Wyoming Filmmaker Says Film Incentives Bill Deliberately Killed By House Majority Leader

A Wyoming filmmaker says a bill that would have provided incentives to film companies that shoot Wyoming-centric films in the Cowboy State was targeted for failure by the Wyoming Freedom Caucus.

Renée Jean

February 10, 20236 min read

Sen Chip Neiman 2 2 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

A failed Wyoming film incentives bill did not just run out of time for consideration, it was hidden behind a political curtain, an advocate of House Bill 92 has told Cowboy State Daily. 

“It was a calculated decision to place House Bill 92 dead last on the agenda by House Majority Leader Rep. Chip Neiman,” said Sean Higgins, founder of Wyoming-based Story House Pictures. “That was strategy to not have the bill introduced. It had the votes in the House to pass … and be supported to its next stage.”

Higgins said he believes the bill, which would have created incentives for filmmaking companies to produce their projects in the Cowboy State, was targeted by the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, a far-right bloc of lawmakers, of which Neiman is a member.

Higgins said the film rebate program already had passed five votes in legislative committees over the past 18 months, including 8-1 approval Feb. 2 from the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee.

HB 92 was then sent to the House floor for debate, but it wasn’t introduced and died on Neiman’s desk.

“It was kicked as an interim topic to 2023 because it had such strong support,” Higgins said. “As a committee-sponsored bill, it never should have been held to the last item on the agenda.”

A whip count of votes showed the measure had the support to pass, Higgins said.

“That’s the frustration. We have the support, and it’s being supported now,” he said. “That’s where I was saying this is politics at its worst.”

Neiman didn’t respond to two Cowboy State Daily inquiries for comment on Higgins’ allegation.

Lost Chance For Economic Diversification

House Majority Whip, Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, whose “tinsel was in a tangle” over would-be Big Horn tourists showing up in Canada to see a mountain range that’s really in Wyoming, told Cowboy State Daily he would be very disappointed if it turned out the film incentive’s failure to be considered by the House as a whole was deliberate.

“It’s very rare for a MFL (majority floor leader) to deliberately kill committee bills,” he told Cowboy State daily in an email. “I do not know if it was intentional, but if it was, it’s very unbecoming of such a position and disregards all the energy and time that was put into the legislation by many over the interim.”

The larger opportunity that Western believes has been lost is to diversify the Cowboy State’s economy.

“If we are serious about diversifying our economy, then we need to at least allow debate for legitimate options that have the potential to do so,” Western said. “And I’m very disappointed it did not come up for debate.”

Freedom Caucus Strikes Again?

The film bill was one of more than 40 advanced by committees in the first weeks of the 2023 legislative session that died Monday night without being considered by the House. Among them was a bill to expand Medicaid.

Higgins believes the Freedom Caucus orchestrated the demise of HB 92 and other bills that had majority overall support, but which they didn’t agree with.

“This was a calculated decision by a few of those people to place a bill last on the agenda that should have been heard on the House floor for introduction so that the House could have voted on it,” Higgins said. “They never got the opportunity because of that strategy to put it so late on the list.”

Higgins believes the group could be misunderstanding how the rebate program would work.

A production would only be paid a rebate after spending significant amounts of money locally and an advisory board would decide if the films reflect appropriately on the Cowboy State, he said.

But For Clause

Not many film productions are likely to ever operate in Wyoming despite featuring Wyoming storylines without some type of incentive, Higgins said.

The list of such productions set in the Cowboy State and filmed in other locations is long and includes popular Wyoming author C.J. Box’s “Big Sky” and “Joe Pickett” television shows. It also includes shows like “Longmire,” “The Last of Us,” the prequel to “1883,” a Robert Redford film called “Unfinished Life” and others.

“That’s what C.J. Box was trying to say,” Higgins said about the author’s testimony supporting HB 92. “The $90 million tied to his shows that are local, qualified expenditures is what they’re called. Those dollars are never going to come.”

Box told lawmakers during committee that both of the television shows based on his books looked at Wyoming first, but quickly pivoted when they found out there was no incentive. The numbers wouldn’t add up without that, so the shows went instead to New Mexico and Canada, both of which offer some type of rebate or incentive.

In an email to Cowboy State Daily, Box expressed his disappointment with the outcome. 

“Well, it looks like our Legislature has once again opted to leave hundreds of new jobs and tens of millions of dollars of in-state spending on the table,” he wrote. “Television shows and movies set in Wyoming will continue to be shot in other locations. Montana, New Mexico, Alberta, and other western locations will once again benefit at the expense of our state.”

“So that $90 million the state might have paid out $6 million [per show] to get. There’s still a net profit there of [$72 million] flowing into those Wyoming residents wages and those wyoming small businesses,” Higgins said.

The on-the-ground budgets Box mentioned are not used to pay Hollywood actors either, Higgins added. They are strictly for local expenses — lodging, travel and skilled labor ranging from electricians to taxidermists.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter