Valley lures 'Modern Family'
Lodging tax funds used to entice producers to plan to shoot season premiere in Jackson Hole.
By Brielle Schaeffer, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
June 29, 2011
After nearly a week of courting producers of ABC’s popular “Modern Family,” Jackson Hole got news Tuesday the premiere of the third season could be shot here.
The episode of the Emmy Award-winning mockumentary-style sitcom could have the characters on a family vacation at Lost Creek Ranch.
Network approval is pending.
Jackson Hole was considered, rejected, then picked as the producers’ top location last week, in part due to a concerted community effort and dedication of public lodging tax funds.
The show draws 11.2 million live viewers and 3.5 million via DVR, meaning exposure on it has immeasurable value to a resort community.
A one-minute ad on ABC costs up to $500,000 said Suzanne Young, a community booster who helped organize the push to accommodate production.
If selected, Jackson would see crews arrive in the first week of August to begin shooting for the September broadcast.
How Jackson Hole lost then won the hearts of producers reveals a coordinated effort that used public lodging tax money to promote the community.
A dude ranch in the valley was originally in the running for the “Modern Family” vacation, along with sites in Tucson, Ariz., Bozeman, Mont., and Steamboat Springs, Colo. But Young said the high cost of lodging and limited hotel availability in peak season seemed to doom the Teton location.
That was when the former executive director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce put her network of contacts in gear.
“I know one of the co-producers, and I called them for another reason,” Young said. The co-producer “told me, ‘Oh, we were going to see you in contention, but we won’t.’ ”
That was just the dare Young needed. She rallied local and state officials, working with the show’s production team.
“It was in my blood to jump on it and say, ‘Wait a minute, we’re going to make this work,’ ” Young said. “I can’t imagine letting something like that slip through our fingers because it was a challenge or it was difficult.”
ABC officials refused to go on the record about Jackson Hole being the location of the season premiere.
Young said the show’s producers had been in contact with Mike Halpin at Lost Creek Ranch. She contacted him to see if they could use his ranch as the location.
“Mike Halpin saw the possibilities of how good it could be for the community,” she said. “He’s a one-man film commission.”
Halpin, who also is a board member of the chamber of commerce, said he was willing to make room for the cast and crew at his fully booked ranch.
“We’re completely full, but we’ll be working around the guests’ schedules during the week,” he said.
Young heard from the producer that a location scout was in Steamboat, getting location footage for the producers to check out Thursday. She asked Wilson cinematographer Peter Pilafian if he would shoot his own footage to send to the Los Angeles-based producers.
He said he knew what to do.
“I took kind of a rough shot list from the production company and just attempted to film it for them, a location scouting video, in such a way it might resemble the kind of angles and backgrounds and locations that they might be able to use for their dialogue scenes,” Pilafian said.
It was a beautiful day.
“Jackson Hole was at its best,” Pilafian said. “It was stunningly spectacular. I uploaded the video to the executives in Los Angeles, and apparently it blew them away.”
Young said that after the producers saw the footage, Jackson Hole became the front-runner.
“Last Wednesday, we were the ones that were out, and last Saturday, we were the only ones still in,” she said.
To clear the hurdle of not having enough hotel rooms, the chamber put out a call, Young said.
To house the show’s crew and actors for the proposed nine-day production, 100 room are needed.
“That’s 900 room nights in the busy part of the year here,” she said. “We couldn’t even find a hotel that even had 20 rooms for nine days in the first week of August.”
But, Young said, Snow King Resort determined it could provide the majority of the rooms.
“They gave us a guarantee that they would make it happen,” she said. “They were even willing to drop the rates slightly to encourage production.”
The new joint town and county travel and tourism board, also known as the lodging tax board, also caught wind of the possible production and held a special meeting last week to see what it could do to sweeten the deal. Stephen Price, the board’s chairman, said the biggest obstacles were budgetary on the side of “Modern Family.”
“We wanted to help level the playing field, so to speak,” he said.
The lodging tax board controls roughly $2 million, or 60 percent of the money collected from a 2 percent tax levied on short-term hotel and motel rentals. Voters approved the lodging tax last November, and the bulk of the funds are earmarked for tourism promotion.
At the request of the chamber of commerce, the board authorized funds to help offset the cost of hotel rooms, Price said. A chamber official said the production company was told it would be subsidized with $50,000 from the tax board.
“There was no question it was a win-win,” Price said. “It’s promoting multigenerational family vacations with a dude ranch that nails our heritage. You’ve got cowboys. It just fits.”
Geared to promoting the shoulder season and winter, the board is hoping to get a shot of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort aerial tram in the broadcast, Price said. Summer, as witnessed by production challenges, is usually well-booked, and the tax was sold to voters as a way of promoting Jackson Hole during other times of year.
“The thing about the show is the timing of the premiere, just when people are getting ready to book ski vacations,” said Mayor Mark Barron, town liaison to the lodging tax board. “You cannot leverage your money in a better way than having a ... television sitcom located in your community.”
Gov. Matt Mead even came forward and emailed ABC executives involved in the decision, Young said. The Wyoming Film Commission and Wyoming Department of Travel and Tourism also got involved.
Ranch owner Halpin said the group worked hard and well together.
“The community really stepped up,” he said. “Everyone’s been really great about dealing with it. It’s huge, you know.”
Young said “Modern Family” is the highest-rated scripted show on television. Having a product placed in a scene for a few moments costs $60,000, she said.
“You couldn’t buy what the show would bring if it were featuring Jackson Hole,” she said.