Pawlenty planning to cut Hollywood incentive program

Principal players of The Convincer, including Greg Kinnear (second from right) and Alan Arkin
Jayme Halbritter

Mike Arnold, a 58-year-old veteran teamster, has been working on films in Minnesota for 20 years, and has seen up close how movie money trickles through the local economy.

"There have been movies where I've rented up to 200 cars," says Arnold, whose last project was the Coen brothers' A Serious Man. "I've spent $100,000 on cars alone, just for one movie."

Hollywood has been good to Arnold: The year before last he brought home $92,000 for six months' work. "That's money that I spend, you know?" Arnold says. "I'm going to put new windows in my house. I'm going to pay taxes. I'm going to hire a carpenter to come in."

Which is why Arnold says he's puzzled by Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to cut funding for the incentive program that pays movie-makers to shoot in Minnesota.

"I just don't understand it," he says. "They gave Northwest Airlines a billion dollars and they're gone now. You give movies money, and they come more and more. If he takes that money away, we won't have anything."

The Minnesota Film and Television Board uses state money and private donations to lure movie shoots to Minnesota. Like the film boards in almost every other state in the country, it offers logistical help to productions that want to work locally. The board also runs an incentive program to refund movies up to 20 percent of their local spending.

Some states are known for their generous incentive programs: Michigan offers shoots a 40 percent rebate. New Mexico and Louisiana have both launched famously successful incentive programs as well. In recent years Minnesota has lost some major productions, including Gran Torino and Juno, to more competitive states.

"To be at all competitive as a location we have to have tax incentive money. It's really penny-wise and pound-foolish," Jane Minton, executive director of the Independent Features Project, says of Pawlenty's cuts. "He's talking about saving money in the budget, but the film industry brings in a lot of cash."

In the last two-year cycle, the Film Board spent $2.9 million on rebates. That investment was paid back many times over: It created the equivalent of 349 full-time jobs—everything from gaffers to extras to post-production artists—and pumped an estimated $30 million into the state economy.

All of this might go away if Pawlenty gets his wish and cuts the Film Board's funding. The governor also wants to un-allot most of this year's film incentives, which will put the Film Board in the uncomfortable position of having to tell filmmakers that money they were promised for shooting in the state won't be coming through after all.

"Filmmakers count on certainty," says Kelly Thames-Berge, a spokesman for the Location Managers Guild of America. "If funds have been promised and then are not there, that is definitely going to reflect on Minnesota in the eyes of the film industry. That gets around. This is a small industry in terms of word-of-mouth. People share their experiences in places, for good or ill."

State lawmakers want to keep the film incentive. Budget bills currently working their way through the Senate and House would cut the Film Board's funding by only about 3 percent. But even if the Legislature votes to restore funding for the film incentive in the coming weeks, Pawlenty has already promised to use his line-item veto on spending items he doesn't like.

Pawlenty's staff did not return numerous phone calls requesting comment, but the merciless language of his budget offers a window into his sympathies: "The phase out in state funding provided to the Film and TV Board will impact programs and services by the Board, but the Governor believes this transition is necessary to deal with the current budget deficit."

This worries supporters of the Film Board, including Sen. Dick Cohen (DFL-St. Paul), who sponsored the legislation that founded the board in 1983.

"The governor appears to have established a line in the sand on this," Cohen says. "I don't defend the idea of holding the Film Board's funding harmless, but the governor's cuts are totally disproportionate. He doesn't cut anything else 100 percent that I can think of. There's clearly some hostility, I just don't know what the basis is."

That leaves Arnold in suspense about the future of his job. A recent weekday found him working at St. Paul's old Union Depot on the set of The Convincer, a dark comedy starring Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin. A fleet of cars and vans, driven by Arnold's fellow teamsters, shuttled stars, crew, and equipment to and from the set.

Inside, hundreds of actors, extras, and crew members thronged the cavernous space, shooting and re-shooting a complex crowd scene. As Kinnear executed a subtle hand-off with a suitcase, more than a hundred extras streamed by with luggage, simulating a bustling train station.

Elizabeth Redleaf, one of The Convincer's producers, says the film employs 168 local film professionals.

"It could have been more than that," she adds. "We brought our catering in from out of state, because there isn't anyone here who has experience catering film shoots. You better believe if there were enough movies coming through here, there would be those local jobs, too." 

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