Beginning the last Wednesday of September and going through Saturday, downtown Duluth was abuzz with filmmakers, producers, writers, and actors participating in the Catalyst Content Festival, run by Catalyst Story Institute. It’s an intensive four days of panels, screenings, script reading and pitch sessions, with awards given out at the conclusion. Focused on episodic storytelling, including TV projects, podcasts, and web series ideas, the festival brought creatives from the coasts and Midwest film and TV folks together at different spaces in Duluth. Centered around the iconic Fitger’s Inn and Brewhouse and the Zeitgeist Center for Arts & Community — which holds two screening rooms, a stage theater, and a restaurant —the festival also expanded into various bars, restaurants and coffee shops.
On the first night of Catalyst, the bars at Fitger’s were packed with screenwriters, directors, actors, and other industry professionals hobnobbing and networking late into the night. Sam Christienson, an assistant manager at Fitger’s, attributes a packed bar late on a weekday night to the Catalyst crowd. “It’s great to see the Barrel Room this busy on a Wednesday,” he tells me.
Catalyst started out as the ITVFest (The Independent Television Festival) in Los Angeles. It moved to Vermont in 2013 under direction of the current executive director Philip Gilpin. Then in 2018, Vermont dropped its support for television and film projects, prompting Gilpin to find a new location. They moved the festival to Duluth in 2019, the same year Minnesota passed tax incentives for film projects, and rebranded as Catalyst.
Shelli Place, an actor and theater director who co-directs Twin Cities-based Prime Productions, was part of a contingency that helped convince Minnesota legislators to pass tax incentives for film and TV projects in Minnesota.
In 2021, Minnesota passed a sweeping $5 million in incentive money, followed by additional incentives from St. Louis County and the Duluth Economic Development Authority.
Now, Place says, her group is working to convince lawmakers to extend the incentives. “In this industry, it takes a while,” she says. “If we had three series here going on at the same time, the amount of work for the craftspeople and designers and the truckers and everything, it would build the community so much all the way from the Iron Range and Duluth down to the Twin Cities.”
“I think having the new tax incentives is a game changer for both the television and feature film market,” says Kimberley Browning, a filmmaker and director of programming for the festival. She is based in Los Angeles and met Gilpin when they both In the festival, Browning curated a panel about making unscripted content— which can mean a documentary series, but also a podcast, one of the hottest new markets for an emerging creator to get into right now. In Q&As after film screenings, she had a supportive and insightful presence as she probed filmmakers about their process and journeys.
Browning says the festival offers a way for producers on the coasts to get to know all that Minnesota has to offer. It’s also a way to showcase the unique visual landscape of Northern Minnesota. “The history of this place is mind blowing,” she says. Duluth has a unique visual footprint, between Lake Superior, historical architecture from the 1940s and 50s, as well as a film community that have been here all along.
“With the support of the government now, it’s an incredible opportunity and resource for filmmakers to come here,” Browning says. “This is such a great film community that doesn’t necessarily hit New York or LA and we’re hoping this will help cross pollinate.”
One local industry person who is seeing the benefits of a renewed support for the industry is Trent Edgerton, who owns Sound Central Production Services, an audio-visual production company based in Duluth. On Wednesday, he was setting up glowing red pillars for the first day of the festival. His company also supported the festival with projections, microphones, and audio equipment.
“You can feel the buzz,” he says of the energy the Catalyst Festival brings. “You can just feel a little change towards the arts and the vibe of it all.”
There’s also Dan Olson, who makes both narrative and documentary films. He moved back to Minnesota after stints in LA and New York around 2015. “I did not know if I would be able to find work or what it would be like.” He did find work with a company in the Twin Cities called Intuitive Content, and works creatively when he can, including pitching his script at the festival.
Filmmakers from outside of Minnesota also came to Duluth for opportunities and connections. New York-based Vaughn Jefferson, also known as Buddha Chief, was ready with postcards for the docuseries about his life, called “The Cure Rator,” directed by Sam Long. Long met Jefferson through a magazine Long’s wife runs called Honey Suckle Magazine. The magazine is partnering with The Buddha Chief on the new docuseries, and have made the first two episodes. They held a screening at Catalyst, and Long continued to film Vaughn as he pitched and networked throughout the week. He’d follow Jefferson after panels as he handed out posters or talked to producers and agents. “It’s kind of meta,” Long says.
The festival for the team is the next step for the docuseries, which they are planning to extend.
“When we got into this festival, I was incredibly excited,” Long says. “I think the work Philip has been doing and how he’s able to pivot and stay on top of what the television industry really is at that moment. You’re genuinely rubbing elbows with the exact people you want to talk to. As a creator, there couldn’t be a better festival.”