from Hollywood blockbusters to independent films.
Even before the emergence of movies as entertainment in the early 1900s, documentary shorts were being filmed in the state. A new art form was being created, and these flickering images captured the culture of the area and the beauty of Colorado.
The practice of having Colorado stand in for other locations would go on for countless films through the 20th century. Many of them were Westerns, with filmmakers flocking to the state to portray the world of cowboys, gunfighters, and Native Americans.
Colorado: The star
The 1898 short “Procession of Mounted Indians and Cowboys” displayed Native Americans and cowboys alongside decorated wagons making their way through Denver. Now registered in the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center within the Library of Congress, the short film, directed by former gramophone salesman James H. White, was one of many he filmed in Colorado for Thomas Edison’s production company.
It wasn’t long before Colorado became the filming location of choice for Western movies. Actor and filmmaker Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson would shoot many of his productions in the state. Anderson appeared in one of the very first Westerns, “The Great Train Robbery.” Anderson would recreate himself as a cowboy star and is credited with helping develop the genre as we know it, including movies like “The Bandit King” (1907) and “The Heart of a Cowboy” (1909), both shot in Colorado.
Even as the Western began to wane in popularity, the genre continued to be filmed in Colorado. John Wayne shot the classic “True Grit” in the state. Wayne’s role as cantankerous lawman Rooster Cogburn would earn the iconic actor his only Academy Award.
It’s common knowledge how much Robert Redford loves Colorado. The classic film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” shot in several locations including Durango, Silverton, and Telluride. In an act of art imitating life, the real Butch Cassidy’s first bank robbery actually occurred in Telluride in 1889. The film would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
In the 2000s filmmakers returned to the state with productions such as Disney’s “The Lone Ranger.” However, the film was a box office disaster, by some accounts losing Disney almost $200 million, and mired in controversy, not the least of which was Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the Native American character Tonto.
Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” turned a respectable profit and earned positive reviews on its way to three Academy Award nominations and winning for Best Original Score for Ennio Morricone, who had created music for several iconic Westerns before his work on “The Hateful Eight.”
Colorado: The stand in
Charles Chaplin filmed parts of one of his classic “The Gold Rush” in Colorado. This was one of many films that would start a trend of the state standing in for other locations, in this case, Alaska. Set during the Klondike Gold Rush, Chaplin filmed the movie’s opening shot at Mount Lincoln, showing hundreds of the miners portrayed in the film hiking through the snow on toward their hope of golden riches. According to accounts at the time, Chaplin hired hundreds of extras to portray the prospectors.
As the industry grew, blockbusters would discover the state. In the iconic opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” we learn how a young Indiana Jones portrayed by River Phoenix not only received his scar but decided to don his iconic fedora. The movie used Colorado as a stand-in for Utah.
Yet the rugged peaks and valleys of Colorado have been stand-ins for locations around the world. Whether or not you are a fan of the long-running “Fast and Furious” series, it’s difficult to deny that the driving sequences and stunts are some of the most thrilling and exciting ever put on film. However, when “Furious 7” needed to shoot a chase sequence set in the Caucasus Mountains of Azerbaijan, once again Hollywood would turn to Colorado as a stand-in.
The state has also lent a military presence to several films. The military has been working with the entertainment industry for almost 100 years, using the opportunity to recruit in exchange for providing studios with equipment and consulting.
The sci-fi alien invasion movie “Independence Day” filmed at the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Iconic Cheyenne Mountain, former home to NORAD, has been featured in movies such as “Wargames,” “Interstellar,“ and “Independence Day: Resurgence.” Also, while not featured in the original film, the location was instrumental in the “Stargate” television series and spin offs as the home for the Command Center that housed the titular device that allowed the characters to travel through the universe.
In a reversal of the state’s status as a cinematic stand-in, the Sylvester Stallone film “Cliffhanger” was set in Colorado but shot the majority of its mountain scenes in Italy. A few smaller scenes were filmed in Durango, but director Renny Harlin didn’t like the look of the Rockies, saying they were too old and rounded for his vision. He spent a great deal of time and money to get the look he wanted by filming on the other side of the world. While it did receive some critical drubbings for some of its unrealistic action, “Cliffhanger” was a box office hit and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Countless movies have been shot in Colorado with the location being part of the plot in obvious ways. Nearly the entire plot of “Dumb and Dumber” revolves around the fact that the two main characters are traveling to Aspen to return a briefcase. Other films have been set in Colorado with the location playing a minimal part in the plot, sometimes just for throwaway bits or quick references to the area.
It all comes down to money
However, when the location isn’t integral to the story, often the decision whether to film in a state comes down to the tax incentives that state offers. In addition to different tax incentives, some states also offer assistance with scouting locations and even broker deals with certain locations. This not only helps the productions keep budgets down but often gives them access to unique locations they might not have even known about. By enticing productions to shoot in their state, it brings revenue to not only the local film industry but also other local economies such as the lodging and service industries.
Colorado offers a 20% tax rebate credit for productions filmed in the state with a few stipulations. Out-of-state production companies must reach a budget of $1 million to qualify, and 50% of the staff must be Colorado residents.
Will more movies come to Colorado in the future? It’s most likely that Hollywood’s desire to film in Colorado and use its scenic settings won’t stop anytime soon.
However, the future of lower budget movies coming to the state is up in the air because just like so many other things, it all comes down to money. Colorado’s steep spend requirement for out-of-state projects can cause independent films to not consider the state. For many larger budget films, this is an easily achievable goal, but smaller studios may find it difficult to make the numbers work.
In comparison, Virginia has a minimum spend of $250,000 and Alabama $500,000. When creating their budget for a film and where to shoot, productions will need to have serious discussions if having a snow-capped mountain in the background or the uniqueness of a Colorado town is essential to their production or another state might work just as well.
Will Colorado fade into the background like an aging actor or remain a stalwart for the industry like a classic film?