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Longer Reads: Utah's Film Community Reaches New Heights

Meet the players and go behind the scenes with Utah's burgeoning film industry.
Clockwise from top left: Photographer: Bailey Speed | Director/Director of Photography: Mike Call | Climber: Steph Davis | Belayer: Larry Harpe

In 2020, Phil Hessler, Galen Knowles and Cole Sax, three filmmakers who live in Salt Lake City, Utah, began working on World Debut, a documentary chronicling how skateboarding, surfing, and sport climbing grew from fringe pursuits to Olympic sports. Over the course of a year, the trio crisscrossed the United States, filming sports legends like skateboarder Tony Hawk and climber Emily Harrington, as well as influential figures like Fernando Aguerre, the co-founder of Reef Footwear and the biggest proponent of surfing becoming an Olympic sport.

After hunkering down in SLC to finish post production, the team was able to sell the film to YouTube Originals for an undisclosed price. “It was one of the premier sports documentaries that was released around the Olympics,” says Sax. “And it wouldn’t have happened if not for the fact that SLC has turned into a place where filmmakers want to live, and where collaboration is easy.”

The three creatives had met each other six years earlier. Hessler and Knowles are East Coast transplants who were drawn to Utah for outdoor life. Sax, 30, grew up in Park City and moved back to Utah in 2014 after a successful stint in the Los Angeles film world. Their first production together, a docuseries called “Far From Home,” told the stories of five athletes who became unlikely Olympians. “That wasn’t something that seemed possible a decade ago,” says Sax . “When I moved back to Utah, a big creative ecosystem had emerged and I was able to find friends to make movies with.”

Today, Hessler is a co-founder of WZRD Media, which operates production houses in Salt Lake, Portland, and Los Angeles; Knowles, a Westminster College grad, is an Executive Producer for Red Bull Studios, and Sax runs Salt Lake’s Think Less studios, a production house with an adventurous spirit. They are just part of a burgeoning film scene in the state.

Director Laura Goncalves on "First Light." Photo: Erica Hinck
Phil Hessler in studio for "Tools of the Trade." Photo: Gaz Leah
Brian Durkee and Hessler on Red Bull's "What's Your Signature." Photo: Erica Hinck

Utah has a long history of filmmaking. In 1924, two silent films, “The Deadwood Coach,” shot in Zion National Park, as well as “The Covered Wagon,” shot in Northern Utah, began a tradition of filming star-studded Hollywood Westerns in Utah. So many movies were shot in Utah over the ensuing decades, including “Thelma & Louise” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” that the state became known as “Little Hollywood.” The wide variety of scenery helps—Utah features expansive deserts, alpine mountains, canyons, and mesas. “Utah’s landscape makes a great backdrop for everything from westerns to science fiction,” says Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission.

After the blockbusters moved in, outdoor adventure filmmakers, drawn to the state’s world-class rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing, and BASE jumping, also began shooting their films in Utah. Warren Miller’s third movie, “Wandering Skis,” which was released in 1952, was filmed in part at Alta Ski Area, and over the years, ski flicks by Jackson Hole’s Teton Gravity Research, Colorado’s Matchstick Productions, and Sweetgrass Productions—a Salt Lake City company—were shot at Utah ski areas and in the surrounding backcountry.

When I moved back to Utah, a big creative ecosystem had emerged and I was able to find friends to make movies with.  —Cole Sax

Many of Utah’s homegrown adventure filmmakers have made a name for themselves by staying put. That list includes Mike Call, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City and is noted for his climbing flicks, including his footage of Chris Sharma’s 1997 ascent of Necessary Evil—at the time, the hardest sport climb in North America. Still others have been drawn to the Beehive State. “I’ve wanted to make movies since I was a kid,” says Iz La Motte, 29, who grew up in Boiceville, New York and now calls Salt Lake City home. “In my senior year of college at University of Vermont, I was making a ski film and went to Alta to shoot. I realized that being at Alta was like being in college without class, so I moved there for the skiing—and the fun. Then I quickly realized it was where I needed to be professionally, too. So many of the athletes I shoot live in Utah and so much of the outdoor community is here.”

In 2011, the state of Utah began to entice producers to make more films in the state. The legislature passed a bill that made $6.79 million in tax credits available for studios that produced films in Utah. The law ensures that studios that spend a minimum of $500,000 per project are entitled to a 20 percent tax credit. In addition, the Utah Film Commission, the Utah Film Center, Hessler’s WZRD Media, and other organizations worked to beef up the filmmaking infrastructure and support systems in the state, including more post production studios.

