DULUTH – When the producers and writers and actors and dreamers leave town this weekend after a five-day independent TV festival, the red carpet will remain. This, industry backers hope, is just the start.
The Catalyst Content Festival makes its Duluth debut Wednesday, and organizers expect nearly a thousand creative types will mingle through the weekend, connecting projects with producers and the entertainment industry with the region.
“You have L.A. in the west, you have New York in the east, you’ve got Georgia in the south — where’s the north?” said Philip Gilpin Jr., Catalyst executive director. “That’s our pitch to the industry.”
And it’s a pitch to the state, which Gilpin and others hope will increase its film production incentives to lure more productions here.
The event, formerly known as ITVFest, left Vermont after organizers found “a significant amount of Vermonters (local, state, corporate, individual) were not interested in supporting the TV/film production industry expansion,” the nonprofit wrote on its website.
In Minnesota, bipartisan efforts to increase film industry incentives were introduced last legislative session but never got a hearing. The proposal included a tax credit for film and TV productions that Gilpin said would make the state competitive with Georgia, which has the some of the most generous tax incentives in the country for the entertainment industry. Last year, the industry spent billions in the Peach State.
In Minnesota, the “Snowbate” incentive has had inconsistent funding; for 2019 there was $500,000 set aside for cash rebates for productions that are filmed here. That’s down from $6 million in 2017 as the Legislature appeared to lose its appetite to pay for the incentive.
“The program we have now, the rebate program, is just not competitive,” said Melodie Bahan, executive director of the nonprofit Minnesota Film and TV. “We are in a really great position — all we’re really missing is that investment by the state.”
Lights, camera, rebate
If you look closely at the movie poster for the 2005 Charlize Theron movie “North Country,” you can find Dave Lislegard. The first-term state representative from Aurora had a role in that Oscar-nominated film, shot on the Iron Range, and saw a workhorse in action.
“The typical person only sees what’s on the TV — that is the smallest part of what the industry truly is,” Lislegard said. “There are a lot of wonderful union jobs.”
This year, the DFLer took a group of policymakers and stakeholders to Los Angeles to meet with industry executives to find out what Minnesota needs to do to get film and TV productions in the state.
“We heard about a Disney film they wanted to make in Minnesota, but they couldn’t because there were no incentives,” said St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell, who was part of that delegation. “We heard you need a commitment from the state for five to seven years for an incentive to be meaningful.”
The county spent $250,000 helping Catalyst put together a production guide for the region that will be given to festival attendees that includes more than 400 vendors and locations. Gilpin said it’s essential for convincing producers the area is cost-effective.
There is more that counties and cities can do for the industry, Jewell said, but first the state needs to put more skin in the game.
What that looks like heading into the next legislative session is still in the works. Lislegard said he wants to start from scratch and find a compromise that can make it to the governor’s desk.
“We’re not going to become Hollywood, that is definitely not the goal,” Lislegard said. “It’s one more part of an equation to make a strong economy in Minnesota.”
In the spotlight
In 2014, there were 389 scripted series on TV and streaming networks, according to FX Networks Research. Last year, there were nearly 500.
The next one could get pitched in Duluth this week.
“Our industry, and the TV side in particular, is a complete free-for-all,” Gilpin said about this golden age of content. “It’s about being ready when opportunity strikes, and having Catalyst in Duluth is going to create more opportunities that are going to come out of nowhere.”
Now in its 14th year, the festival first moved from L.A. to Vermont in 2013 and is going to set deep roots in Duluth, Gilpin said. Beyond the five days of screenings, panels, workshops and parties at downtown venues this week, the organization will keep supporting efforts to bring the industry here through education and outreach.
Gilpin, whose own pitch is refined and whose vision for the entertainment industry in Minnesota is unwavering, said he’s done his job by bringing people together. The rest will follow. Bahan, with Minnesota Film and TV, said the simple act of introducing creators and decisionmakers to Duluth and Minnesota could be the spark needed for the state to increase its incentives.
“It’s one thing to go to the Legislature and say, if you invest in this, we’re going to bring you these amorphous, whatever projects,” she said. “It’s quite another to say HBO has this series they want to set in Duluth, and this is the money they’re going to spend.”