The co-founder of a fledgling film studio on the Iron Range has vowed it will stay in business, despite the departure of its CEO following federal fraud charges and continuing uncertainty about its first movie, “Legend of Grimrock.”
Jerry Seppala resigned from Ironbound Studios Minnesota after a federal grand jury indicted him and two California men for allegedly cheating investors out of $12 million meant to finance movies. The indictment makes no mention of the Iron Range film studio space.
While the charges don’t mention the Chisholm studio, it’s a subplot in a story that weaves together Hollywood, an A&E hunting reality show set in Louisiana called “Country Buck$” and Seppala, a 47-year-old Wayzata businessman better known for GOP fundraising than cinema.
Seppala had been marketing the studio space, a former hockey rink in the basement of Chisholm’s city hall, as a low-cost destination for filmmakers who can take advantage of Minnesota’s film incentives.
“We are coordinating right now as to who will be the acting CEO in the interim,” said Jeffrey Erb, a Pennsylvania-based filmmaker who co-founded Ironbound with Seppala.
Erb said he does not know the status of “Legend of Grimrock.” Erb said he first met Seppala while scouting locations in Minnesota and that he’s never witnessed any improprieties.
“I hope and believe he’ll be exonerated,” Erb said. “We as a company have to move forward.”
Seppala has not returned calls for comment.
The city of Chisholm and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, an economic development agency, both said they did not provide any financial help to Seppala or his company.
Seppala, James Williams of Calabasas, Calif., and Steven Brown of Santa Monica, Calif., face charges of wire fraud and wire fraud conspiracy. Williams and Brown also were charged with money laundering. The U.S. attorney in New York City unsealed the charges Tuesday; Seppala is out on $25,000 bond.
The men are scheduled to appear in federal court on July 21 in Manhattan.
The trouble began in 2014 when Louisiana businessman and A&E reality show star Bill Busbice Jr. sued the three men, claiming they cheated him out of $10.9 million he sank into the production of four films. Williams allegedly used the money to finance a lavish lifestyle that included buying a $3.5 million house and private school tuition for his children, according to court documents.
Seppala filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Minnesota a few months after the lawsuit was filed in federal court in California.
Seppala and his attorney argued that he was involved in only one of the four films, called “Made in America.” His attorney said that Busbice’s strategy was to “slop all of their claims together” to detract from their weakness.
The lawsuit settled last summer. Williams was ordered to pay $6.95 million, Brown was ordered to pay $3.45 million and Seppala was ordered to pay $100,000, court documents show.
The FBI investigated. The criminal indictment echoed the claims in Busbice’s lawsuit, although it did not mention him.
Riki McManus, who works at the Upper Minnesota Film Office in Duluth, said the future of filmmaking on the Iron Range is bright and pointed to the success of movies such as “After the Reality” and “I Am Not a Serial Killer.”
But she’s unsure about Ironbound Studios. Last fall Seppala said the $4 million “Legend of Grimrock” would start shooting in November. McManus said it hasn’t gotten off the ground.
The movie is based on a video game in which people move through a dungeon.
The movie website IMDb lists the director of “Legend of Grimrock: After the Fall” as Vince Talenti, co-owner of Wayside Creations, and shows Chisholm as a filming location. Talenti and other crew members could not immediately be reached for comment.
McManus said her job is scouting locations, which involves reading scripts and checking for places where scenes can be shot, and sending photographs to filmmakers.
“I’ve probably scouted for maybe a dozen feature films for Jerry, but none of them have come to fruition,” McManus said.