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A film being shot in Cody hopes to prove the case for a state-wide film incentive

A woman sits on the back of a white and roan horse
Hannah Barefoot
Hannah Barefoot wrote the script for “Midnight Clear” and is the lead actor. She is working with Academy Award-nominated producer Mark G. Mathis, and others, on the film project.

For the past two years, Wyoming tourism advocates have tried to pass a film rebate incentive program through the state legislature. Filming in the state has its challenges, mainly because it does not offer financial incentives for filmmakers like other surrounding states including Montana, Utah, and Colorado.

Although this year a film rebate incentive program wasn’t introduced during the legislative session, advocates in Cody are taking another route to try to attract films to the region.

A Western Movie 

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A vintage rodeo poster, an elk mount, and antique washboards. These are some of the items hanging on the walls viewable from the dancefloor at Cassie’s Steakhouse in Cody where Mike Canada organizes an open mic night.

On a weeknight in February, a handful of locals munched on steaks and baked potatoes while they enjoyed the music, but this time of year the wooden dance floor is pretty empty.

But, later this year, actor Hannah Barefoot plans to pack this former brothel turned cowboy bar and restaurant with a film crew to shoot part of her movie “Midnight Clear.” She said it's a Western set during Christmas where a single mom tries to save her family’s struggling dude ranch.

“They always say, ‘Write what you know,’ and as I was starting to think about what this script would be, I just started thinking about how much I love my hometown; I love Cody; I love Wyoming in general,” she said.

Barefoot says as the characters and the story started coming together, there was no question that it had to be set in Cody at places like the Irma Hotel, the Cowboy Palace western wear shop, and her family friend’s dude ranch near Yellowstone.

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People in Hollywood liked the idea.

“But because Wyoming doesn’t have a film industry. There’s not a tax incentive; there’s no crew. And so they’re like, ‘Yeah we love this script, we’ll shoot it in Canada.’ Or, ‘We love this script, we'll shoot it in Montana or New Mexico,’” Barefoot said.

A film incentive rebate program

Wyoming had a film incentive rebate program that got started in 2009, but it went through some budget cuts and was sunsetted in 2018. In 2019, the legislature voted not to continue it.

Ever since, there have been efforts to bring it back. During last year's legislative session, Wyoming Department of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober spoke to the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee about the program's success.

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“And during that time there were over 30 productions that took place and the economic contributions and qualified expenditures during that time were $18,329,000. Of that 18 million, $9,125,000 were in crew and salary and wages for Wyoming qualified workforce that totaled 320 different crew,” she said.

In the proposed program, some productions could qualify for up to a 30 percent rebate for Wyoming expenses for things like hiring local staff and production equipment rentals.

According to a document from the Wyoming Department of Tourism, the state is losing out to other states with film incentives, including projects like “Wind River,” “Longmire,” and “1883,” one of the “Yellowstone” prequels.

Kelly Eastes runs the film office in Casper and a newly formed one in Cody. He told the committee last year that he scouted locations several times for “1883.”

“They wanted locations outside of Casper near Independence Rock, and we had things set up for them, but the incentive drew them to Montana since we didn’t have that available to us,” he said.

A University of Montana study showed that in one year 2.1 million people were inspired by the “Yellowstone” TV show to visit Montana, and when they came, they spent an estimated $730 million.

At the legislative meeting, several members of the committee expressed concern over how Wyoming could be depicted in film projects, including Rawlins Representative Donald Burkhart.

“If a company, a film company, came to Wyoming and met all of these requirements and produced a documentary that was derogatory and disruptive to our mineral extraction industry would they qualify for these?” he asked.

Cody Representative Sandy Newsome said even though the legislation ultimately received an 8-1 yes vote from the committee and was sent to the House for debate, it was not introduced on the House floor last year.

“Well, I would like to bring it back, but there doesn’t seem an appetite in the legislature for it at this point. We had a changeover of a lot of new members who are maybe ideologically opposed to incentives of any kind,” she said.

The proposed film incentive would be funded by the state’s lodging tax, not taxpayer dollars.

A new approach 

Newsome still wants the legislature to consider it in the future, but for now, she’s hoping the newly formed Cody Yellowstone film office will bring more business to Northwest Wyoming. The Park County Travel Council recently launched the film office.

“At the moment, we aren’t able to offer really any incentives, but if they are able to book their picture in the wintertime, we can get very aggressive on hotel rates for them,” said Ryan Hauck who is the Park County Travel Council’s executive director.

The film office has already negotiated hotel room rates for Barefoot’s upcoming movie and is helping her hire local talent. They can also help film projects with scouting locations, permitting, and other logistics. Barefoot said she hopes filming it in Cody during the off season will give her hometown an economic boost.

“We want to then take this film that’s done without a film incentive and then show, ‘Look at how much we did without a film incentive, how much more could we do? How much more could we accomplish if there were a film incentive, and if there were an actual industry that was a viable economic industry for this state?’” she said.

Barefoot’s film “Midnight Clear” will be shot in Cody later this year. She anticipates releasing it before the holidays in 2025.

Olivia Weitz is based at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. She covers Yellowstone National Park, wildlife, and arts and culture throughout the region. Olivia’s work has aired on NPR and member stations across the Mountain West. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom story workshop. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, cooking, and going to festivals that celebrate folk art and music.