Film production tax incentives on the chopping block

ST. PAUL — As many Minnesotans would know, the hit movie “Fargo,” often hailed as a cinematic masterpiece, is set in Greater Minnesota.

It should come as no surprise that in 2014, the film was rebooted as a TV series, which is currently among the highest-rated shows on television.

The story is somewhat different, but the biggest difference of all is that while the film was shot in Minnesota, the series is being shot in Canada.

This may surprise many people, but for members of the Minnesota Film and TV Board such news has been more and more common.

While Minnesota has enjoyed its fair share of Hollywood fame in the 1990s, since then the state as a shooting location has decreased dramatically.


Legislators in every state allocate money to tax incentives for film productions, essentially a lure that would draw a producer’s attention to a particular location. At $5 million per biennium, Minnesota’s tax incentive program, otherwise known as “Snowbate,” lags far behind the incentives 38 other states give to interested film and TV producers.

By comparison, California has a tax incentive program totaling to $330 million; New York as high as $420 million; and an uncapped limit in Louisiana.

Six months ago, the Minnesota Film Board received $10 million in rebate funds, which came as a welcome relief to the board. But their joy was short-lived, because on Wednesday, the House Republican majority voted to cut all money from the program.

Eric Stolhanske, a producer, writer, and actor who has written and starred in the popular film “Super Troopers,” was one of many people, including “Bizzare Foods” host Andrew Zimmern, who spoke with legislators before the deciding vote. But despite their best efforts, they could only watch the entire program being swept under the rug.

“It came out of the blue to me. I was surprised that they wanted to repeal it, because we’re funded, making great progress, and exciting things were happening up until that vote,” said Stolhanske. “When a single production is brought here, a lot of money is being spent, lots of people are getting employed, it boosts the local economy, and (it) generally helps a lot of people.”

But their efforts weren’t a total loss. While the House moved to cut all money toward the “Snowbate” program, the Senate voted to allocate $13 million over the next two years. A conference committee will now likely determine the funding fate of the program, probably ranging from $0 to $13 million.

That said, even the Senate’s funding offer is still a modest amount compared to other states.

The Minnesota Film Board champions tax incentives as a potent source of jobs, but Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL–Balsam Township, said that larger, more pressing issues consume lawmakers’ attention.

“Quite frankly this is a minuscule slice in the state’s budget to reach the conclusion this session,” said Anzelc. “That the Republicans would make cuts in the arts and entertainment is predictable, but quite frankly in comparison to the other cutting that they’ve done, and the other policies that they’re trying to enact, this is really very small.”

Back in the 1990s, when tax incentive programs didn’t exist, Minnesota advertised itself as a prime shooting location for producers and film crews. And their efforts worked: films such as the “The Mighty Ducks,” “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” “Beautiful Girls,” and “A Simple Plan” were entirely filmed within the state.

If the tax incentive program didn’t exist, said Stolhanske, all locations would be on an even playing field.

“It would be great if there were equal tax incentives across the states,” said Stolhanske. “Back in the 1990s, when there were no incentives, you could shoot anywhere. Today, tax incentives are used to lure producers to their state, while ours is so minuscule by comparison, it’s a crime to reduce it to zero.”

Besides losing “Fargo” the TV series to Canada, Minnesota has lost out on other film opportunities.

The 2008 film “Grand Torino” was supposed to be set in the Twin Cities, but the tax incentive program in Michigan was more tempting. The 2011 thriller “Contagion” was written by a Minnesota writer, who would have preferred shooting in the state.

Stolhanske admitted to shooting a film in New Mexico, though he would have preferred to shoot it in Minnesota.

“And currently we’re trying to get “Super Troopers 2” off the ground, and we would love it to be shot in Minnesota,” said Stolhanske. “However our producer will only shoot it with tax incentives, as it is with any producer. So our future is in their hands, but I’d love for it to be shot here.”

But if Minnesota had a tax incentive budget comparable to New York’s, for example, Stolhanske has no doubt that the Iron Range would be among the most in-demand shooting locations in the United States.

“Now that’s a beautiful location,” said Stolhanske. “You have miles of pristine wilderness, the lake, and a great rural culture. I’m sure anyone could talk about the potential benefits of filming up there. If I had a choice to shoot anywhere in Minnesota, it would be in the Iron Range. It’s gorgeous.”

That said, both Stolhanske and Anzelc are confident that even if Snowbates are knocked out for the next two years, the program will recover in the future.

“I’m remaining optimistic that we will keep the tax incentives, because without them there would be no television in the state of Minnesota, and that would be tragic,” said Stolhanske. “Tax incentives overall are great for jobs and great for our culture.”

“This decision is not very popular, not very smart, and shortsighted,” said Anzelc. “And when the Democrats get back into the majority in the House, they will have to fix a lot of mistakes the Republicans have made, and this will probably be one of them.”

Film buffs would know that the musical “Purple Rain” was filmed in Minnesota, along with the 2014 Sundance hit, an insightful drama-comedy “Dear White People,” and the 2015 drama “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” featuring the rising star of the action movie “Pacific Rim,” Rinko Kikuchi. Actors who portrayed Somali fisherman in “Captain Philips” were all found in the Twin Cities area.

If Minnesota is able to do this on a small budget, said Stolhanske, one could only imagine what it could do with a budget comparable to New York or California.

“It’s frustrating because if we could get some more funding, we could get even more great films like these in our state,” Stolhanske continued. “We have so much artistic culture in Minneapolis, and if anyone could write letters, email, or call their legislators letting them know there’s a demand, we could really see this Midwestern Hollywood come back to our state.”

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