Duluth is poised to become a TV capital. The Independent Television Festival, formerly headquartered in Los Angeles and now based in Vermont, will announce Monday that it’s moving to the Lake Superior port city.
“We’re dang excited,” said Riki McManus, director of the Upper Minnesota Film Office, who won over ITVFest Executive Director Philip Gilpin with her tour of Duluth’s historic arts and theater district and its rugged beauty. “It’s planting a flag that Minnesota could be the state for independent television.”
ITV’s claim to fame since its founding in 2006 has been a five-day festival that brings together nearly 1,500 participants, including more than 100 representatives from HBO, Disney, Netflix and Bravo, all sniffing for new talent to fill the ever-growing appetite for shows.
Major deals take a back seat to networking; up-and-coming talent like “Drunk History” co-creator Jeremy Konner and “New Girl” actor Jake Johnson have credited past fests for helping them make significant connections when they needed them most.
“We’ve become known as a place where a first-time filmmaker winds up sitting next to an Emmy-winning producer,” said Gilpin, walking around downtown Minneapolis last week without a coat, just like a veteran Midwesterner. “A lot of time, it’s not so much about selling a concept as it is people getting to know each other. A quaint environment with a small-town vibe helps.”
Gilpin thought he had found the ideal setting when he moved ITV’s operations from L.A. to Manchester, Vt., in 2013. Industry bigwigs and producers fell in love with the scenic atmosphere and local energy, enough to give serious thought to developing projects in the area. But the state’s lack of a film commission and tax incentives for shoots were problematic.
Gilpin shared his frustrations with Melodie Bahan, executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV board, when he came to Minneapolis in September to speak at the Minnesota WebFest. She immediately pitched the Twin Cities. He passed.
“It was clear that he didn’t want to be in a metro area where people could be distracted by other events,” Bahan said last week. “People were attracted to past festivals because it felt like a retreat where they could really focus on networking and exchanging ideas. He really wanted his own little island.”
Bahan then connected him with McManus and Duluth officials, who jumped at the chance to showcase the city to outsiders with influence — and cash.
“You have to have a reason to get to Duluth,” said Mayor Emily Larson. “That’s what I like about this. It gives us a chance to sell ourselves to the nation and be held up as a community that offers a great visual and culture experience. I think it’s a great fit.”
Based on past numbers, the festival itself should pour more than $1.5 million into the local economy. More importantly, it could persuade Hollywood to set up shop more often in the state, a scenario that depends in part on whether Bahan can convince Minnesota legislators to increase tax incentives in the next session.
Even if Gilpin doesn’t get good news from the State Capitol, he’s planning to forge ahead.
In addition to the October festival, which will offer more than 80 screenings to the public, he is planning a series of regional events across the country. The most promising projects to emerge from those will get an invitation to Duluth.
“We’re not looking to be a convention that sets up shop for a week and then moves out,” said Gilpin, who plans to move at the start of next year and hire a small office staff. “We’re looking to be part of the community’s fabric year-round.”