By Regan Foster

It started with a Harley-Davidson.

In 2018, the iconic motorcycle builder visited Pueblo for a very hush-hush marketing campaign in support of its 2019 catalog. The grit and history of the Steel City fit perfectly with the company’s image. The photo shoot, including a frame of a black-and-white 2019 Heritage Classic 114 shimmering in the sun from its parking spot between the Pueblo Memorial Hotel and historic Vail Hotel, went viral … and changed the way the outside world saw the city.

The campaign was translated into 20 languages, said Gregory Howell, founder of the new Pueblo Regional Film Commission, adding Harley-Davidson included the Pueblo scenes in 500,000 of its iconic calendars.

“Then-Gov. [John] Hickenlooper called and wanted to know why we weren’t in a formal arrangement with a film commission,” Howell said. “The governor said, ‘You’re doing more PR and marketing for the state of Colorado and you aren’t even associated with a film commission.’”

Thanks to that iconic shoot, which saw riders cruising the city’s historic downtown and through the piñon-dotted foothills of rural Pueblo County, the Steel City is embracing film in a big way.

INCENTIVIZING AN INDUSTRY

Howell was in Denver Feb. 12 for a meeting with lawmakers in support of a bill that would offer up to $5 million per year in tax credits for film, television and media producers. The state currently caps its offerings at $750,000 per year.

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The legislation had not yet been introduced as of Feb. 17, but Howell said Monday that it is designed to help the state get its bite of the multibillion-dollar apple that is the global film industry.

“There’s a lot of moaning and groaning about incentives and why Colorado is now only giving $750,000 per year,” he said. “There’s a 37-to-1 return on investment. For every dollar you give in incentive, it’s $37 to your local economy.”

The Louisiana-based tax credit brokerage and consulting company Film Production Capital ranks the Centennial State in the bottom half of states for its efforts to attract film-focused creatives.

Just over the New Mexico state line, on the other hand, film and TV makers who spend at least a half-million dollars per year making projects in the state, and music video and soundtrack-producers who hit $50,000 per year in expenses, may qualify for tax rebates of up to 35 percent on qualified production expenditures and crew salaries, with extra incentives for hiring locally. Per-project incentives are capped at $110 million under a program that launched July 1, 2019.

In terms of economic impact, the Motion Picture Association estimates that the film and television industry hires 2.6 million people annually, be they special effects experts and makeup artists or writers and directors, paying more than $177 billion in wages. Marvel’s Black Panther employed more than 3,100 local Georgia workers and infused that state’s economy with more than $26.5 million in wages, the association reports.

And while it may not have been a graphic novel-inspired blockbuster, the 2016 filming of the Robert Redford/Jane Fonda Netflix film Our Souls at Night  (which was filmed, in part, in Old Colorado City) brought record-setting sales tax to the Teller County town of Florence, local media reported at the time.

“This is going to bring content creation here locally,” Howell said. “At the end of the day, there has to be kind of this very organic, authentic genuine source of storytelling. … It’s the oldest thing on the planet, storytelling.”

‘GOOD STORIES CONNECT US ALL’

The Denver discussion came hot on the heels of a deeper conversation about the industry that transcended international boundaries.

On a snowy Feb. 7, Howell and a coalition of Steel City filmmakers, festival managers, creatives, documentarians, government representatives and business advocates shared the fledging film commission’s origin story with a group of seven Russian filmmakers. The delegation gathered at Watertower Place, the former Nuckolls Packing Company — whose rehabilitation Howell is also overseeing — for a two-hour discussion of film, film festivals and the medium’s unique ability to cross cultural barriers, tell stories and inspire.

The foreign delegation learned about southern Colorado’s expanding cinema industry. In turn, they shared their experiences as up-and-coming industry leaders, and insights on how they are growing the art form in Russia.

“Good stories connect us all as humans, right? They show us something we’re not familiar with,” said Dustin Hodge, a Pueblo-based filmmaker and commission member whose Little Britches Rodeo series airs in more than 52 million homes across the nation on RFD-TV.

The Pueblo Regional Film Commission counts among its members about 60 film professionals, scholars and promoters, Howell said. It focuses on enticing filmmakers to use the Steel City for shoots, talent and settings; growing the local film workforce through training and certification programs; and building Pueblo’s film infrastructure.

“For us, it’s history, culture, commerce and the arts that are empowering discovery,” Howell told the international visitors.

The Russian delegation traveled to Pueblo courtesy of the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council’s International Visitor Leadership Program. The delegates were handpicked by the U.S. Embassies in Russia to participate in the nationwide tour of film-centric communities, said Program Manager Jamie Bequette.

Their itinerary took them to Washington, D.C., and Atlanta as well as the Front Range, and wraps up in San Francisco and New York City.

“It’s amazing to see how strong your community is here,” said Irina Shatalova, an independent filmmaker and founder of the Moscow-based documentary showcase series DOKer Project. She was curious whether filmmakers and advocates here receive financial support from local governments — something that, she said, would be “hard to imagine … happening in our community.”