Why Aren't More Westerns Shot In Wyoming?

Feb 12, 2016

Wyoming Film Office Senior Production Coordinator Colin Stricklin shows off some posters of films made in Wyoming.
Credit Aaron Schrank

Director Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, “The Hateful Eight,” is set in a Wyoming blizzard, sometime after the Civil War. But the movie wasn’t shot here.

Tarantino’s production team did consider filming in Wyoming, though. Rick Young is the director of the Fort Caspar Museum, which includes an 1860’s era fort.

“They had given us a call about the possibility of using the fort as a backdrop,” says Young. “They did take a look at our site and determined that it wasn’t going to be what they were going to be able to use. It’s too bad, because it would have been cool, but the movie turned out anyway.”

“The Hateful Eight” joins a long list of films set in the Cowboy state, but not shot here—including “Brokeback Mountain,” “Unforgiven” and “2012.”

A handful of big productions have filmed in Wyoming. Young’s museum detailed that history with a recent ‘Hollywood in Wyoming’ exhibit.

“There’s certainly been the traditional westerns that you think of like John Wayne’s ‘The Hellfighters,’ ‘Spencer’s Mountain,’ or ‘Shane,’” says Young. “But over at Hell’s Half Acre, we had ‘Starship Troopers’, a sci-fi film. ‘Close Encounters of The Third Kind’ uses Devil’s Tower. So, it’s been an interesting diverse variety of films that have been filmed here.”

And the most recent big one was Tarantino’s last film—“Django Unchained.” His team shot the snow scenes in Jackson. But when Tarantino set his next film in Wyoming winter, he looked elsewhere.

“The story goes that Tarantino saw the images of this ranch down in Colorado and he fell in love and it was perfect and it great,” says Colin Stricklin, the film production senior coordinator at the Wyoming Film Office. “It was better than what he could find as an alternative in Wyoming. The other piece is that Colorado has slightly deeper pockets than we do. I believe they offered up $5 million towards the production budget of this thing.”

In recent years, most states have launched incentive programs to get production companies to spend money within their borders. Wyoming threw its hat into the ring in 2007, with a 12 to 15 percent cash rebate for productions that shoot here. That’s compared to Colorado’s 20 percent. Other states range anywhere from 5 to 50 percent in rebates or tax incentives.

“Wyoming has enough of an incentive—a very smart economic incentive that makes us good enough to compete,” Stricklin says.

To qualify, productions must spend more than $200,000 in the state and hire local film crews. That can be a challenge, as Wyoming’s film crew base is small—and spread out.  

As far as film goes, there isn't really anything here for me. I wish that there was because right now I would love that. But unfortunately we have to kind of venture off into different places like where I'm going, Montana, or you have to move straight to L.A.

“There’s a chicken and an egg thing going on,” says Stricklin. “You have to have crew before you have industry, but you have to have industry to have crew. So that is the struggle here at the office—one of them anyway, trying to figure out how to address that balance.”

One way is to train new film professionals, so Stricklin’s office helped Central Wyoming College launch a film production program a few years back.

Today, Rachel Hofer is one of about a dozen students in the program. Today, she’s sitting in directing class, analyzing the camera angles and sound design in a hyped-up car chase scene.

“As far as state of the art equipment, we get to have it pretty much hands on even our first day of class,” says Hofer. “I’d definitely say we are top-notch, especially for a community college.”

The 22-year-old lifelong Wyomingite says she’s learned a lot of skills she could put to use on a film set, but Hofer says she’ll have to leave the state to give it a go.

“As far as film goes, there isn’t really anything here for me,” says Hofer. “I wish that there was because right now I would love that. But unfortunately we have to kind of venture off into different places like where I’m going—Montana, or you have to move straight to L.A.”

Even if Wyoming will never be Hollywood, legislators like Jackson Republican Ruth Ann Petroff say it’s worthwhile for the state to stay in the incentives game.

“We’ve spent less than 2 and a half million dollars in the decade that it’s been in place,” says Petroff. “The program has generated, we know, at least 10 and a half million dollars in the expenses that were available to be compensated. So we certainly know it’s had that benefit.”

Aside from the money productions spend in the state, Petroff says broadcasting Wyoming’s landscapes on screens big and small draws more visitors here.

“Tourism is the second biggest industry in the state and has increased 85 percent in the last 10 years,” says Petroff. “And we think that the film industry financial incentive program has certainly contributed to that.”

The program is scheduled to sunset this summer. Lawmakers will have to take action during this legislative session to keep it going. With a budget crunch in Cheyenne, the future of Wyoming’s film incentives is uncertain.