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On Location With the Montana Film Office

Tuesday Mar. 1st, 2016

It is an unassuming logo of the State of Montana superimposed with a film reel, the cobalt blue reminiscent of Montana’s big sky. An understated font reads ‘Montana Film Office’. The simplicity of the logo belies the complexity and importance of this little state agency housed under the Department of Tourism and Business Development, a division of the Montana Department of Commerce.  

Originally established in 1974 as an information source for on-location filmmakers, The Montana Film Office strives to promote the state of Montana as a filming location to the film, television, and commercial industries and invite and support these productions into Montana. Once a production has come to Montana, the film office staff assists producers to find locations that fit their script, as well as act as their liaison through every phase of production. Recognizing Montana’s own emerging talent, the film office strives to nurture and support the development of resident film crews and filmmakers.

“We do a lot,” quips Rachel Gregg, Public Relations & Multimedia Coordinator for the film office. “Our office is a driving force behind expanding film opportunities in Montana, for the economic benefit of Montana communities. It’s exciting to bring economic development to Montana through the arts.”  

One such opportunity is the sponsorship of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, an annual film festival held in Missoula in February. Now in it’s 13th year, the Big Sky Doc Film Festival has grown to become the largest cinema event in Montana, and the premiere venue for non-fiction film in the American West. Filmmakers premiere new work and audiences enjoy innovative new films at the historic Wilma Theater, The Top Hat, The Roxy Theater, and Crystal Theater in downtown Missoula. This year the festival drew an audience of 20,000 and received over 1400 film entries from all over the world.

The Montana Film Office sponsors and promotes additional events throughout the state including the Bridger Cup, an annual drone film competition held in Bozeman on July 20th, 2016 and the Montana Film Festival, a narrative film festival; it’s inaugural event is in Missoula, October 6-9th, 2016. National exposure includes promotion at the Film Independent Forum, a gathering of up and coming independent filmmakers held in Los Angeles, and the American Film Market. Held in Santa Monica in November 2016, this 1-week conference is the largest international gathering in the film industry.

Another resource offered by the Montana Film Office is the Big Sky Film Grant, which serves to provide seed funding to enable the creation of jobs related to filmmaking production, enhance the marketing of Montana’s tourism regions and support Montana’s filmmaking community. A grant fund is awarded each fiscal year in four categories: Feature Film & TV Grant, Resident Filmmaker Grant, Development Grant, and Festival Grant. To date the grant has funded 136 projects, mostly through the development grants.  

Development Grants provide funding of up to $50,000 to Montana filmmakers who create Montana-centric content. Many of these films are used to promote Montana for tourism and as a film destination. The film office partners with independent YouTube channels Epic Montana Channel and themontanaexperience to distribute content.

Additional recipients of the grants include such noted works as: Winter in the Blood (Ranchwater Films, Alex Smith & Andrew J Smith), Cowboys vs Dinosaurs (Oracle Film Group), And We Were Young (Voyageur Pictures, Andy Smetanka), Spirit of Montana (Chisel Industries, Yarrow Kraner & Matthew Barbour), and Bard in the Backcountry (Montana PBS). A complete list of recipients is found on the website here: www.montanafilm.com/big-sky-film-grant.

“It is exciting when Montana films gain notoriety in the larger film community. We really enjoy celebrating with them and bringing recognition to their accomplishments,” said Rachel. One such film is Certain Women, which received official selection to premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, recently held in January. Announced by the Sundance Institute in December 2015, Certain Women was among only 15 feature films selected as festival premieres. Shot in Livingston in the spring of 2015, the film is based on stories by award winning, New York Times bestselling author and Helena native Maile Meloy. A recipient of the Big Sky Film Grant, Certain Women is the first Montana feature since 2005 to receive official selection to the Sundance Film Festival. Previous Montana movies to premiere at Sundance include Travis Wilkerson’s Who Killed Cock Robin? and Alex and Andrew Smith’s The Slaughter Rule.

“We are thrilled for all involved in the making of Certain Women,” said Montana film commissioner Deny Staggs. “Official selection to Sundance is a coveted reward for the dedicated work of independent filmmakers and Montana’s production workforce, and it’s wonderful to see a film that had such positive economic impact in Montana receive this honor.”

In partnership with the Roxy/Montana Film Academy, the Montana Film Office sponsors the Montana Production Intensive Series. This workshop series provides students, newcomers to the field, and aspiring film professionals to team up with innovative film professionals for intensive weekends of training and professional development. The weekend includes instruction from professional filmmakers, hands-on experience and connections to internships and job opportunities.

“With the Montana Production Intensive Series we aim to make Montana a place where skilled production and technical crew are trained and ready to walk on a set,” explains Rachel; “It’s everything an aspiring filmmaker needs to get a foot in the door.”

“Technical and support services for filmmakers coming to Montana are a big part of our mission,” Rachel explains. On a daily basis film office staff will field phone calls on a range of inquiries about permitting, set locations and support, video assistance, casting, and technical services. “We have a database of curated resources from locations, crew and production services, to funding options and publicity for Montana film-related projects and news.”

Imagine a filmmaker seeking that location matching an exacting image in the minds eye. Whether it’s an eerie ghost town, a sweeping prairie, a rugged mountainous backdrop, an iconic western main street, or a dingy bar, Montana’s landscapes and cityscapes are vast and diverse. The Montana Film Office catalogs hundreds of locations to help filmmakers find the perfect location. A cursory review of the ‘Locations’ tab on the film office website, and I found myself lost in over 1400 images of Montana: mansions, waterfalls, grain silos, rivers, county roads, cemeteries, and of course, the Sip-n-Dip. Can you say road trip?

And let’s not take ourselves too seriously here. Of course, it is impressive when you learn that the film office provided location and permitting support for a three-day stunt shoot in Libby for Academy Award nominated The Revenant, or location and funding assistance to Buster’s Mal Heart, an indie feature in the Flathead area starring Rami Malek; but a post-apocalyptic zombie western?

“Seriously, check it out,” quips Rachel. The film office provided technical assistance for the filming of Dead 7, a cult-zombie-western-horror starring members of the ‘90s pop bands Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. From the makers of Sharknado and set to release in summer 2016, the on-site filming in Butte was not overlooked by the likes of The Daily Beast and Rolling Stone Magazine.

“Marketing and promotion of note-worthy Montana projects is a big part of our outreach, and offers us a platform to provide digital advertising for Montana,” explains Rachel. In partnership with IndieWIRE, articles featured a number of Montana projects and filmmakers including Buster’s Mal Heart, The Revenant, and Alex and Andrew J Smith.

There is definitely room for more growth in Montana’s film industry. The Montana Film Office is at the ready to foster and support that growth, and that’s a good thing for Montana.

Rachel concludes, “It’s important to me to help Montana’s creative economy grow. There are so many talented people drawn to Montana for quality of life and it is reflected in their work. Film professionals come to Montana for projects because it’s beautiful, and return because of their experience with the amazing locals and wildly hardworking Montana crews.”

There is definitely room for more growth in Montana’s film industry. The Montana Film Office is at the ready to foster and support that growth, and that’s a good thing for Montana.    

Jill Joyce is the Lead Janitor and Proprietress of Movie Lovers, Bozeman’s iconic, independent video rental store.  She rarely can be found at the store, however, so as not to dumb down the reputation of the highly knowledgeable staff, but rather, can be found herding her three children or drinking inexplicable amounts of coffee.  Reach her at clerks@movieloversbozeman.com