With two front-runners at the Oscars Sunday night, filmmakers with Minnesota ties are sharing a national spotlight that rarely shines on the North Star state.
If the buzz about Diablo Cody's "Juno" and the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" were any louder, hearing loss would be imminent. The Producers Guild of America named "No Country" the year's best picture; Joel and Ethan Coen were named best directors by the Directors Guild, and their script was honored as the best adaptation by the Writers Guild -- which also tapped Cody's script as the year's best original screenplay.
Like photovoltaic panels soaking in the halo effect from those idiosyncratic hits, local filmmakers are feeling charged up, too. They're encouraged by the prospect of more local awareness of and support for the area's movie community, and energized by the Coens' planned homecoming to shoot their next film here in August.
"It is sparking a lot of discussions, a lot of interest," said Hafed Bouassida, chair of the cinema department at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), who regularly brings in established screenwriters from Los Angeles to address his students. "A few years ago, we were the fly-by country. Not anymore. This is a very powerful moment. The people I know from Hollywood feel there is something going on here, a sort of spirit. Some sort of uniqueness, a vision."
He attributes some of California's growing interest to the presence of Minneapolis-based producer William Pohlad ("Brokeback Mountain," "A Prairie Home Companion," "Into the Wild") and other investors willing to back creative projects.
Robb Mitchell feels the heat, too. The producer of the Guthrie Theater's ScriptNight reading series routinely meets Hollywood producers who hire local actors for read-throughs of screenplays. "It feels like there's a lot of work coming out of Minnesota," producer Bill Horberg ("The Kite Runner," "Lars and the Real Girl") told Mitchell when he attended the October reading of local author Jennifer Vogel's family drama "Flim Flam Man."
At the same time, Mitchell doesn't expect the modest local filmmaking scene to change overnight, considering how long it takes to develop a film project.
Minneapolis producer Christine Walker ("Factotum," "American Splendor") shot her latest film, "Older Than America," in Cloquet, Minn., months before this season's Oscar excitement. Stillwater-area screenwriter Shawn Otto ("House of Sand and Fog") was putting together the deal for his directorial debut, "Dreams of a Dying Heart," with producer Christine Vachon ("Boys Don't Cry," "Far From Heaven") for a long time, as well.
"In Hollywood there's a sense that there are interesting ideas and talent coming out of Minnesota, but I haven't seen anything come to fruition -- actual investors plunking money down," Mitchell said. If Hollywood discovers fresh talent here, he added, its instinct will be to transplant it to Los Angeles -- as has happened with Cody.
At least one filmmaker has been inspired to get back in the game, however.
Ryan Wood, a producer for ShopNBC in Eden Prairie, made a name for himself in 2006 with the YouTube comedy featurette "Fear of Girls," which for a time was the world's most-blogged Web item. Disney gave Wood a significant sum of money to produce original comedy vignettes for its Internet division, but eventually cooled on the project. Wood waited out much of last year hoping that another big check bearing the likeness of Mickey Mouse might arrive. Then, in late fall, amid mounting word-of-mouth about "Juno" and "No Country," he decided to return to the do-it-yourself approach.
"The fact that Minnesotans are getting highlighted definitely creates a feeling that if they did it, I can do it, too," he said. "I thought, 'I did this first one that really took off and paid for it by myself; why not just bite the bullet and do the third one?' [Their successes] prove that people can do what they love and make money at it."
A school for film
Twin Cities film programmer Bobby Marsden sees the recent swell of interest as psychologically inspirational for the creative community at best, especially for crews and technical workers.
"What they would say is, 'I hope I can work on that Coen brothers project,' " said Marsden, curator of the monthly Fearless Filmmakers showcase of local work. "That's making crews excited. The problem I see is, there's not enough work to keep people here."
One thing that might help retain local talent -- and attract new people -- "would be a university program that was actually accredited and four years and taught film," Marsden said.
This fall, MCTC will launch just such a program, offering new degrees in directing, cinematography, screenwriting and editing.
"Those have never been presented by any other college in Minnesota," Bouassida said. "And that comes on the heels of all of that happening. It's like the stars are set up together, put in the right place."
Marsden does see one clear benefit to Minnesota's newfound cachet: It raises expectations about work that originates here.
"Music has always been taken seriously coming out of Minnesota," he said. "That was established by bands that were going out and paving the way, making it easier for other bands to make it. So when the Coen brothers and Diablo Cody and people are doing that, it definitely opens up possibilities for other filmmakers."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186