Producers look to lure Hollywood filmmakers to Minnesota

7:57 AM, Mar 7, 2013   |    comments
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Film set of Fargo in 1996

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In Minnesota's movie making heyday many more people were employed directly or indirectly in the movie industry.  Jingle All the Way, the Mighty Ducks, Grumpy Old Men and Fargo were among the flicks that struck gold in Minnesota's snow and ice.

"In 1995 five thousand workers and 700 vendors were in involved in the film industry in Minnesota," Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City told reporters Wednesday.

"We now have 300 to 500 workers and about 20 vendors. We need to stimulate an industry here that was once thriving."

Urdahl and another veteran state lawmaker, Rep. Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis, announced their support for a new organization seeking state funds in an effort to jump start the state's film industry.

It's known as the Association of Minnesota Motion Pictures, or AMMP, a nonprofit that would attract film production by investing in pictures with the expectation they'd be filmed in this state.

"The focus of this program is not to see what comes to Minnesota. It's to go from Minnesota and grab a picture and bring it back," Robert Schwartz, a Minnesota native, who has produced several films here and in California.

"It's a pro-active program to invest in pictures and put the last piece of financing in place and require that the picture comes back."

Kahn, a Democrat who chairs the House Legacy Committee, said that ideally the state should grant the organization between $15 million and $30 million in Cultural Legacy funds.  AMMP would invest that in films, but also get an ownership stake in the profits.

"It's not the thing you'd like to dip your toes in with $10,000 or $20,000 or something like that," Rep. Kahn explained.

"For example if you pick one film and that film's a bust, then where are you?"

Rep. Urdahl, the ranking Republican on the Legacy Committee, pointed out that most of those Legacy Fund grants aren't expected to lead to a reimbursement or financial return on investment in the traditional sense of the term.

He said even if a film doesn't break even at the box office the state is still getting the economic benefit of the film's production.

"The money being granted is turning over," Rep. Urdahl explained.

"If it's a movie that doesn't make money, it's still is being made, and they're hiring painters and electricians, catering, hotels, all the things we talk about with those productions."

Urdahl said the group would not attempt to supplant the work that has been done for decades by the Minnesota Film Board.

That board is seeking to revive the state's rebate program for filmmakers, known as the "SnowBate" -- a reference to the fact that the state's snowy winter scenes are something Hollywood can't easily duplicate.

Competition from other states have driven producers to shooting films set in Minnesota in other places with more lucrative packages.  One classic example is Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino," which was based on a book set in Minnesota but was shot in Michigan.

"Canada has a huge draw, a $375-million dollar fund, to pull things right over the border," Schwartz said.

"And that's what they do on a regular basis."

Schwartz made the adventure movie "Iron Will" on the Iron Range and around Lake Superior in 1994.  At the time, however, the studio was pressuring him to move the production to Canada.

Then-Governor Arne Carlson came up with a resource that kept Schwartz's crews in Minnesota.

"I'm sure I would've lost that battle if the Governor wouldn't have helped me secure the rights to four different railroads."

Another industry insider, Ralph Winter, said the new organization would be helpful vetting projects.  He said it's important that Minnesota market more assets than just its winter landscapes.

"You have a look in some of your neighborhoods that could be anywhere in America, so why couldn't it be here?" Winter said.

"Why couldn't movies that shoot in North Carolina or Atlanta come and shoot here? I have a picture that's scheduled to shoot in Atlanta. Maybe we shoot it here."

Winter, who counts Planet of the Apes, X-Men and Fantastic Four, among his producing credits, said the AMMP could build on itself as Minnesota created more of a critical mass or infrastructure of resources sought by those in the film craft.

The film board's main source of funding was virtually eliminated during a State Capitol budget battle in 2010.  The agency has made due by funneling some Legacy grants to productions, but is now making a renewed push.

The Board is seeking $10 million in general fund dollars to replenish the rebate program and to step up efforts to market Minnesota to movie makers.

The current "Snowbate" ranges from 15 to 20 percent of the cost film producers incur inside the state.  The Board is seeking to raise that to a maximum of 25 percent, in hopes of enticing more productions.

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