Big deals for the Big Sky

The description of Animal Planet's upcoming reality series "Last American Cowboy" sounds like something off the jacket of a Louis L'Amour novel—an "epic adventure" about ranchers braving "freak storms" and "deadly outbreaks of disease."

The kicker, at least for Montanans? It's the first television series filmed exclusively in the old home state.

"The original concept was more like the cowboy out on the range getting attacked by bears and wolves and so forth," says Sten Iversen, manager of the Montana Film Office (MFO). "We were like, 'This isn't quite as realistic. There are dangers and this is a challenging lifestyle, but if you come out and meet these folks you'll understand a bit better.'"

Iversen extended that invite to producer Robert Curran of Base Productions, the show's creator, three years ago. The first season of "Last American Cowboy" begins June 7—the culmination of eight months of shooting on three separate Montana ranches. If the ratings are good, Iversen says, Montana could be hosting a second season.

Since the Big Sky on the Big Screen tax incentive passed in 2005, nearly 500 commercials, television shows and feature films have been lured to Montana.

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"Montana is a great equalizer for film," says Cyndy Andrus, vice president of marketing for the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce. "We have everything. We have prairies, cowboys, beautiful scenery. We're able to offer [film] companies a lot."

Here's the draw: A 14 percent tax refund on resident crew and talent salaries, and a 9 percent refund on in-state production expenses. Montana was the tenth state nationwide to pass such an incentive, and 33 other states have since followed.

It's proven to be a boon for Montana as well. Between 2005 and 2009, Montana's film industry revenue totaled $25.4 million, money that Iversen says went mostly to residents hired onto film crews.

"We tend to be able to crew-up entire films with Montana residents," Iversen says. "Generally the director [and] the producer comes in from out of state...Other than that, we have every position available—hair, makeup, grip, electric."

And, of course, hardy ranch folk ready to show reality TV how the Big Sky State gets things done.

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