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Film Board imposes stricter rules on TV, movie grants

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Melodie Bahan
Melodie Bahan, executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

New guidelines for Minnesota’s “Snowbate” film and television incentive program would deny awards to shows built around a national event held in Minnesota, along with projects featuring candidates for political offices. A board that governs the program announced the changes Monday.

Minnesota Film and TV had been developing new standards since 2017. The guidelines are aimed at making sure limited dollars go to projects that rely most on in-state workers or feature Minnesota prominently. The rules took on more urgency after a couple of high-profile grants prompted scrutiny of the program.

Last fall, the board defended an $11,000 grant to the makers of a documentary about now U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar made after she won election to a state legislative seat in 2016.

And last month, MPR News reporting on a $267,000 rebate for the “Tonight Show” starring Jimmy Fallon caused a stir because of internal film board discord over the grant and doubts about its longer-term impact.

Minnesota Film and TV executive director Melodie Bahan again defended the “Tonight Show” award, noting that more than 150 people in Minnesota were involved and the show spent $3 million. But she acknowledged the broader unease.

“The perception was not good and so we want to make sure the Legislature and (the Department of Employment and Economic Development) know that we are responsive to issues of concern and that we want to have a program that works for Minnesota and not just the industry,” Bahan said in an interview Monday.

Bahan said the guidelines will evaluate applications on a monthly basis to pick those that have the most impact. It’s a departure from past practice of delivering the $500,000 in annual incentives based on which projects got in line first.

She said ditching the first-come, first-served standard will give the board needed flexibility.

“This way we’ll really be looking at ‘Is this project serving the goals of the program and is it a good use of taxpayer dollars?’”

'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' in Minneapolis
"Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon visits U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Andrew Lipovsky | NBC

The new system will prioritize “Snowbate” grants based on several factors, including the total amount spent in Minnesota, the number of local hires, how long the production will last and how recognizable the state is in the final product.

Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, was among the legislators who had been most critical of the program after the “Tonight Show” rebate was detailed.

“I’m pleased with the new guidelines, as common sense would tell you not to spend taxpayer dollars on projects centered on national events taking place in Minnesota or on local political candidates,” West said in a written statement. “It’s unfortunate we had to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on productions that were going to film here regardless before the standards were changed.”

Currently, projects certified for the “Snowbate” can receive up to 25 percent of their Minnesota expenses returned to them in a rebate, with certain exceptions.

TV commercials will qualify for a maximum of $200,000 in rebates per year in the new system.

Other changes will require applicants to have policies against harassment and discrimination, permit site visits by legislators and supply more documentation to back up rebate-eligible spending.

Applications for this year’s “Snowbate” grants will be accepted beginning in a few weeks.

The Film and TV board is set up as a nonprofit entity but receives scrutiny from lawmakers and others because it works with taxpayer money. The Department of Employment and Economic Development provides some oversight.

In recent years, Bahan and others involved in the state’s film industry have urged lawmakers to develop a tax credit for productions so Minnesota would be in a better position to compete for major movies or TV shows. So far, the Legislature hasn’t adopted that proposal.