Walking on Thin Ice

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

Harmon isn't sure at press time whether Bro will go north. "If you're making a picture for somewhere between three and a half and four million dollars, and there's a hundred thousand dollars [from the state], it's an issue," he says. "We've all worked in Canada before, and we'd prefer not to. We'd like to work at home. But America seems to be behind the world curve in what's available to attract the motion picture industry."


Twelve years ago, as another budget crisis loomed, Gov. Arne Carlson similarly threatened to eliminate the office's entire budget. But after intense lobbying by then-executive director Randy Adamsick, Carlson made an about-face and became a zealous advocate for Minnesota film. By 1993, the suites of Tinseltown were welcoming Adamsick with open liquor cabinets, Variety was plugging Minnesota as a great place to make movies, and Emilio Estevez was spending money in the Uptown bike shop where I worked. (Estevez seemed unimpressed by my enthusiasm for Repo Man.)

Twenty bucks more than Pawlenty plans to give the Minnesota Film Board: A poster from a 1993 indie film shot in the state
Jana Freiband
Twenty bucks more than Pawlenty plans to give the Minnesota Film Board: A poster from a 1993 indie film shot in the state

Since the Mighty Ducks era, international competition has increased: Australia, New Zealand, England, and Eastern Europe now vie with Canada and the U.S. for American films. The carrot of choice abroad is tax breaks, and such measures are being considered in various states. Some, like New Mexico, are considering low-
interest loans to movies, which borrow against money for foreign distribution rights. Others, like Minnesota, already have sales-tax exemptions--in our case for television commercials, which weren't covered by the Snowbate. (Whether or not that policy is a factor, the local commercial production scene remains far more active than the filmmaking community.)

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Film and TV Board has had to shrink along with the economy. Last summer, executive director Craig Rice cut his staff in half (the board has kept four full-time employees). Since then, the organization has jettisoned the seven-year-old D.L. Mabery Awards for local filmmakers (the controversial "Minnesota Oscars").

But even after the slashing of Snowbate, Rice was taken aback by the proposal to completely defund the board. "By cutting us, they've crippled us," he says. Rice maintains that private donations can't make up the shortfall. "One of the senators asked me today, 'How come the private sector doesn't pay for it?'" he says. "There's no reason for them to pay for this. The money is an economic generator for the state of Minnesota--not for Target, not for Imation."

Obviously, the film board is a tough sell. Its public-minded mission can be misconstrued as nothing more than "a subsidy to the arts"--poisonous words when cultural institutions such as the Science Museum, the Humanities Commission, and the State Arts Board are also on the chopping block. And while the Republican governor is unlikely to reinstate sales taxes on commercial shoots anytime soon, the more Keynesian model of the Snowbate makes an easy target. Even many liberals view the program as a corporate giveaway.

"There's a name for it: They actually call it 'Hollywood welfare,'" says Julie Hartley, a locally based producer who is considering moving to L.A. "People have this perception that because Tom Cruise makes $10 million dollars a year that everyone in the industry makes that much." Hartley worked as production manager on the 2001 Tim Allen comedy Joe Somebody, and says the Snowbate actually helped get the $37 million film made here. In fact, the local budget was $500,000 more than that of Canada, but producers deemed the gap acceptable, given the experienced local crew and ideal locations (the film's screenwriter, John Scott Shepherd, hails from Minnesota). To Hartley, corporate incentives are a no-brainer. "If I were to say, I'm going to give you a thousand dollars, but you have to give me a hundred dollars, what would you say? You'd say, sure!"

Rice maintains that the Snowbate mostly benefited local and noncorporate businesses, and that sales taxes alone would have paid for the rebate on the movies and TV series that are now considering Minnesota but looking elsewhere--Paul Bunyan, Bro, the $43 million film Sorry Baby (from Beacon Entertainment), and Touchstone's TV mini-series Little House on the Prairie. (The original TV show was shot on location in California.)

J. Boyce Harman, Jr. argues that countries compete for movie productions because they pour money into the bottom of the economy--taxis, hotels, restaurants, truck services. "It's a non-polluting industry," he adds, unlike the garment trade, steel, or other heavy trades currently scouring the globe for cheap labor. Harman says that the image of "liberal Hollywood" obscures just how similar the movie industry is to those other entities. "Basically the motion-picture industry is a 19th-century labor business," he says. "It's heavily unionized; it's probably the most unionized business in America. It's dependent on weather. It's got very tight schedules. It's labor-intensive."

Labor, everyone agrees, is the edge that Minnesota is losing. "As far as I can tell, there isn't a Minnesota film community anymore," says director Dean Lincoln Hyers, who received some $3,000 in Snowbate funding for his 2001 indie Bill's Gun Shop (which won last year's D.L. Mabery Award for best feature film). "Producers I've worked with say that it's getting harder and harder to even assemble a production team because a lot of the good people are going where the work is."

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