E. Bennett Walsh was Grand County’s largest employer while his production crew was in town earlier this month filming “After Earth.”
To say Walsh, executive producer of the M. Knight Shymalan film starring Will and Jaden Smith, had an economic impact on Moab is an understatement.
First of all, he brought 480 crew members to Moab.
Secondly, he spent more than $400,000 at 20 hotels to house the crew and then paid each of the crew members an additional $60 per diem to spend while in town.
He also hired 130 locals to work as extras in the film and to assist with construction and security.
And Walsh was happy to be here.
“What is hard for us is to find a place that could support us,” Walsh said. “The city really understood and supported us.”
Filming began May 31 and wrapped up June 6. Some crew members arrived April 18 and will be in town through June 18.
“After Earth” is an original story that stars father and son duo Will and Jaden Smith. The Moab landscape served as the backdrop for Nova Prime, a fictional planet that in the film was colonized after Earth could no longer support human life.
Things get interesting when father and son leave Nova Prime and crash on an Earth that has had a millennium of no human life.
The production crew filmed some scenes at Fossil Point (where the final scene of “Thelma and Louise” took place years ago) and some at the Green River Overlook in Canyonlands National Park.
But much of the production was on land owned by Intrepid Potash at the end of Highway 279.
“The advantage of working with Potash was that we were able to do things we can’t do with BLM or a national park,” Walsh said. “They were great. It was colossal. We built roads. There were explosions.”
The Hollywood crew also worked with the Grand County School District.
The last day of shooting was in the Grand County Middle School auto shop and gymnasium for a training sequence with Jaden Smith where Smith is in “the training booth” and gives the history of Nova Prime.
“It is the first 10 minutes of the movie where we intercut between the landscape and him telling us about Nova Prime,” Walsh said. “It is very similar to the beginning of ‘Casablanca’ where you’re setting up the world. We’re setting up the world in 10 minutes.”
Walsh also leased office space in the Grand County Middle School Vocational Tech Building for six weeks, as well as space in the auto shop and wood shop for wardrobe and set construction.
The Grand County School District earned approximately $11,000 for six weeks of leasing space and three days of filming, said Grand County School District Superintendent Margaret Hopkin. The school district averages $8,000 a year in rentals.
“We earned more in one rental than we usually earn in one year,” Hopkin said.
Filming in Moab marked the end of a long journey for the “After Earth” production crew. Crews filmed in Philadelphia, Costa Rica and Eureka, Calif., before arriving in Moab to create a collage of images that serve as a backdrop of Earth far in the future. Walsh said he only had a few more images to film in Iceland and Switzerland to completely create the scenery of a future Earth.
The film will be released June 7, 2013.
“It is a very intimate story, but we try to give it a grand canvas with the landscape,” Walsh said. “We came here for the landscape: The incentives were secondary.”
The Utah Film Commission has a Motion Picture Incentive Program to provide a financial incentive for production companies to spend money in the state. Productions spending a minimum of $200,000 can potentially receive a 15 percent cash rebate.
Large projects like “After Earth,” which may spend more than a million while in the state, can qualify for a 25 percent tax credit or cash rebate. There is a cap of $500,000 cash rebate per project, according to the Utah Film Commission.
For instance, “127 Hours,” which was filmed in the Moab area in 2010, earned a $2.8 million tax credit after putting nearly $14 million into the Utah economy and hiring 151 locals for 40 days, according to an article published in the Salt Lake Tribune in April 2010.
Another deciding factor to film in the Moab area for Walsh was the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission, the oldest film commission in the United States.
“The infrastructure and precedence was clear. It is very easy to come here. You’re used to us. Hollywood films are very specific compared to other media. The support is here,” Walsh said.
George White, a local rancher, began working with Hollywood director John Ford in 1939 for the movie “Stagecoach.” In 1949, White established the Moab Film Commission as an offshoot of the Moab Chamber of Commerce, according to the Association of Film Commissions International. The commission became a model for others worldwide to provide a liaison that could coordinate local services and essential municipal and government services for shooting a production on location.
However, Tara Campbell Penner, director of the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission, does far more than provide assistance during production. Her job begins much earlier to court production companies to come to Moab, which may take a year or more before a film is shot.
And as production companies consider Moab, it takes time to set up a large production. Walsh said he began visiting Moab a full year before he began filming and visited the area an additional six times before production.
Large projects like “After Earth” may have a high profile in town, but the film commission stays busy with one or two smaller projects any given week for still shots or small budget commercials.
“Most projects may have only 10 or 15 people and so they go unnoticed,” Penner said. “It is when big budget commercials or films come into town, when they see all the equipment … that is when the community begins to realize.”