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State shutdown rattles Minnesota’s film industry

 “In Afghanistan, they have the fighting season. In Minnesota, this is the shooting season.” Film Lucinda Winter is talking about cameras, not rifles, however.

As executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, she currently is working with film production companies from the United Kingdom and Australia as well as U.S. firms to help them complete their Minnesota shooting on schedule and on budget.

Lucinda Winter
Lucinda Winter

Winter is struggling to keep her office open despite the state government shutdown, which has halted funding she receives through the Office of Tourism.

The nonprofit film board, which receives $325,000 from the state and raises an equal amount from private donations to cover operating expenses, sent an appeal Wednesday to potential donors asking for help to keep the doors open.

The board of directors considered shutting down the office during the state budget impasse but decided against it.

“That would send a negative message we’d rather not send,” she explained. “We exist especially to help those coming in from outside to film in Minnesota.”

The film board helps out of town production companies find local crews, talent, locations and rental equipment companies, and obtain needed permits.  “Large production companies need us to help cut red tape.” 

It also has administered separately funded production incentive programs including snowbates, a reimbursement of 15 to 20 percent of Minnesota production expenditures, and sales tax exemptions for certain in-state production expenses and lodging.

Winter said the Film Board’s fixed operating costs average $30,000 a month.  “We are trying to cut that in half by negotiating with major vendors and deferring some payroll.”

She said the office cannot reduce its staff of three to less than 35 hours per week or they will lose their health care coverage. 

Winter has seen a similar plot line before, when then Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed shutting the office down in his 2009 supplemental budget. The Legislature restored funding, but this time is different. “The problem is, we haven’t signed a contract” with the state, she said.

Minnesota has a good reputation within the film industry, although the state has not made the same push to entice production here as some other states have, Winter said. A comparable state with the level of film activity as Minnesota would have a budget averaging closer to $500,000, she said. “We run pretty efficiently.”

While quick to acknowledge that shutdown’s impact on the film board is not threatening lives or essential services, she nevertheless sees it as potentially damaging the state’s reputation in the industry.

“People who think it doesn’t affect business or the impression of the state are wrong,” she said.

But it’s not just the state’s reputation that concerns Winter.

Minnesota’s film industry contributed $225 million to the state’s economy in 2009, according to the most recent statistics available from the Department of Revenue, and it has grown since then, Winter said. There were about 400 companies and 5,000 Minnesotans in the industry that year, she added.

Several production companies are currently shooting in the state. A BBC crew is working on a documentary on the life of rock star Prince. Another production company for National Geographic is filming a documentary about railroad enthusiasts. 

A joint U.K. and Australia production crew has been filming a documentary about life along the Mississippi River, starting in New Orleans. Winter has been attempting to help them navigate their way through the Minnesota segment. They arrived last week with plans to shoot the Mississippi headwaters in Itasca State Park. 

“They already have the permits, have two helicopters, have already spent all the money and can’t come back when the shutdown is over. They have to film now,” she said.  “I don’t want it to appear that to get the job done here is any more difficult than in Memphis or New Orleans.”

Just yesterday she fielded a call from Animal Planet, which has plans to shoot in another state park later this month and called to ask her what they should do because of the shutdown.

 “It’s a challenge for us with people asking what the deal is. Despite what people think, film companies are risk-averse,” she said. “They want to know that film incentives are real and funded. I can’t tell people either those things right now.”  

Winter is determined that the shows must go on. “We are lucky because the staff is going to work this out and keep the doors open long as we can. This is our busy time.”

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