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Actor Kevin Costner listened in the winter of 2017 while Montana Gov. Steve Bullock made a point during a conversation about the economics and politics of filming in Montana. Bullock was touring the set of "Yellowstone," a cable television series starring Costner, which was partly filmed at the Chief Joseph Ranch south of Darby in the Bitterroot Valley.

Dozens of local filmmakers filled one of the Roxy's theaters during the Audience Awards Film and Innovation Festival Saturday for a presentation on a tax incentive that could bolster their careers in Montana.

A panel from the Montana Film Office and Montana Studios walked audience members through the Montana Economic Development Industry Advancement (MEDIA) Act, which provides a tax credit for 20% of production costs for projects shot in Montana.

“This is huge for filmmakers. The budget of a production determines just about everything, so to have this kind of incentive is a real game changer,” said Maureen Porter, the market manager for Montana Studios, which has two production facilities, including the state’s only professional-grade sound stage in Hamilton.

The 2019 Montana Legislature passed the Media Act, the first tax incentive for filming in the Treasure State in four years. It includes transferable tax credits for expenditures made on production crews, actors, set construction and catering.

According to Allison Whitmer, the film commissioner of the Montana Film Office who has worked in the industry for more than 20 years, productions must submit a budget of at least $50,000 to be considered for the tax credit. Once approved, filmmakers will have one year to complete their projects.

Should production costs amount to $100,000, Whitmer said, the state’s Department of Revenue would issue a tax credit after its completion that could be sold to any taxpayer in the state, including private businesses.

“The point of this tax incentive is that this little discount to filmmakers will roll over into bigger effects,” she said.

Along with making Montana competitive with its neighboring states in attracting filmmakers, Whitmer said major productions provide a boon to the local economy. Along with restaurants and hotels, truck drivers, carpenters and even locals paid as extras all benefit from movies and TV shows shot on location in Montana.

Darby, she said, has become a tourist destination since the release of the series “Yellowstone.”

Whitmer said the state’s film office has already reviewed applications for several projects set in Montana since the incentive went into effect, and filming has already begun for some.

“Of course, we love the out-of-state business, but this incentive is just as much for local filmmakers,” said Lynn-Wood Fields, the marketing producer for Montana Studios and an award-winning filmmaker.

Although the Montana Film Office currently tracks about 600 filmmakers based in the state, Fields estimates there are as many as 1,500.

Kyle Weingart, an independent filmmaker who recently returned home to Montana after working in Los Angeles for three years, spent his fifth day back at the film festival.

Weingart has a feature budgeted at $36,000 set to begin filming in the summer. Because he expects that number to increase in the upcoming months, he said the tax incentive will “absolutely be an option.”

“One thing that made me really happy to hear today was that this incentive will bring filmmaking here, but it won’t turn the state into Georgia,” he said. “People come here because of what Montana offers.”

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