WZRD Media has taken that to heart. In its day-to-day business, the production house focuses on commercial work for brands, and original projects that they take from ideation to funding to production. But to support those enterprises, they needed more infrastructure. Today, they’re editing (post production) almost all of their work in-house instead of outsourcing to California. And to address the studio space challenges, they built one in an old warehouse in the Sugarhouse neighborhood of Salt Lake. It’s called Midnight Corner. The facility serves double duty as an event center and studio for rent to Utah’s creative community. A white seamless “cyc” wall lends itself to all manner of studio work. And when the work is done, they hold film premieres, filmmaking workshops, and other functions inside—there’s an indoor halfpipe approved by Tony Hawk, a WZRD executive producer. It’s a symbiotic atmosphere. “We end up working with the people that come to the studio,” says Phil Hessler. “We hire them for jobs. Gathering creatives in one place leads to good things.”

Utah offers a huge range of terrain, from desert red rock to the alpine and everything in between. Dylan Wineland on the RED. Will Saunders taking pictures on a Red Bull Rampage production. Photo: Keegen Rice (courtesy Cole Sax)

While the funding and infrastructure efforts certainly helped to bring in more big-budget productions, including Westworld and Yellowstone, it wasn’t enough to permanently seduce a large number of producers, directors, and other talent away from New York City and Los Angeles.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. “When people began working from home, we saw more top creatives moving here,” says Pearce. “Utah has so much: access to the outdoors, a lower cost of living, and it’s easy to get in and out of.”

Among the Covid transplants was Markus Bishop-Hill. Bishop-Hill, who lived in Los Angeles, had produced several Hallmark Christmas movies between 2014 and 2018, and, though he loved working in Utah, didn’t feel that the state had enough permanent residents with film experience or studios and facilities to make it his full-time home. “To shoot those movies we’d drive everything out from L.A. in huge trucks,” he says. “Then, when we were finished, we’d pack up and drive everything back.”

When Bishop-Hill returned in 2022, he says everything was different. “It felt like the film community had doubled,” he says. More importantly, he noticed something that separates the Utah film community from L.A. or New York. “It’s extremely tight-knit and supportive,” he says. “I fell in love with that, and it made me want to move.”

At UCLA, I had a conversation with a professor and told her that I thought I could do better work in Utah. She said, ‘if you have a supportive community there, then go there and tell your stories.’”  —Skye Emerson

Skye Emerson, a screenwriter who grew up in Salt Lake City, shares that sentiment. Emerson, who received an MFA from UCLA in 2018, debated whether her best chance at success was staying in Los Angeles or moving home. In 1999, while attending the University of Utah for her undergraduate degree, a counselor had told her how hard it would be to have a film career if she stayed in Utah. “But at UCLA, I had a conversation with a professor and told her that I thought I could do better work in Utah,” Emerson says. “She said, ‘if you have a supportive community there, then go there and tell your stories.’”

“And that was the thing,” says Emerson. “In L.A. and New York, people aren’t very generous with their time. In Utah, you can go over and sit on another filmmaker’s porch and talk about scripts.”

Being in Utah has paid off for both Bishop-Hill and Emerson. Bishop-Hill is about to start shooting a new project in the Huntsville area, about 25 minutes east of Ogden. “It’s a thriller and it’s the first movie I’ve shot where 99 percent of the production staff are from Utah,” he says.

Emerson has written several screenplays—many of which take place in Utah—since moving home, and, in 2020, was named one of 25 “screenwriters to watch” by the International Screenwriters Association.

Mike Call on the set of "127 Hours" in Moab. Photo: Mike Call
Iz LaMotte behind the camera for "Fuel." Photo: Rocko Menzyk (courtesy LaMotte)
Award winning documentary filmmaker Lindsay Hagen and Chris Naum presenting her work at the Wasatch Film Festival. Photo: courtesy Wasatch Film Festival

Iz La Motte also credits Utah’s nurturing filmmaking community for her success. “Storytelling is welcomed here,” she says. “I’ve looked up to Sweetwater since I was kid and, when I moved here, they were willing to teach me. Last year, I directed a piece for them.”

Utah filmmaking organizations are also helping foster the filmmaking community with seminars and mixers. Stuart Derman, who started the Wasatch Film Festival in 2014, runs filmmaking workshops in conjunction with WZRD. And the Salt Lake City Film Society hosts an open mic night that sees writers pitching their scripts to producers. “We started the Wasatch Film Festival because we saw all these other festivals coming on tour here,” says Derman, “but we knew that the Utah film scene was growing up. Here we are ten years later and that community is now a major hub for adventure filmmaking and more.”

It all sounds a touch socialist, like a commune, but if there are any doubts about Utah’s approach to the film business, they can be dispelled with one stat: 2022 and 2023 were the most profitable filmmaking years in Utah’s history, bringing in $2.11 billion in profit for the state.

“There are a lot of projects bubbling in Utah right now,” says Emerson. “But the film community in Utah is bubbling over.”