Movie Madness II

Minnesota’s movie industry is booming once again—but that may not be a good thing

THE STARLET IS PLUGGING HER PICTURE. She stands in the hallway of producer Christine Kunewa Walker’s home, beside Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, where a small group of local moviemakers have gathered to talk shop. “I play little Irene,” says Raven Bellefleur, referring to her role in Walker’s latest film, Older Than America. And though Walker produced and co-wrote the movie—and hopes to premiere it at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this month—she seems content to let Bellefleur rep her project. After all, Bellefleur’s delicate features are a plastic surgeon’s dream, and her flawless skin should have its own effects button in Photoshop. More importantly, she’s just 10 years old. 

Young, enthusiastic, maybe a little green—the Minnesota film industry is a lot like Bellefleur these days. After being sidelined for half a decade, Hollywood’s kid sister seems to be sneaking back into the game.

Walker, whose successes include Factotum and American Splendor, shot Older Than America in Cloquet and on the nearby Fond du Lac Reservation. It’s a Native American mystery, a painful tale of lives derailed and a culture deracinated by native boarding schools. And it’s the first of several Minnesota-made movies set for release or production this year, including the new Coen brothers comedy, A Serious Man, slated to film in a Minneapolis suburb this summer. But before anyone hollers renaissance, it’s worth recalling that the movie business is a fair-weather friend. And Minnesota, as no one needs to be reminded, is not often celebrated for its fair weather.

The story of Minnesota’s modern-day film industry would make for a fairly tragic movie. First came the Grumpy Old Ducks and Jingle All the Way, attracted by Minnesota’s solid ice, able film crews, and affinity for plaid. Then, in 1997, the state sweetened the deal with “Snowbate,” the nation’s first tax-rebate program for filmmakers, which essentially regurgitated a percentage of what filmmakers spent in the state for food, lodging, supplies, transportation, and the like. The trick worked so well that other states—and the 51st state, Canada—soon followed suit, and trumped Minnesota with more lavish and lucrative incentives. Before long, film crews were flocking down to New Mexico and up into the hoser latitudes—anywhere, it seemed, but here.

During the budget crisis of 2003, Governor Tim Pawlenty de-funded the Minnesota Film and TV Board and its incentive slush fund, reducing Minnesota’s hopes of reaching big-time film folks on the coasts. But after a year of working out of a supply closet, Minnesota Film Board executive director Lucinda Winter has energetically orchestrated the restoration of Minnesota’s tax-rebate program. In its current form, Snowbate returns up to 15 percent of what filmmakers spend here. And although the initiative is funded at a relatively paltry $650,000 annually, Winter hopes to boost that number with a supplemental request this year. The bigger question is this: How much are we willing to pay to be in the pictures?

MOVIES PROVIDE A PLACE like Minnesota with a bit of reflected glamour, but it turns out to be an expensive form of self-flattery. Simply put, Snowbate seems a bum piece of tax policy. Why should the government enrich gaffers and grips at the expense of, say, butchers and water-polo coaches, neither of whom receive subsidies? “You just don’t want government picking the winners,” says Lynn Reed of the nonpartisan Minnesota Taxpayers Association. “It’s inefficient. There’s no net gain.” The need to offer incentives, Reed suggests, is proof that the film business isn’t sustainable in Minnesota.

“Snowbate lowers the cost of the film industry, which means there must be a competitive problem,” Reed says. “Obviously there must be places where it doesn’t cost as much.” There are: 29 other states now offer their own goodie bags, all but three of them boasting better swag. So it’s hard for Winter to disagree with Reed’s logic.  “If we don’t have an incentive, we’re really not in business,” she says. “When I would answer the phone, the calls would go like this: ‘Hello this is Sam from Warner Bros. Do you have an incentive?’ No. Click.”

But as jobs programs go, film rebates provide almost instant, high-profile results. No need to buy up land or build a factory; all you have to do is post a webpage and cut a check. With fresh rebates in her back pocket, Winter can now point to a burgeoning lineup of prospective Minnesota shoots, including several by people with local ties who nonetheless may have shot elsewhere if the incentives were too good to ignore. Garrison Keillor plans to direct Dusty, Guy Noir, and his other make-believe playmates in a May shoot in tiny Avon, near St. Cloud. And John Carroll Lynch, a former Guthrie Theater actor best known for playing Drew Carey’s brother on Carey’s eponymous show, is scouting the state for locations to shoot Remember Minnesota (working title), a feel-gooder about an underdog rowing team.
It’s the prospect of yet another local shoot that has been drawing film folks to meet-and-greets like the one at Christine Walker’s home. The next day, producer Bill Horberg (Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley) attended a script reading at the Guthrie for Jennifer Vogel’s memoir-turned-screenplay, Flim-Flam Man. Raven Bellefleur, in fact, read the part of young Jennifer, whose father is a gifted grifter. The project has had various names attached to it: Kevin Costner, John Travolta, Jennifer Love Hewitt. Yet in the confidence game that is film financing, someone still has to put the touch on a few flush souls to get the picture made.

Local investors, Walker says, are savvier after their profitable experience with A Prairie Home Companion. Minnesota’s film crews are also increasing in sophistication, she notes, as they’re finally booking enough work to make a career here. But the local film industry’s real cause for hope may be buried in the small type of the Star Tribune’s business section. At press time, the Canadian dollar was fetching $1.01 U.S. on the currency markets, making Canada more expensive for Americans—and a pricier place to film—for the first time in several decades.

JOSH HARTNETT IS WAITING for a plane. Rob Perez knows this because he’s currently sitting in the 331 Club, a hipster hangout in northeast Minneapolis, ignoring Hartnett’s text messages from JFK airport in New York. “He’s bored,” Perez says, glancing down at his phone. Perez, a 35-year-old Hollywood writer and director, scripted one of Hartnett’s breakout movies, the romantic comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights, and checks on his good friend’s empty Lake of the Isles home. The house has played a supporting role in Perez’s current project, a film called Nobody, as it’s been the site of a funding party.

Nobody, which is budgeted at a modest $1 million, will be a Christine Walker production, but Perez has taken it upon himself to pass the hat. To this end, he’s recruited a somewhat comical threesome to introduce him to potential local funders: Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak, former St. Paul mayor George Latimer, and sports broadcaster Mark Rosen. One of the picture’s first backers, Perez’s uncle and former Clinton cabinet member Henry Cisneros, introduced Perez to the two politicos. And Rosen is the cousin of Nobody’s star: former Twin Cities actor and current Hollywood comer Sam Rosen.

“The locations are going to be great,” Perez says, as if warming up for his big pitch. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he says, is already lined up for shooting. “That’s one of the reasons we’re here. This town hasn’t been shot in a long time and I’m excited to rediscover it.”

That said, Perez isn’t sure that he will have a future in Minneapolis after Nobody wraps. His quandary could be that of the film industry at large. “This is sort of a litmus test,” he says. “Can I do what I do here? Can I make movies and tell stories…? This town seems like it has resources to do that. And if I can, I’ll stay.”

Michael Tortorello is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.