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South Valley Riverton Journal

Exhibit celebrates 100 years of Utah in films

Feb 02, 2024 09:31AM ● By Tom Haraldsen

From left, actress Lacey Chabert, actress/producer/director Amy Redford, and executive producer Danny Peykoff spoke at the exhibit’s grand opening. (Tom Haraldsen/City Journals)

In 1923, “The Covered Wagon” became the first-ever motion picture filmed in Utah. It was shot in Circleville. The silent movie was released in 1924, has enjoyed a lifetime box office total of $4 million (mainly through rentals) and still scores a 91 on Rotten Tomatoes.

More importantly, it brought Hollywood to Utah, and it’s been here ever since.

The Utah Film Commission has opened a new exhibit, “100 Years of Utah Film & Television,” on the fourth floor of the Utah State Capitol, where it will be on display through the end of the year. It’s free to the public.

To celebrate, an opening night ceremony was held on Jan. 11 featuring actress Lacey Chabert, writer/producer/director Jerusha Hess, actress/producer/director Amy Redford, executive producer Danny Peykoff and author/film historian James D’Arc. UFC director Virginia Pearce moderated a panel discussion before the exhibit formally opened. 

Pearce said the exhibit showcases “the breadth of what has happened here,” over 1,000 movies and TV shows shot in the state, not including hundreds of commercials.

“Utah started as a very insular, withdrawn society in the pioneer days,” said D’Arc, whose book “When Hollywood Came to Utah” was published in 2019. He is working on a centennial edition for later this year as well. “When the Parry brothers—Chauncey, Caleb and Gronway—opened it up to the Hollywood studios in 1920, they opened up Utah to the world.” He says filmmakers have returned regularly since those early days.

Almost every corner of Utah has been featured in Hollywood productions from Cache Valley to Southern Utah. The exhibit has walls covered with posters and photographs from many of those films and includes artifacts such as a John Wayne saddle he called one of his favorites, shoes from “Napoleon Dynamite,” an alien head from “Plan 10 From Outer Space,” and memorabilia from the “High School Musical” movies shot at East High School. There’s a nice tribute to Kevin Bacon’s “Footloose” as well, a movie that really opened the way for contemporary filmmakers to come to the Beehive State.

More than 200 episodes of TV’s “Touched by an Angel” were filmed in and around Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden, along with three seasons of “Promised Land” that was a spinoff from “Touched.”

Redford said Utah has “a scrappiness in the way in which you accomplish things in this state.” She has filmed two movies here, and of course her father Robert Redford has been entwined with Utah for many years—from films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Jeremiah Johnson” to his Sundance Film Festival, which enjoyed its 40th anniversary this year.

Chabert is known as the “Queen of the Hallmark” movies since she’s been cast in over 30 of them. Two of those, “Haul Out the Holly” and “Haul Out the Holly: Lit Up,” were filmed in the same cul-de-sac in Salt Lake City.

“I love working here in Utah,” she said. “I’ve worked with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. There’s a collaborative spirit here, a sense of team.”

Peykoff is the executive producer for “Horizon: An American Saga,” the Kevin Costner multi-part Western saga that was filmed in southern Utah. Two more parts of that franchise are in the planning stages for filming in the future. The first two films will be released this summer.

“Kevin has been scouting locations in Utah since 2006,” he said. “He loves the American West and he has always loved coming to Utah, where of course the first couple of seasons where ‘Yellowstone’ were shot.”

Peykoff added that while working on “Horizon,” he and his daughters also discovered something else, Utah-based Swig drinks. “I don’t know why I can’t find anything like that in Southern California, but they’re great here.” Just wait, Danny, they’re growing nationwide.

Hess and her husband Jared broke into the industry with their blockbuster debut film, ‘Napoleon Dynamite,” shot with a budget of just $200,000, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and going on to earn a $44 million box office and become a cult classic. Since then, the Hess’ have written and produced a number of films, Jerusha helming “Austenland” with Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Seymour in 2013.

“We always have about a dozen ideas for films floating around in our heads,” Hess said. “We love working here and can’t wait to film here again.”

The film commission said over the past decade, more than $600 million has come into the state from film productions, and 36,000 jobs have been created worth $1.5 billion in wages. Utah tourism estimates almost $44 million went to businesses and for wages in rural Utah for one 2022 film (the name was not disclosed).

D’Arc said that for the most part, the locals who’ve been involved in the film industry as it’s come to Utah—from extras to crew members to merchants and hospitality hosts—have said the same thing about the days when Hollywood comes to town

“All they take are pictures,” he said, “and all they leave is money.” λ