Continental Divides

Montana Scripts Teeter on Cutting Room Floor

Helena gifted Montana’s film-production momentum to the Lone Star State just when it was hitting a sweet spot.

By John McCaslin

There’s the old saying “we didn’t know how good we had it until it was gone.” From the economic perspective of filmmaking in Montana, we’ve had it good.

Really, really good.

“We’ve been so successful in Montana we have had the number one and number two shows in the world, plus 190 other productions. And that is completely due to the work ethic of Montanans,” award-winning filmmaker and producer Lynn-Wood Fields, president of the Montana Media Coalition, tells me.

Actually, for those counting (sadly not enough Helena legislators appear to be) Montana has played host to the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 TV drama series’ on the planet, Yellowstone and its prequels 1883 and 1923.

“Montana just knocked this out of the park. We did so great on economic impact with films that all the states were watching us. And then Texas decided they wanted the economic impact,” Fields states bluntly, referring to the astute Texas Legislature.

Worse yet, Helena gifted Montana’s film-production momentum to the Lone Star State just when it was hitting a sweet spot.

And don’t look now, but there are some 40 other states that would love to get in on some of Montana’s action, rolling out welcome mats to media production projects of every size and scope.

All the more reason why a consequential 2025 vote by Helena’s legislators will be pivotal in determining the future course of filmmaking across Montana’s unrivaled stage.

It was five years ago — July 1, 2019 — that the Montana Economic Development Industry Advancement (MEDIA) Act [HB293] went into effect. The bill, which Fields helped write, provided for a 20 percent transferable income tax credit on film production expenditures in Montana, with the option of boosting credits up to 35 percent of a media company’s base investment in the tax year.

Additional credit incentives included a 25 percent compensation for Montana-resident production crews; 15 percent for non-Montana crews; 20 percent for actors, directors, producers, and writers; 30 percent to a participating student enrolled in a Montana college or university; 10 percent to Montana’s colleges or universities providing stage, equipment, rentals, and location fees for filming on campus; 25 percent for post-production wages; and 5 percent for using the “Filmed in Montana” screen credit logo.

Then two years later in 2021, Helena lawmakers passed HB340, increasing the MEDIA Act cap from its initial $10 million to $12 million — a small amount in comparison to other states’ incentives, but what production outfit in Butte or Burbank doesn’t want to shoot scenes against a Big Sky Country backdrop?

But then, straight out of the Montana blue, came the rude awakening of 2023 — when in a single stupefying vote the Helena supermajority all but pulled the rug out from under Montana’s budding film industry.

“In 2023, we knew that … we had too low of a cap,” explains Fields (she grew up in Whitefish, by the way, her late father city councilman Edwin Fields). “So we tried to raise the cap from the original bill — just make an amendment to that MEDIA Act bill — and it tied 50-50.

“And when a bill ties, it fails.”

Meaning Montana is on the brink of packing it all up?

“So in 2025, if we do not get that cap raised, our industry of … thousands of [Montana] workers will become ‘displaced’ workers,” says the coalition president. “And there’s also all the economic benefit [lost by] other businesses and vendors and communities.”

If that’s not pressure enough, during their recent legislative session, Texas lawmakers raised the state’s film incentives cap “from $40 million to I think over $200 million,” Fields continues. “What’s heartbreaking to me is they basically have taken our economic impact and workforce. So that’s where the [Yellowstone prequel] 1923 is going, because we’re out of cap.”

And rest assured, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose office is widely promoting the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, is there to welcome 1923’s crew to Austin. Like the Montana MEDIA Act, the Texas legislation is designed to build the state’s economy by enticing production houses with everything from cash grants and sales tax exemptions to eligible wages for Texas residents.

In other words, until Helena’s recent tie vote, both state legislatures seemed to be reading from the same advantageous script.

“Basically, before [Montana] reached the film incentive, we had 39 productions happening in the state,” Fields educates. “And once [Helena passed] the film incentive it was 200 productions.”

And just when Montana’s independent filmmakers reached the point of “pitching our [state’s] stories — and we have been — now we’re going to be out of money. So we’re not going to be able to tell our stories here,” she says.

“There’s a real narrative that we don’t want Hollywood here, and one thing that I want to push back on is that there’s a bunch of local Montana filmmakers who are working in this state. And these are our jobs,” Fields stresses. “The other thing is to say that we don’t want Hollywood, and then have Hollywood tell our stories in Texas, and [that’s] the worst thing that can happen.

“There’s so many productions that are now being made by Montanans about Montana … where if we get the cap up, the Montana filmmakers who are here can start making our films. And we have been.”

I ask her to rattle off a few examples:

Mending the Line was number one on Netflix — that was a complete Montana-made story,” she says of the 2022 hit set in Livingston, with scenes shot there and in Bozeman.

Somewhere in Montana — complete Montana-made story,” she continues, with a release date set for Oct. 18, 2024.

Bringing Them Home — Ivan MacDonald [narrated by Lily Gladstone], complete Montana story. There’s hundreds of those happening.”

“The irony is that we’ve become this. Montana’s got a great reputation: the crew, the local economy, we have beautiful locations; we have all the things that are needed. The only thing that we’re missing is this incentive.”

That said, between now and the start of Helena’s much-anticipated 2025 session, Fields and other proponents of filmmaking here will be crisscrossing the state to increase awareness of the MEDIA Act.

“I am wanting to do a MEDIA Act road show and just show the numbers, and show the other [Montana-made] films, and show the economic impact, and really be able to answer peoples’ questions.

“I would love to come to the Flathead,” she adds, “and meet [with its] legislators and communities about what this entails, and the truth of what it entails, instead of the narrative that isn’t quite accurate. Because this is really a workforce job-creation bill.”

As for an ideal cap?

“What we’re asking for is $50 million,” she replies. “If we were to actually have $50 million we could be sustainable. The truth is Montana, like any state, can have 10 percent of what their treasury is. And so technically we could do $150 to $200 [million] if we wanted that economic impact, but our hope is $50 [million]. If we get under $30 we will still not be in a great place.”


“Many, many productions will choose to go places that already have money,” Fields says, “and that’s like Oregon and New Mexico and Oklahoma and Texas. It’s not Montana.”

Columnist’s note: The “Media Production in Montana by the Numbers” report for 2022-23, which will detail the economic, workforce and community impact of film production in Montana, including here in the Flathead, will be released on June 23.

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.