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Duluth lands Independent Television Festival

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Taking a break
The crew of the "Heart of Wilderness" film takes a late-afternoon lunch in 2014 on a Garden Lake island near Ely, Minn., during filming. Minnesota's so-called "Snowbate" incentive offers filmmakers rebates for shooting in in the state.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2014

Duluth residents probably shouldn't get their hopes too high about seeing the likes of Robert Redford strolling down the Lakewalk next year.

Still, it's a "game-changer" to bring the Independent Television Festival to town, said Riki McManus, director of the Minnesota Film Office in Duluth.

"We'll have the executives of HBO, Netflix, Bravo, the Writers Guild of America, walking down the streets of Duluth, meeting with some of the creators of some of the shows that we're actually watching on television," she said.

Backers compare ITVFest, scheduled for Oct. 9-13, 2019, in the city, to the Sundance Film Festival. But instead of screening independent movies, ITVFest aims to connect the creators of "episodic content" like TV shows with execs from HBO and elsewhere. And Duluth is pretty excited about it.

But what makes her most excited, McManus said, is that the people drawn to town for the film festival will get to see Duluth, and Lake Superior, and the North Shore. She hopes that exposure will eventually lead to seeing "Duluth on the screen, on the 'little screen.'"

ITVFest began in Los Angeles in 2006, just after YouTube went online. That's when advancements in video technology made it much faster and easier to create videos, and series, for the internet.

Every October, the festival brings together TV industry talent and executives to network, share ideas, and buy and sell shows. The festival moved to Manchester, Vt., in 2012, but after six years there, executive director Philip Gilpin Jr. said the festival had hit its ceiling.

"We needed to keep that small, quaint, rural, unique experience-based event," he said. "But we also needed a home that we can operate in year-round as an educational institute for producers, and give incentives for them to come and shoot in our hometown."

Minnesota offers what Vermont didn't, he said: A statewide film commission called Minnesota Film & TV, and a 25 percent rebate for TV and film producers who shoot in Minnesota, known colloquially as the Snowbate program.

Gilpin was in the Twin Cities this past fall when he mentioned to Minnesota Film & TV executive director Melodie Bahan that he was on the lookout for a new hometown.

Bahan suggested the Twin Cities, but Gilpin wasn't interested in a big metropolitan area. Then she mentioned Duluth.

Gilpin visited for the first time in late October. He liked that Duluth had the amenities needed to put on a weeklong festival that draws around 1,300 people, including the newly restored NorShor Theatre, plus plenty of bars, restaurants and hotel rooms.

"But the real driver for making the decision was the amount of entrepreneurs and local folks who I met who are waking up every day in Duluth and going to work making the community better, making their businesses better, investing their own futures in the town," he said. 

"And we want to be a part of a place that is investing in itself, and sees the arts as an economic driver, a cultural driver, for decades to come."

Gilpin doesn't just plan to move the festival to Duluth. He actually plans to move to the city himself early next year to set up a new office. He said he hopes to hire a handful of full-time staffers to work year-round, although he said he typically needs about 200 volunteers and employees to put on the festival every fall.

For Duluth, fall is a great time for an annual event, said Mayor Emily Larson, because it comes during a slower time in the city's busy tourism calendar.

"[It's a] beautiful time to showcase who we are to the rest of the nation," she said, "a great time for us to hold up our community as a place that values the arts and also understands that it's an economic driver."

ITVFest estimates that the five-day event itself will have an economic impact of around $1.5 million. And Gilpin stressed that it's a public event, where the public is invited to engage with the artists. "This isn't a closed-off industry event," he said.

Gilpin is looking for investors to keep the festival in Duluth for the long run. He'll need an initial grant of $200,000, followed by at least $250,000 in financing annually for the next five years.

He said he's already secured a portion of it, including a $50,000 grant from Don and Patricia Monaco, who own Monaco Air in Duluth, a company that welcomes high-end travelers who arrive in the city in private planes.

Don Monaco said he's "confident the economic and cultural impacts of a strong partnership between Duluth and ITVFest will yield substantial benefits for our community for many years to come," while also acknowledging that some of the people who attend the festival may fly in private plans and use his business.

Larson said one of the pluses of this move is that it won't require any city subsidy. She said it's possible a portion of the proceeds from a local sales tax on food and beverages could go toward the festival, but that Duluth "won't have to roll out a financial red carpet."

Meanwhile, Bahan said Minnesota Film & TV plans to ask the state Legislature to significantly increase its funding of the Snowbate program from $1 million over the past two years to $10 million, and to ask for a tax credit for large-budget projects that invest more than $10 million in the state.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board has also announced $250,000 in funding over the next two years to provide an additional 20 percent rebate for filmmakers who shoot in and around the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota.

Those investments, said Gilpin, could result in an industry that lasts in the region, and were among the core elements that brought ITVFest to Duluth.

"We're not an event that comes in and leaves town," he said. "And our goal is to give our international community of creators and producers a place to live and work throughout the year."