Snowbate is on the rebound

Older than America
A location scene from the film "Older than America," currently being shot in Carlton County. The production benefits from the state-sponsored rebate program "Snowbate."
Tribal Alliance Productions

Lucinda Winter, executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, came to work on Monday buzzing from a meeting she had over the weekend. It was with Guthrie Theater alum John C. Lynch, a sought-after character actor who's probably best known as Marge's husband in the movie "Fargo." It turns out Lynch wants to make a film in Minneapolis about an aimless student's improbable rise to glory on the University of Minnesota rowing team.

"It's just a great story about a young man finding himself," Winter says. "It's a great story about the university. We're really excited about the movie here, and it is definitely here because of Snowbate."

Snowbate is a state-funded program that reimburses film and video producers for up to 15 percent of their production budgets spent in Minnesota.

"It gives us a tool to attract people here, for films that have a Minnesota connection and for films that don't," she says.

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And not just films, but also TV shows, music videos and commercials.

Snowbate was first enacted in 1997, when a boom period in Minnesota film production was beginning to wane. Canada was starting to lure filmmakers away with favorable exchange rates and tax breaks.

Lucinda Winter says snowbate helped to stave off an exodus of film projects from the state. But then came a post-9/11 economic downturn and a state fiscal crisis. In 2003, the governor and lawmakers decided to eliminate the program.

"It was kind of a perfect storm of circumstances that really resulted in a dramatic downturn in business between 2003 and 2005 for our state," Winter says.

That downturn was destructive for members of the local production community such as Eric Howell, a stunt coordinator who's been a part of numerous regional productions. He's currently stationed just outside Cloquet, working on the indie feature film "Older than America." It's another movie that would have been shot elsewhere without a reinstated Snowbate program. Howell says three years ago, when Snowbate was cut, the drop in business forced him and his family to reluctantly relocate to Los Angeles, and he wasn't the only one who left.

"We really have a tight-knit group of production professionals here in the Twin Cities and a lot of us have had to drift away and move away to keep the roof over our heads," he says.

With no Snowbate in place, the movie "North Country," about sexual harassment on the Iron Range, did most of its shooting and post-production work in New Mexico. A bio-pic on Bob Dylan ended up being shot in Bulgaria.

During the 2006 legislative session, Winter and a volunteer trade group called "Shoot in Minnesota" persuaded Gov. Pawlenty and lawmakers to reinstate Snowbate. They agreed to a one-time allotment of $1.7 million. Winter says Snowbate has been up and running only five months, but filmmakers are biting.

"We are already well on our way to rebating the appropriation," she says.

"Older than America"
Scene from the film "Older than America," being shot in Carlton County
Tribal Alliance Productions

Winter adds that there are three TV series already shooting in Minnesota. She predicts next year will be busy, with two feature films slated for production, a documentary, a couple of music videos and several commercials. She's projecting $11 million to $12 million dollars in film and video production for fiscal year 2006, compared to an average of $3 million to $5 million annually for the period between 2003 and 2005.

Winter plans to request that the Snowbate appropriation be increased to $10 million for the 2007-2008 biennium.

"And we are very confident that we could attract production to rebate that entire amount."

Snowbate is just one part of a strategy Winter hopes will make Minnesota a regional center for film and video production in ten years. She says every week she gets calls from people who've had to leave the state to stay in the film industry, inquiring about opportunities that will allow them to move back home.

"And what I want to be able to say within two or three years," she says, "is please, please do because we need you."

Winter says if the state can attract four to six feature films a year and a dramatic TV series, which would be a real coup, she'd be well on her way toward achieving that goal.

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