Walking on Thin Ice

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

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.

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.)

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."

And as labor goes, so goes independent film. Director Patrick Coyle finished his acclaimed neo-noir feature Detective Fiction with Snowbate money, and says the film board tirelessly promoted the picture at Sundance. Without such help, talents like Coyle may find the working climate in the film industry's flyover country even chillier.

As it turns out, there is another working model for running a bare-bones film board. "Wisconsin's still got a film office, sort of," says Craig Rice, laying out an alternate scenario for what his agency might become. "It's basically an office you call if you want to film in Wisconsin. I called their office two months ago saying I was interested in producing a film there, and they still haven't gotten back."

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