It's fitting that visitors to Committee Films' headquarters in Eden Prairie are greeted by a nearly 9-foot skeleton of Bigfoot. Not only is the super-shy beast the subject of an upcoming Committee documentary on the History Channel, but he's symbolic of how the small but spunky company is planting a mighty footstep in Twin Cities TV production.
The nine-year-old business, launched in the basement of husband-and-wife founders Andy and Maria Awes, is celebrating its most high-profile project, ABC's "In an Instant," a seven-part series that mixes interviews and re-enactments to document how people have reacted to disasters ranging from a grizzly bear attack to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. Almost all of the footage was shot in the state, at everywhere from a former Kmart in New Hope to a marina in Silver Bay.
"We are absolutely committed to bringing more production to Minnesota," said Andy Awes, sitting with his spouse in a colorful office in their one-story red-brick building, which provides space for more than 30 employees.
After a run of locally shot movies in the 1990s, including "Fargo" and "Grumpy Old Men," film production all but dried up in Minnesota because of the lack of financial incentives. But the state is back on the map thanks to the return in 2013 of the Snowbate fund, which allows for $10 million in taxpayer-funded rebates over a two-year period.
In the world of movies and TV, that's not a fortune, but it's a start — enough to attract the current shooting in Virginia, Minn., of "I Am Not a Serial Killer," starring Christopher Lloyd, and to feed buzz that HBO might film a series in Stillwater.
Since August 2013, seven TV series that applied for Snowbates have spent about $8.5 million in the state, with two of them so far being reimbursed roughly $2 million.
"We were off the radar for a while," said Lucinda Winter, executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board. "But we're back on the table."
A network breakthrough
Committee Films isn't the only TV player in town. Magnetic Productions specializes in home-improvement shows such as DIY's "Rehab Addict" and HGTV's "Yard Takeover," while Tremendous Entertainment produces Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern."
But Committee is the only one to score a prime-time network series, one that drew more that 4 million viewers for its first two episodes last weekend. That was good enough to beat CBS' long-running "48 Hours" in key demographics.
That may surprise those who visit the company's modest suburban space. It looks more like an accountant's office. The only signs of TV production are video editors hidden in cramped offices and a small, cluttered studio used mainly for storage — everything from women's period costumes to foam rocks.
"In an Instant," which airs Saturdays, primarily uses local people, in front of and behind the camera.
"I don't think Hollywood realizes how much talent there is around here," said Maria Awes, a former investigative producer for WCCO-TV (Channel 4). She and her husband met as students at Richfield High School.
Twin Cities actor and filmmaker Patrick Coyle, who played a doctor in a re-enactment on "In an Instant" involving an Alaskan plane crash, said it was gratifying to work for a local company that actually is shooting in the area. Coyle spent one day on a Stillwater set and said the money was considerably higher than what he gets for doing independent films.
He said he believes that more film and TV work will come our way when Hollywood recognizes the quality of acting in the state.
"Because of the high level of theater here, you can cast a big ABC show here and not worry about finding good people," Coyle said. Coincidentally, the third feature film he has written and directed, "The Public Domain," is scheduled to open March 27 at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis. It was shot entirely in Minnesota with local actors.
The Aweses are hoping to find more work for local talent.
In addition to "Bigfoot Captured," scheduled to air in late spring, the team is working on documentaries about Nostradamus and Albert Einstein. They may also do a project for Discovery Channel's insanely popular Shark Week.
But what the Aweses are most excited about is the potential to do scripted television, most likely starting with a series involving U.S. history.
"This is a company we should be watching," said Winter of the state film board. "They are both creative and good businesspeople. They should be able to have a really long life span."