Made in Minnesota

With melting film incentives, can Minnesota attract the big-budget productions it did in the ‘90s?

There's no business like snowbate business

With melting film incentives, can Minnesota attract the big-budget productions it did in the ‘90s?

By Julie Kendrick

When it comes to competing as a film location against other states (and a certain neighbor to our north), Minnesota seems to be a not-ready-for-prime-time player. While many in the state remember a time when movies such as “The Mighty Ducks” (1992), “Grumpy Old Men” (1993) and “Fargo” (1996) were shot here, we now often lose opportunities to places such as Georgia, Louisiana and Canada. 

Minnesota has plenty to offer producers: a variety of locations, four distinct seasons and a rich on- and off-screen talent pool. But the one thing we don’t have is a competitive level of cold, hard cash in the form of incentives and rebates. In the 2014–15 biennium, the Minnesota Film & TV Board, which offers production incentives to on-location shoots, was allocated $5 million each year. In the 2016–17 biennium, the allocation totaled $9.5 million. For the current 2018–2019 biennium, it has just $750,000 each year.

“The decrease in funding for incentives, called ‘Snowbates,’ severely limits the projects we can support, and virtually eliminates the prospect of larger-budget feature films or television series ever shooting here,” says Melodie Bahan, executive director of the Minnesota Film & TV Board. The nonprofit organization was created in 1983 with the support of Governor and arts advocate Rudy Perpich. “The impact of this reduced funding is that the productions take jobs elsewhere, along with all the money they would have spent on hotels, restaurants, equipment rentals, location fees and state taxes,” adds Bahan. 

Four-to-one return
Bahan says that when filming happens in-state, Minnesota makes money: “We have shown a return on investment of more than $4 for every dollar we invest,” she says. Since 2014, taxpayers have invested roughly $21 million in the Snowbate program. The return is more than $85 million in new private spending, much of it on wages for Minnesota workers. More than 8,500 Minnesotans have been employed on the more than 250 projects that have been certified.  

The biggest-budget feature film to be shot here recently was “Wilson” (2016), starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern. The production spent $4.2 million in the state. (Bahan calls Harrelson “Minnesota’s poster child,” because he’s shot several films here. “Like everyone else, he loves the experience of shooting films in Minnesota,” she says.)

Television opportunities have also dried up. “In the fall of 2016, we were lucky enough to attract HBO here to shoot a pilot for an episodic series about Somali immigrants, called ‘Mogadishu, Minnesota,’ ” she says. “They spent $3.1 million while they were here and had a great experience with the crew, the talent and the quality of life they were able to enjoy while filming.” 

But those Snowbate funds are no longer available, and Bahan says, “I can guarantee you that in our current financial climate if they had decided to move ahead with the series, they would have moved production to Canada.”

“Where is that beautiful place?” 
Kate Nowlin is a born-and-raised St. Paulite who co-created and starred in 2016’s independently produced feature film “Blood Stripe,” with co-creator and director, Remy Auberjonois. “We received a rebate from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) as well as Snowbate funds, and those were hugely significant to us,” she says. “We received a $92,000 production rebate from the Snowbate program and $14,500 from IRRB, and our total production budget was $470,000. We got the funds very quickly, and that’s what allowed us to pay for post-production.”

The vast majority of the work on the movie was done in the Twin Cities and Iron Range, from the concept through production, including the trailer they cut with friends at Pixel Farm. After shooting the film in Minnesota, Nowlin and Auberjonois relocated to the Twin Cities to launch their production company, Wakemup Productions

Nowlin has nothing but good things to say about Minnesota locations: “Our dollar went so much farther here than it does on the coasts. Many people tell us it looks like a $3 million movie, not a half-a-million-dollar one.”

Plus, she explains, Minnesota has certain attributes that can’t be found most other places. “We certainly had the goodwill of the community, who saw film production as beneficial to the community, not an inconvenience. In addition, the look of the film was unique because people haven’t seen those locations in many other movies. We premiered in New York and Los Angeles and have played in festivals throughout the country, and people have continually asked: ‘Where is that beautiful place?’ ” 

When it comes to funding, however, Nowlin says that changes need to be made if Minnesota wants to play in the big leagues. “We’ve lobbied at the state legislature to let them know this work creates jobs and generates revenue for local businesses, cast and crews.” 

While she’s doing her part to create more work in the state, Nowlin says the legislature has work to do, too. “Producers simply don’t look at states without incentives, and that’s why we need a more robust program. Just as importantly, these production incentives can’t be a negotiating chip that’s up for debate each year. They must be stable and consistent. I’m actively working to make that happen.”  

