Salt Lake City — Many of the old American cowboy films, in which bullets ricochet off white cliffs and Indians attack wagon trains, were shot in the diverse and tortured landscape of Utah.
As Hollywood's scenic back lot, Utah has been able to sprout a budding film industry, which looks more and more attractive to both television and movie producers.
Several production companies in Los Angeles have notified Utah officials that they plan to set up units in the state this year if a union of key stage workers goes on strike, as expected. Production costs, on the average, can be 25 percent less in Utah because it is a ''right to work,'' or open shop, state.
''If we're smart in getting producers up here, Hollywood will beat a trail to our doorstep,'' says John Earle, director of the state film industry office. ''TV and film production could become a real flagship for Utah.''
But new producers will find company in Salt Lake valley.
In 1977 Donny and Marie Osmond set up a studio near Salt Lake to produce their weekly show for NBC. The show has been canceled and the production company now is switching over to other productions to be less dependent on the Osmonds. Meanwhile, the studio is a major tourist attraction.
Actor Robert Redford, who makes his home in the state, started the Sundance Institute near Salt Lake in 1980. It is designed to help aspiring filmmakers - who normally could not get a chance in Hollywood - to get the help they need to have a movie made. Once a year the institute chooses 6 to 10 movie scripts and provides advice from professional screenwriters, directors, and actors, who meet at Redford's ski resort for a one-month session in June.
Also, since 1978 Utah has sponsored the United States Film Festival, which has become a major national showcase for alternative movies.
The state maintains an office of five full-time workers who help filmmakers using the state for shooting. The $150,000 cost of the service brings big money into Utah. Last year, for instance, the TV movie based on the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah spent over $2 million in the state, says Mr. Earle.
Other production companies are popping up. Sunnok Classic Pictures produces low-budget family films such as the Grizzly Adams TV series, and ''In Search of Historic Jesus.'' In 1981 Comworld Group, an offshoot of Osmond Studios with actor Burt Reynolds as chairman, set up shop for low-budget films. Jensen-Farley Pictures Inc., once a distribution arm of Sunn Classic, has produced one film, ''Private Lessons.''
In addition, the Mormon church's own studios, Bonneville Productions, has begun to move into family television shows. And a large drug store chain, Skaggs Corporation, has ventured into video production.
''In 14 feet of snow one day and a spectacular red desert the next - you can get more variety within a 10-mile radius in Utah than anywhere else,'' says Sydney Pollack, director of ''Electric Horseman'' and ''Jeremiah Johnson.''