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Estes Park set to host Sundance directors at Stanley Hotel. Could it mean a larger role in movies?

The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park has 140 rooms and 14,000 square feet of event space. (Hugh Carey,/The Colorado Sun file)
Could $450 million upgrade, new film center lure country’s largest film festival to state?

About 120 of the country’s up-and-coming movie directors will gather at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park in May as part of the venerated Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab. They will edit, rehearse and shoot scenes as part of the institute’s first foray beyond its 40-year home in Park City, Utah.

Could the aspiring filmmakers in the historical hotel where Stephen King conjured and Stanley Kubrik filmed “The Shining” be a harbinger for Estes Park? Could a planned $450 million upgrade of the Stanley with a new film center curated by a heavyweight Hollywood mogul raise Colorado’s profile for film producers? And, perhaps most importantly, if Estes Park shines hosting a lab that delivered Quentin Tarantino’s debut “Reservoir Dogs,” could it lure the country’s largest film festival from Park City?

No one is talking on the record about these questions. Off the record, the state’s film industry champions say that landing the Sundance Institute or even the Sundance Festival could be the coup that changes Colorado’s backwater status in the movie production world.

There are a lot of strings to pull to weave this “Colorado-could-be” narrative. Let’s start in Park City.

Locals in the ski town have long grumbled about the 10-day January Sundance Festival that draws upward of 100,000 visitors in the height of ski season to a resort town that regularly hosts more than 1.7 million visits every winter. The owner of the country’s largest film festival, the Sundance Institute, is negotiating a new contract with Park City just as the boss of the institute notes the mountain town’s challenges with accessibility and costs.

Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente in a live recording of “The Town” podcast in Park City in January said “Park City is part of Sundance.”

But she noted challenges with hosting more than 100,000 visitors at the festival in a very busy ski town in January. Podcast host Mathew Belloni prodded her to explain those challenges, saying he hears complaints every year in town.

“You hear it every time you talk to people involved in the ski industry, they don’t like Sundance,” he said, asking if Vicente was considering other locations, like Austin or Whistler.

Accessibility and costs in the height of winter are the primary issues for festival attendees, she said.

“It’s hard to think of any other place than Park City. We love being here,” she said. “Yes there is a negotiation coming up. We are also spending time doing a lot of strategic thinking, like where can be most relevant? What is the role of the festival? What is the role of the institute? How do we evolve in a really ever-changing industry around us? Those are all of the considerations. But we want to make this work. We know there are a lot of challenges.”

Money talks – in many different ways

The speculation about a possible move from Park City ramped up after the podcast dropped. “Would Sundance really leave Utah?” The Deseret News asked, spinning forward an anonymously sourced Deadline article from July 2023 that said the Sundance Institute was “fielding bids from a handful of cities to relocate the festival.”

The festival sold 138,050 tickets to 86,824 attendees in January 2023, which included venues in both Park City and Salt Lake City. About 21,400 of those festival goers were from out-of-state and spent $97 million, according to a 2023 economic impact report by Utah-based research firm Y2 Analytics. State residents added another $28.5 million in spending.

Colorado put up $300,000 to lure the roughly 120-attendee Directors Lab to the Stanley for the next two years, with $200,000 from the state Strategic Fund, $50,000 from the Colorado Tourism Office and $50,000 from the state’s film office. Donald Zuckerman, the 13-year head of the Colorado film office, declined to say whether the lab could be a step toward luring either the institute or the festival.

When the Sundance Institute and Colorado film office announced the Directors Lab at Estes Park in November, Zuckerman said in a statement that the Stanley and Estes Park “will provide inspiring backdrops for this prestigious workshop and showcase the many resources our state offers the film industry, including the unparalleled natural beauty of filming locations.”

Hotelier John Cullen announced his sale of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park to the Arizona-based nonprofit Community Finance Corporation in December 2023. Cullen’s Grand Heritage Hotel Group will remain the operator of the historic hotel. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Sundance Institute is appreciative of the state support for the first Directors Lab outside Sundance Resort at Park City, a media representative said, noting that the program is moving from its longtime home while the institute makes improvements at Sundance.

The institute also offers its Native Lab in New Mexico, its Ignite Lab in Massachusetts and its Producers Lab in Wyoming.

“They do bring a lot of enthusiasm from the local communities,” the representative said in an email.

It’s unclear if Estes Park has the capacity for a festival of 100,000. Kara Franker, the CEO of Visit Estes Park, declined to comment.

Park City, host of 14 events in the 2002 Winter Olympics and likely host of more events at the 2034 Winter Games, is a bigger city with a more robust tourism economy. (But as the Sundance Festival has grown, the institute has shifted some programming 40 minutes down the hill to Salt Lake City, indicating a willingness to split events between a mountain town and city.)

