By Maria Wyllie
Explorebigsky.com Editorial Assistant
BILLINGS – Academy-award winning director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways) is pouring money into Montana with the filming of Nebraska, a lighthearted comedy telling the story of a father and son (played by Bruce Dern and Will Forte) travelling from Billings to Lincoln, Neb. to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize.
Filming for the opening scene of Nebraska, which took place in Billings in late November, brought business to the community’s hotels, restaurants, and shops during the winter months, a time when tourism is slow.
Production groups such as Payne’s typically spend about $25,000 a day, according to research from the Montana Film Office, which works to secure film projects across the state.
“It’s really critical and great to have that kind of economic impact on the community,” said MFO Film Commissioner Deny Staggs. “We look at it like a mobile manufacturing company that comes in and builds its product, drops off money, and packs up its stuff and goes. It’s pure money with a strong, direct, economic impact.”
The Nebraska crew spent roughly $250,000 over the course of production, said John Brewer, President of the Billings CVB and Chamber of Commerce.
While the economic impact of a production is felt most directly where it’s filmed – in this case Billings – the money trickles down in the form of taxes, helping the state run and do business.
The MFO’s Big Sky on the Big Screen Act, which was established in 2005, has helped Montana compete in the industry by giving tax incentives to production firms shooting in Montana. The tax cuts incentivize the firms to bring projects to Montana and consequently to hire locals and spend more money in the state.
When it comes to deciding where to shoot a film, companies are typically concerned with startup costs, Staggs said. “The number one question productions firms ask is what the tax incentives are and what the crew base is.”
Without a tax incentive, he added, there would be no film production in Montana, unless a specific location was needed.
According to Staggs, the value of film production is threefold: It has a strong economic impact; it allows people all over the world to see how beautiful Montana is; and it can create and spark more tourism, which brings money into the state.
However, it is difficult to measure how many people visit Montana after seeing films shot across the state, and most of what the state Department of Tourism knows is anecdotal.
“Montana is a state of such impactful visuals that any numbers would underestimate the amount of people traveling to Montana to see these places for themselves,” said Sarah Lawlor, Public Information Officer for the Montana Department of Tourism.
Even so, having a film shot by an award-winning director that is location-specific is an invaluable public relations tool in the long run, Brewer said, noting that it will help keep Billings and Montana in the forefront of a very large audience. “It’s nice to be represented as we truly are.”