It's arguably the most unusual jobs program in the voluminous budget bills passed late Thursday by the Legislature -- $500,000 for a movie to be filmed in Minnesota this year and next.

You might even be excused for wondering why two of the country's hottest filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, are in line to get a production rebate from their native state for a movie that was supposed to begin filming here anyway.

Simple, said state Film and TV Board executive director Lucinda Winter: Without the money, the brothers probably would wind up shooting in Wisconsin or Michigan instead.

"The Coens have an interest in shooting it here because it's written for Minnesota, but they don't make the rules -- the [studio] decides," Winter said.

"If this [media] attention means my $500,000 gets yanked, they don't come."

She was referring to media reports Friday that, amid budget squeezes and cutbacks and deficits, the Legislature had found funds to help a pair of struggling four-time Academy Award winners.

True enough, except that the money didn't come from the state's general fund, said bill sponsor Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul.

The bill transferred the funds to the Film Board's so-called "Snowbait" program from the state tourism division, where it had been deposited after going unused by the Film Board.

Officials in the governor's office, finance department and tourism all helped engineer the transfer, Cohen said. "Our thought was to use the money, because we could argue that it was the Film Board's money anyway," he said.

Funding improves chances

The funding improves the chances that the Coens' film will be shot in Minnesota starting this fall, but it's still not a lock, executive producer Bob Graf said Friday in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

"The studio has certain ideas about how their money should be spent, and we have a fiscal obligation to figure out the cheapest place to shoot the movie," said Graf, like the brothers a Minnesota native. "We talked to the Film Board to figure out how they could make it possible to shoot the movie there, and our numbers are contingent on at least that money being there.

"It's tough for [Minnesota] because it's a very competitive environment."

Back in the 1990s, Minnesota provided the background for a series of big-production movies with big stars, including "Grumpy Old Men," "Jingle All the Way," and the Coens' own award-winning "Fargo."

But the tinsel in Minnesota has tarnished in recent years, as other states began offering rebates, tax credits and grants to film crews seemingly less interested in authentic backdrops than in subsidized shoots.

When actor George Clooney was in Duluth last week to promote his new movie "Leatherheads," about a 1920s Duluth pro football team, he said he opted to shoot elsewhere because it was too cold there in February.

It may also have had something to do with the fact that South Carolina, where Clooney did shoot, offers a 10 to 20 percent rebate for production expenses and annually budgets $15.5 million for the program.

Minnesota has a 15 percent rebate -- but with an annual budget of only $650,000, it is the third smallest in the country.

Wisconsin is drawing attention from the film world because of its new 25 percent tax credit for local spending by a film production. Michigan offers the biggest cash rebate yet -- 40 percent, with no cap on the total amount (with a minimum of $50,000 in spending).

Winter and Cohen hope Minnesota will start to catch up soon. The budget bills passed Thursday add a 20 percent rebate level for productions that spend more than $5 million in Minnesota in a year. Cohen said he's seeking an additional $2.1 million in the finance bill to bolster the Film Board's incentives package.

The $500,000 funding infusion for the Film Board prompted nary a whisper in hours and hours of debate on the bills Thursday, and Cohen said the measure wasn't controversial in committee.

One naysayer heard from

The only naysayer to be heard from Friday was Brian McClung, spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who said in a statement that the funding "doesn't seem like the highest and best use of limited state resources at this time."

Winter noted that the last major feature to film in Minnesota, "North Country," generated $5 million in economic activity on the Iron Range despite the fact that only 15 to 20 percent of the entire movie was shot there.

The upcoming Coen feature, titled "A Serious Man," is set in a Jewish neighborhood in a Minneapolis suburb circa 1967. That recalls the Coen brothers' own upbringing in St. Louis Park, although Graf said the movie isn't based on their lives.

If the studio, Focus Features, chooses to shoot in the Twin Cities, they would open an office here in June and begin filming in September, Winter said.

"It will be shot in one of the near-west suburbs," she said; it could be St. Louis Park, but not necessarily, she added. The plan is for the entire movie to be shot in the metro area.

Winter envisions 100 Minnesotans being hired for four months to work on the film, and crew and cast members dropping money at hotels, rented condos, lumberyards and restaurants.

Graf estimated that the total budget for the movie will be about $15 million. "This is a small, personal movie that the guys are making, not the sort of movie that is going have a lot of big stars in it," he said. "So cost becomes an issue."

Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this story. Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455