There are 2,681 hotel rooms and another 842 short-term rental properties in and around Estes Park, which compares to more than 4,000 hotel rooms in Park City. Travel spending in Estes Park reached $504 million in 2021, with the city counting 1.8 million total visitors in 2021. Park City’s overnight visitation reached 2.3 million in 2021.

Park City reported $1.6 billion in taxable spending in Utah’s 2022 fiscal year 2023, up 18% from the previous year. Estes Park reported almost a quarter of that: $415.7 million in 2022, with lodging tax revenues for the city reaching $3.4 million.

In the winter in Summit County, Utah, the Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort have been reporting record traffic, with a record 2.7 million skier visits in 2022-23. Summer traffic in recent years has grown to nearly match winter.

Rocky Mountain National Park at the edge of Estes Park hosts 4.5 million visitors a year, with the smallest number of visitors in the winter months.

A recent addition to Park City’s long-range economic development plan includes this as a top priority: “Identify the appropriate type and amount of business for Park City and determine, “how much is too much?” as it relates to (the) community’s carrying capacity.”

Growing Colorado’s meager enticements for Hollywood

Since the creation of the film incentive program in Colorado in 2012 began offering 20% rebate on money spent by crews making films, television shows and video games in the state, the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media has delivered $30.3 million in incentives for 129 projects. That support spurred $182.8 million in spending, the hiring of 6,023 cast and crew workers and $20.1 million in tax revenue.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, has sponsored legislation that increases funding for Colorado’s film incentive program to entice more media-makers to the state. Last year Herod’s House Bill 1309 gave the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media a one-time $5 million bump. That is much less than the five-year recommendation of $15 million from the 2022 Film Incentive Task Force.

“Five million is not enough to spur the industry,” Herod said, noting that part of that money was spent to lure the production of “Elevation,” an Amazon Prime Video thriller that was filmed around Golden and Boulder in 2023.

The return on investment in film production in Colorado “is better than many industries,” Herod said. She says she wants to try again this year with legislation that will deliver $5 million a year to the film incentive program for the next four years.

“We need to give the film commission and our film commissioner and our director of economic development more opportunities to bring these films and their impacts to Colorado,” she said. “We want to be more competitive in the market.”

Colorado is not competitive when it comes to enticing moviemakers. California budgeted $330 million in 2023 for its film incentive program. New Mexico budgeted $110 million. Arizona set aside $75 million.

A $450 million overhaul of the Stanley

The Stanley Film Center at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park could help elevate Colorado’s media production industry. The Colorado Economic Development Commission in 2015 awarded the development, construction and operation of the new nonprofit film center with $46 million in sales tax rebate incentives for 30 years through the Regional Tourism Act.

The $54 million center will be at least 67,000 square feet and in January, Gov. Jared Polis and his film office announced that Blumhouse, the producer of horror movies like “Halloween,” Paranormal Activity” and “Get Out,” will curate 10,000 feet of exhibit space at the Stanley Film Center.

There’s a bunch of moving parts in the Stanley Film Center plan.

The Grand Heritage Hotel Group, which bought the Stanley Hotel out of bankruptcy in the 1990s, sold the hotel in December to the Arizona nonprofit Community Finance Corp. The deal is expected to deliver funding to complete the Stanley Film Center. Grand Heritage remains the operator of the hotel, which draws 400,000 visitors a year. John Cullen, the owner of Grand Heritage, declined to comment.

The sale deal is complex. The Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority, which has issued nearly $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds since 1981 to finance schools, museums and cultural facilities, plans to issue up to $450 million in bonds to help the Community Finance Corp. pay for an expansion of the Stanley Hotel, renovations of a restaurant and the construction of the new film center.

The Community Finance Corp. creates public-private partnerships to fund and guide construction projects – like firehouses, police stations, government buildings, college dorms – while “decreasing the burden on governmental jurisdictions.”

The bonding authority project summary details how the bond revenue would be spent:

  • $53.6 million for the Film Center.
  • $39.5 million for the restaurant expansion.
  • $169 million to buy the Stanley Hotel.
  • $40 million for the Grand Heritage Group’s nearby 89-unit Fall River Village Resort.
  • $10 million for working capital and operational reserves.
  • $45 million in two funds for capitalized interest and debt service.

Community Finance Corp. estimates it will pay $30.4 million a year to service the debt with the hotel and film center generating close to $90 million a year. When the debt is retired by 2055, the Community Finance Corp. will transfer the hotel over to the Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority.

Mark Heller, executive director of the Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority, said after the debt is repaid, he expects the Stanley Hotel and film center could help the authority better support Colorado educational and cultural nonprofits.

“Yeah, it’s a complicated deal. It’s different,” said Heller, whose authority has issued bonds to finance charter schools, major museums – including the Denver Art Museum, performing arts centers and Olympic facilities in Colorado Springs. “We have never done anything like this nor have we done a deal where we end up as the owner.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.