Utah's towering mountain backdrops, soaring crimson cliffs, and alien desert landscapes have entranced audiences for over a century on screens both big and small. This backdrop has attracted iconic directors from John Ford to Ari Aster, cementing Utah’s starring role in cinematic history.

In 2024, film fans can get an insider’s look at this legacy during the Salt Lake-based Utah Film Commission (UFC)’s centennial celebrations across the state. These special events kicked off with Park City's Sundance Film Festival, marking 40 years of indie innovation this past January. The Sundance Film Festival has launched thousands of iconic films—everything from Reservoir Dogs to Little Miss Sunshine. Read on for a behind-the-scenes peek at Utah's next act: playing muse to risk-taking artistry and movie magic, 100 years running.

A scene from The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp held up against the red rocks of Monument Valley Tribal Park.
Andrea David @filmtourismus

A Brief History of Film in Utah

The importance of moving pictures came early to Utah in the 1900s. By 1924, Hollywood realized the potential of Utah’s dynamic scenery to dramatize stories on celluloid. That year saw crews filming the first feature, the pioneering western The Covered Wagon against the towering Castle Rock monoliths near Moab.

From sweeping vistas in classics like Stagecoach, shot in Monument Valley in the 1930s, to the alien landscape doubling for a far away planet in Galaxy Quest, Utah’s landscapes propel the magic of moviemaking. The centerpiece is an interactive exhibit open now through December 31, 2024 on the fourth floor rotunda of the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. Inspired by James V. D’Arc’s book When Hollywood Came to Town, this free display gives visitors a glimpse into Utah’s starring role in cinema spanning over 100 years—from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to High School Musical.

Virginia Pearce has been the director of the Utah Film Commission since 2014.
UFC's Virginia Pearce

With free admission and a convenient location just steps from downtown Salt Lake’s lively scene, this exhibit lets locals and visitors gain an even deeper appreciation for Utah’s awe-inspiring panoramas they’ve likely already admired in their favorite flicks.

“Utah has been the muse for great filmmaking pioneers who put our locations on the map,” said UFC Executive Director Virginia Pearce in a recent press release. “We’re excited for visitors this year to experience our state’s fantastic film history firsthand.”

Sundance Film Festival

Sundance Film Festival Celebrates 40 Years

While the UFC showcases Utah’s legacy on the silver screen, Park City and Salt Lake keeps the star wattage high each January with the indie mecca Sundance Film Festival. Launched in 1981 by Robert Redford, Sundance has become America’s premiere launchpad for outsider artistry.

The 2024 edition wrapped up after debuting 95 groundbreaking films such as Love Me, a film about a love story between an anthropomorphized buoy and satellite (starring Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun), and Sasquatch Sunset, a dialogue-free movie that chronicles the life of a family of sasquatches (starring Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough). Over 85% of this year’s Sundance slate came from underrepresented creators such as women, people of color and LGBTQ+ directors.

“After 40 years uplifting indie filmmakers, Sundance remains focused on ensuring the future for emerging voices in independent cinema,” shared Keri Putnam, CEO of the Sundance Institute, in a recent press release.

Broadway Theater
Sundance Festival at Salt Lake venue

Sundance Fosters Filmmaking Statewide

While the Sundance Film Festival draws indie talent to Park City each January, its mission fosters independent artistry across Utah year-round. Through their Local Lens initiative, Sundance offers community programming that lets all locals engage with groundbreaking cinema. Local nonprofits and organizations were able to access complimentary festival tickets via the 2024 Community Access Program during the festival, and special discounted passport packages were also available for Utah residents along with a Salt Lake City Youth Pass for students, as they are every year.

The Bonneville Salt Flats double as another planet in Independence Day, when Will Smith drags an alien through the white landscape.
Bonneville Salt Flats, where Will Smith filmed Independence Day

And this summer, Sundance will host free outdoor screenings of past festival favorites accessible to all state residents as part of 2024’s Local Lens program. These community events featuring encore showings of acclaimed films that premiered at Sundance such as CODA and Minari to help nurture a passion for indie cinema right in our own backyard.

Whether captivated viewing trailblazing indies under the stars or crafting their own docu-short, visitors continue engaging with Sundance’s groundbreaking artistry beyond the annual festival thanks to public events in Salt Lake and across Utah all year long. 


Visitors learn more about the history of Western films in Utah, starting with the legendary director John Ford.
UFC's Capitol Exhibit with famous Western films

Utah Film Commission 100-Year Celebration

The Utah Film Commission isn’t just looking back—they’re giving the next generation their big break. Budding directors ages 18–25 and students can submit short films to the FOCUS on the fUTure Film Festival, celebrating homegrown talent, all year long. 

Showcasing short films 25 minutes or less across categories such as narrative, documentary, animation, and more, this exciting showcase offers over $10,000 in cash and scholarships. Winners will screen at the December 13 awards ceremony held at the stunning Utah Film Studios theater in Park City.

Much like Utah's sweeping wilderness backdrops have long made dreams come alive on screens big and small, this festival helps launch budding local auteurs poised to write the next chapter of the state’s bright film future.

The early entry deadline is August 1, 2024, with the final deadline on November 1. Entrants can submit multiple shorts but are limited to one category per film. All entries must be filmed here in the gorgeous landscape of Utah within the last few years.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Utah's Historical Film Trail: An Epic Movie Adventure

Much like early Hollywood trailblazers and modern movie scouts still drawn here in search of the perfect scene, Utah's new Historical Film Trail lets visitors glimpse the untold tales waiting to unfold against the state’s untouched, unforgettable vistas for the next 100 years.

In 2024, cinema fans can explore this self-guided tour marking a century since the first movies premiered after on-location filming against Utah's iconic backdrops. Interactive online maps will outline routes to over a dozen storied shooting sites across the Beehive State, from legendary John Ford Westerns filmed under Monument Valley's glowing crimson mesas to the picturesque blue stairway featured in Disney's High School Musical.

Whether a film buff retracing nostalgic movie moments or simply taking in Utah’s diverse beauty, the Historical Film Trail interweaves arts, culture and the great outdoors for an adventure as epic as the state's monumental mars-like landscapes and sandstone giants that will enjoy their next closeup when movie magic unfolds here once again!

With stunning natural beauty that has catalyzed movie magic for over 100 years, plus indie luminaries shining the spotlight on future talent each winter, Utah remains a leading lady on screens big and small. Ready for your closeup? There has never been a better time to experience the state behind beloved films firsthand. Additional events from the Utah Film Commission’s yearlong 100th anniversary celebration of Utah filmmaking can be found at film.utah.gov/100years