Some critics call 'cut!' for Minnesota Film Board as legislative audit looms

With little recent movie or TV action, “Snowbate” incentives appear headed for legislative review.

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Vincent Kartheiser and Lucinda Winter, board director, attended a garden party celebrating the state Film & TV Board last May.

Photo: Sara Glassman • Star Tribune file,

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Six months after receiving a record $10 million to lure films to the state, the Minnesota Film & TV Board is under fire, with some legislators and industry insiders questioning whether it should exist at all.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles’ concerns about the board have escalated to a point where he plans to seek a formal examination of it next month, when the legislative session begins. If the evaluation is unfavorable, funding for the program known as “Snowbate,” and even the board’s future, could be in jeopardy.

Film board director Lucinda Winter said she “would welcome” an audit. “We run a very tight ship, and our program will prove to be cost-effective as a means of bringing new business to the state,” she said.

Long-simmering dissatisfaction among idled film-industry workers is surfacing in complaints that Winter has spent more time courting funds at the Capitol than generating out-of-state business. No major projects have been brought in over the past five years, a far cry from the 1990s, when such big Hollywood movies as “Fargo,” “Grumpy Old Men” and Disney’s “The Mighty Ducks” employed hundreds of Minnesotans and brought millions of dollars to the state.

Some in the Minnesota film industry say the board, which is a private nonprofit, should be government-run, as is the case in most states. Others contend that regardless of who runs the board, $10 million in rebate funds is too little, too late. Minnesota faces stiff competition from states offering much more — such as Michigan, which devotes $50 million to enticing films there.

Nobles said he has heard complaints about the board from legislators and citizens over the past few years, criticism that has intensified since the $10 million allocation.

“In addition to an audit, an evaluation is really needed to address broad policy questions,” Nobles said. “Should the state be involved in supporting the film industry? If yes, what would be the most effective approach, and who should be in charge of that effort?”

The Minnesota Film Board enjoyed great success in the 1990s, when several major studio movies as well as a string of mid-budget indies employed area location scouts, production crews and actors, and spent a lot of money on hotels, restaurants and supplies.

Then Canada began courting Hollywood by offering studios up to 50 cents back on every dollar spent.

Seeing the economic boost that investment provided, U.S. states started following suit. Today more than 40 states have incentive programs that offer either cash rebates or tax credits on production expenditures. The $70 million Jason Statham action movie “Homefront,” based on a Minnesota-set novel, was rewritten for a setting in Louisiana, which offers an unlimited 30 percent tax credit.

Board departures

Minnesota’s Snowbate program offers production-cost rebates of up to 25 percent, with a spending cap of $5 million in each of the next two years. The most ever allocated to Snowbate before was $2 million.

Winter, a former member of Minnesota Film & TV’s board of directors, was hired as director in 2005 after a national search. Before then, she worked with her husband, corporate video producer Jim Ankeny, and as a freelance writer and producer.

Former board member Jill Sweiven left voluntarily four years ago after repeatedly asking about what she saw as questionable spending. During her three years on the board, she said, the nonprofit moved to a new office space in the Designers’ Guild building at more than double the previous rent, and paid then-board President Victoria Wozniak’s daughter to organize a gala that raised little money, both without full board approval. Sweiven also took issue with how much time Winter spent at the Capitol.

“She should spend most of her time attracting film business, not talking to legislators,” she said.

Winter said that she had “a clear directive” from her board to focus on meeting with legislators.

“If I hadn’t spent that time, we wouldn’t have the money,” she said.

“Success isn’t solely up to a film board,” said Joe Chianese, a top Hollywood-based consultant to producers on incentives. “It’s tough to compete with states that give back 30 percent or more.”

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