Walking on Thin Ice

Why is Governor Tim Pawlenty leaving Minnesota film out in the cold?

At one point in the script for Paul Bunyan, an 11-year-old boy encounters Babe the Blue Ox crooning "Blue Moon" near a river in the woods. The bull is washing his hair under a giant outdoor spigot, and when he spots the kid, he pauses and says, "Well, don't just stand there like a sock full of gravy, boy, make yourself useful and throw me a towel."

As you might guess, Babe in the movie will probably be played by a team of digital animators, working with a voice talent (I vote for Busta Rhymes). But the boy would be played by a real boy. And the woods would be real woods, the river a real river.

Until recently, there was a good chance that river would be located in the Northern Minnesota woodlands that inspired the myth in the first place. Exodus Entertainment began scouting locations a year ago, and was impressed. Outgoing governor Jesse Ventura had written the producer emphasizing the talent of local crews, adding, "our state is so film-friendly we have had 80 productions here in the past decade." The Minnesota Film and TV Board was optimistic.

But in February, Governor Tim Pawlenty cut a state rebate incentive that might have made the difference in nabbing the picture. Since 1997, the "Snowbate" program has refunded 10 percent of local production costs to the makers of feature films and TV series, with a cap of $100,000 per project. (Those costs include cast, crew, sets, and equipment, but not hotels, airlines, or catering.) For a $15 million project like Paul Bunyan, this might not seem like much. But the movie's backers are carefully weighing Minnesota against Canada, where a budget is being drawn up. And local producers interviewed for this article report that $100,000 has been decisive in the past on more expensive films--Joe Somebody, for instance.

Now the governor has gone further: His proposed budget for 2003-2004 would cut all state funding for the Minnesota Film and TV Board, which administers the rebate, and otherwise acts as an advocate for professionals in the local film, TV, and commercials industry (the board estimates there are 9,000 of them). That's 40 percent of the organization's budget of $841,000, which would leave the not-for-profit organization at risk of shutting down. While countless other nonprofits face a similar predicament, the film board represents a particularly puzzling target: Its primary function is to generate revenue for the State of Minnesota.

"It's been one of the most successful economic development efforts that you can find within the DTED [Department of Trade and Economic Development] budget," says Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and helped establish state funding for the film board 20 years ago. "And it's not that much money." ("The governor fully acknowledges these are great programs," responds Pawlenty's press secretary Leslie Kupchella. "We would not be making these kinds of suggestions and adjustments in normal times. But these are not normal times, these are extraordinary times.")

Some might wonder why, in a period of budget crisis, we should care whether Arnold Schwarzenegger makes Jingle All the Way 2: Rise of the Toy Machines here or at the Mall of Singapore. But before we officially end our decade-long flirtation with Hollywood, Minnesotans might pause and examine how the Minnesota Film and TV Board affects the big picture, economically and culturally. Nobody denies the office its credit for the spike in locally shot feature films during the '80s and '90s. Legend has it the organization was founded after scouts for Ordinary People (based on a novel by Minnesota author Judith Guest) came to town and couldn't find answers to their questions about locations, equipment, and crews. (The movie ended up going to Chicago instead.) By the time Ordinary Person Timothy Hutton came to the Twin Cities to act in 1996's Beautiful Girls, the Minnesota Film Board had established itself as one-stop shopping for scouts and crew alike.

One out-of-state producer who took notice was J. Boyce Harman, Jr., whose 1993 Christian Slater-Marissa Tomei vehicle Untamed Heart made liberal use of the Twin Cities. "We needed a city with a hockey team, and Minneapolis had the North Stars then, and we needed snow," he says. "So we looked at Pittsburgh, we looked at other places, and we realized that there was a very good indigenous crew in Minneapolis." Harman adds that all but five actors were drawn from the talent pool at the Guthrie Theater.

Now Harman is considering Canada and Minnesota for his latest film, Bro, a $4 million picture starring Bill Paxton (who was also in the last major Minnesota movie worth renting, A Simple Plan). Set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the story requires an inland lake, and Harman says he has found ideal candidates around the Twin Cities. One advantage Minnesota has over the real-life UP: local film crews. Another advantage was "Snowbate," a program initially launched to help Minnesota compete with Canada.

For years a generous tax credit (recently raised from 11 to 16 percent) and a weak dollar have lured American film and television production over the northern border--at a cost of some 25,000 jobs a year. (Chicago had the well-publicized indignity of losing Chicago to Toronto.) But the film board's rebate, the first of its kind in the country, helped attract some 70 projects since 1997. In the end, the board estimates spending some $2 million to draw more than $57 million into the state's economy.

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