Nowlin recently received a Knight Foundation grant for an episodic limited series she co-created with a childhood friend to be shot in St. Paul. “A six-week film shoot is helpful, but what really changes the economy is longer-running shows, so that’s what I have my eye set on next.” 

We were first in. Now what? 
“Minnesota was one of the early states to create an incentive for film production, and now other states have emulated that,” says Sue Gens, executive director at Minnesota State Arts Board, an agency that makes grants to individuals and organizations across the state. “It seems we’re often the first to do things in Minnesota, and then others catch on. Now they’re providing greater subsidies, and we’re needing to catch up.”

She looks to the community building that can happen when the arts are strengthened and supported. “We want those creative people who are living, working and paying taxes in Minnesota to be able to contribute their viewpoints, whether in their work or just in everyday life. They’re valuable, and their industry is valuable.” 

“Stories that come out of Minnesota”
The action isn’t all in feature films these days, and Minnesota artists are responding to a new entertainment landscape with original content of many types. Mike Owens is the co-creator and executive producer of Daytime Emmy winner “Danger & Eggs,” an Amazon Original animated series that just completed its first season. The series was created in St. Paul and Los Angeles. Twin Cities actor Eric Knobel voices Phillip the Safety Egg, and 16 local people were employed to create the first season, which wrapped in 2016. 

“We got a significant Snowbate for the series,” Owens said. “Everyone who worked on the show locally was paid Los Angeles rates, so it was a good gig.” He notes that entertainment-based series work is rare in Minnesota, and he’s not sure what effect the diminished Snowbate funds will have on decisions made by PUNY Entertainment, which produced the show. “Vancouver, Toronto and Atlanta are getting lots of entertainment-based animation that could be going to us,” he says. “If we had great incentives, that might encourage a studio to choose us over them. Think about it: Animators stay inside all day anyway, so what do we care if it’s cold and snowy here?” Owens of "Danger & Eggs"

He says the Twin Cities, with its thriving comic book scene and Minneapolis College of Art and Design, could be a hub for animation. “We need to get a couple more of these kinds of productions here. I’ve had meetings with people in Los Angeles, and I’m letting them know it can happen. Stories that come out of Minnesota can definitely reach a wider audience. It just takes some time and some convincing.”

It’s all on the web
Matthew G. Anderson is the writer, director and producer of “Theater People,” a comedy web series about the world of independent theater that uses local talent from the Twin Cities’ theater scene. After three seasons of independent operation, the show was picked up by the streaming platform Seeka TV for season four. It’s currently the most successful show on Seeka. 

While the series does not qualify for Snowbates, Anderson imagines a world where the new medium would be welcomed into the fold: “It would be great if the state could see the benefits of supporting the production of web content.” The series has been playing at film festivals and has been nominated for several awards. 

“When we compare ourselves to other shows on the circuit, we see how professionally they’re produced,” he says. “The other shows are coming out of Australia, France and Canada, which are powerhouses for original web content. Whenever the credits roll, I notice they received government funding.”

He says that incentives can have longer-term benefits toward building the right creative environment. “One of the things I think incentives do is foster the growth of a community that enables this kind of work to grow creatively and find increased success in the marketplace. Otherwise, it’s solo people doing their best with limited resources. We could get ahead of the curve if we move now,” says Anderson. 

Georgia on their minds
When asked about a state that seems to be getting it right, every person interviewed for this story mentioned Georgia. Part of the reason for the state’s success is Pinewood Atlanta Studios, the largest production studio outside of California. It’s a full-service complex with 18 sound stages on 700 acres, and it supports the production of film, television, music and video games.

“Georgia is going crazy right now with production, and it’s in great part because of its generous incentives and the existence of this studio,” Bahan says. 

What’s next
Bahan has been working hard to get the “Film in Minnesota” message out there. “I’ve visited studio people and producers in New York and Los Angeles. They tell me they need generous incentives and stable funds, and we can’t offer either of those things at this point,” she says. 
So she’s also making lots of visits to legislators to share her job-creator messaging. “I know I get some pushback from people who think the money ends up in Hollywood, but I explain that it stays right here in Minnesota. And for those who say it doesn’t create permanent jobs, I compare it to the construction industry, where skilled tradespeople move from project to project. That’s no different than camera operators or gaffers or talent. Construction jobs are great jobs, but so are film production jobs.

“My dream is that we could attract a television series to shoot here, but those producers need to know the funds will be in place for several years,” Bahan says. “It would be great if we could institute a tax credit incentive on top of our rebate incentive, which would help make us more attractive to producers.” 

Finally, Bahan, like many in show business, understands that the right title can make a big difference: “I’d love to rebrand the term ‘Snowbate,’ because I don’t think it sends the right message.” 


This story appears in print in our July/August issue. For a complimentary subscription, click here.