Minnesota is trying to go Hollywood again

After a long slump in Minnesota movie production, industry boosters will push for incentive money.

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Emilio Estevez, left, chats with young local extras during a break in the filming of Mighty Ducks III at St. Catherine University in St. Paul

Photo: Cheryl A. Meyer, Star Tribune file

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If film boosters have their way, Minnesota will be seeing a lot more of Hollywood.

Advocates are gearing up to push for millions of dollars of incentives in the coming legislative session to lure movie productions to the state.

"A lot of people in a lot of different circles are seeing the value of film for economic development, jobs and tourism," said John Edman, state tourism director.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who oversees Legacy fund spending, also is an outspoken fan of bringing more film business to the state. The Legacy Amendment, which Minnesotans voted for in 2008, generates revenue for projects related to clean water, outdoor heritage, the arts, parks and trails.

"It's unfortunate that we've lost out on quite a few projects in Minnesota, like that Dillinger film with Johnny Depp that Wisconsin got," Urdahl said. "I'd like to see a more level playing field between Minnesota and other states, as well as Canada, which has invested huge amounts in the film industry, and it's paid off for them."

Meanwhile, other states are trimming their incentives, giving proponents hope that Minnesota will again become competitive in the fight to lure film production to the state, as it was in the 1990s with movies such as "Fargo" and "Jingle All the Way."

The new push is emerging not only on the state level, but also regional and even municipal. The payoff, advocates say, is economic development that adds up to more than the cost of the financial incentives filmmakers receive.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) this month approved a fund that will repay filmmakers 20 percent of production expenses spent on the Range, in addition to the 15 to 20 percent they already can get from the state's "Snowbate" program.

Last fall the central Minnesota city of Maple Lake passed a "Shamrock Rebate" -- many of its 2,000 residents are of Irish descent -- pooling $50,000 in potential funds.

Mayor Mike O'Loughlin tried out for a small role in "After the Dawn," an indie film shot there in 2010.

"I didn't get the part, but after talking with the filmmakers I did get the idea to try to get more movies made in our beautiful town," he said.

Gerald Seppala, leader of a Wayzata-based group raising funds for the indie picture "Thanksgiving at Denny's," to be shot on the Iron Range next spring, said that about 60 percent of the film's $4 million budget has been raised, mostly from Minnesota investors.

The IRRRB's program "absolutely made a difference. We would have likely had to go out of state without those kind of incentives," he said.

Left in the cold

Minnesota had a hot streak of moviemaking in the 1990s, with major studio pictures including "The Mighty Ducks," "Grumpy Old Men," "Little Big League" and "Jingle All the Way" dropping nearly $90 million in the state from 1990 to 1996.

Snowbate was instituted in 1997 as Canada began luring filmmakers away with sizable tax breaks. The program was eliminated as part of a budget-cutting wave in 2003, then reinstated in 2007. But Minnesota still loses projects to more competitive states. The 2011 disaster pic "Contagion" was set in the Twin Cities but filmed in Illinois and Georgia, which offered sweeter deals.

"Honestly, rebates tend to make all the difference," said Hollywood veteran Josh Blum, writer of "Thanksgiving at Denny's" and head of Washington Square Films ("Margin Call"). "I have not worked on a film in the last 10 years where the location wasn't chosen largely due to incentive programs."

Although only 10 states currently have no film incentives, including Iowa and the Dakotas, such programs tend to rise and fall with the political tides. Iowa suspended its program three years ago when its attorney general launched a criminal investigation into misuse of film tax credits. Wisconsin scaled back its incentives after a state agency questioned the perks offered for "Public Enemies," the Depp/Dillinger project shot there in 2009.

Michigan also has tightened up its generous program since Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a film advocate, left office in 2011. Under her watch it snared the Clint Eastwood film "Gran Torino," originally set in Minnesota, by offering a rebate of more than 40 percent.

Upping the ante

On the other hand, Pennsylvania, with a film-incentive budget of $60 million, is gunning for more than twice that in the next legislative session. The new Tom Cruise film "Jack Reacher" was shot in and around Pittsburgh. It's based on a story set in Indiana, which has no incentive program.

"To put it in perspective, they have a much larger state budget than Minnesota," said Lucinda Winter, director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board. "Still, they have had a very successful run with their incentives."

Winter said she plans to ask the Legislature for $10 million from the general fund over the next two years to fund Snowbate. That compares with about $4.2 million in reimbursements that the program paid from 2007 to 2011, she said.

This year, Urdahl helped boost the Film Board's coffers with an injection of $1.6 million in Legacy funds: $600,000 for Snowbate, the rest for filmmaking grants over the next two years. He expects that a proposal to up the ante on film incentives will be unveiled early in the legislative session, which begins Jan. 8.

"We need to look beyond rebate grant programs," he said. "We need to invest in pre-production, the beginnings of films, not just after the fact."

Once the state is financially competitive, Urdahl said, it has plenty of other come-hither assets to draw filmmakers.

"They don't have to paint our scenery green," he said. "We have a great variety of geography -- the prairies, the trees, the North Shore. If you don't know any better, Lake Superior could easily stand in for an ocean."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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