Snowbate: The vital program keeping filmmaking alive in Minnesota

Christopher Lloyd - I Am Not A Serial Killer Movie -

Christopher Lloyd in “I Am Not A Serial Killer,” which is set in Virginia, Minnesota // Photo courtesy of

In his first scene in the film “I am Not a Serial Killer,” Minnesota actor Tim Russell, playing Olson the Barber, encounters a character played by Christopher Lloyd who asks Olson to dance with his wife. Lloyd’s character is happily married; however, he needs new body parts to continue his 600-year existence. Russell’s character is a champion dancer from South Dakota, so his strong, athletic legs look enticing for the movie’s villain. Set at a VFW in Virginia, Minnesota, you can guess what will happen to poor Olson.

“I am Not a Serial Killer” is one of the latest in a crop of feature films to benefit from Snowbate, a Minnesota tax incentive program. Snowbate started in 1997 in the wake of a string of successful projects (“The Mighty Ducks,” “Fargo,” “Grumpy Old Men”) that were brought to the state by the Minnesota Film and TV Board. Snowbate was cut in 2002, reinstated in 2006, then cut again in 2010. Three years ago, it was revived with a $10 million boost from the legislature, and today supports feature films, documentaries, music videos, television programs, commercials, and internet videos made in Minnesota.

Awarded on a first come, first serve basis, reimbursements from Snowbate are available to filmmakers who can provide a budget, script, proof of funding, and are incorporated, says Lucinda Winter, executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, which administers the program. The board doesn’t approve applications based on content, with the exception that projects must be made in Minnesota and can’t be pornographic, according to the federal definition, Winter says. From there, they are either awarded a reimbursement of 20 percent (for films shot within the seven-county metro area), or 25 percent (for films shot outside the metro area, or for projects with budgets over $1 million).

I Am Not a Serial Killer Still :: Photo courtesy of SXSW

Another still from “I Am Not a Serial Killer” // Photo courtesy SXSW

According to Winter, there have been 160 projects that have come through Minnesota since the board received the $10 million boost in 2013, with projects being shot all over the state. During the last legislative session, the Snowbate program ended up getting an additional $4.5 million, according to Winter. That, despite an effort by House Republicans to defund the program. House Representative Pat Garofalo’s omnibus jobs and energy bill included no funding for Snowbate and sought to defund the Minnesota Film and TV board as well. But proponents of Snowbate prevailed, raising the budget for fiscal year 2017 to $6 million.

The 20−25-percent reimbursement is important, Winter says, because currently there are about 35 states that have some kind of incentive program. Other states, such as Georgia and Kentucky, have much more attractive incentive programs, usually because they offer higher percentages. (Kentucky reimburses up to 30 percent; in Georgia, non-residents may be compensated up to $500,000, according to Film Production Capitol, a tax credit brokerage company.) “I am competing with every one of them and I’m also competing with Canada,” Winter says. “If you do not have one of these incentives, you are not getting any business.”

Most recently, the FX series “Fargo” passed on Minnesota because of lack of funding. “The networks and the movie studios are very savvy to these rebates,” says Maria Awes, senior vice president of Committee Films, a production company headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Awes says both she and her husband, Andy Awes, the president and executive producer of the company, are from Minnesota and want to stay, but they need Snowbate incentives in order to stay competitive.

Committee Films Show Reel

Committee Films started in the basement of the couple’s home in Chaska. They received Snowbate funding for their first big TV special, called “Holy Grail in America,” about the Kensington Runestone, which ran on History Channel in 2009. They’ve gone on to produce numerous TV shows for cable and prime time networks, as well as commercials.

“Snowbate has been a huge boon to our ability to do production here in Minnesota,” says Awes. “It has allowed us to bring $25 million of production to the state.” While most people usually associate Snowbate with big movies that come to town to be filmed here, Awes says that as a television production company, they hire 25–30 people who work on their various ongoing shows. They also employ about 60 additional people for re-enactments like the ones they do for their new show “In an Instant,” which debuted on ABC on June 18, about real-life thrilling tales of survival.

Another production company, Tremendous Entertainment, which is also headquartered in the Twin Cities metro area, celebrates their 20th anniversary in Minnesota this year. Tremendous first took advantage of Snowbate funds when they were beginning production for “Bizarre Foods,” starring Andrew Zimmern, which is the longest-running series on the Travel Channel, according to Jane Durkee, vice president and COO of the company.

“When we started, Snowbate was certainly a help to reinforce the viability and credibility of production in Minnesota,” Durkee says. “Many of the networks at that time were only familiar with working with companies that were based on either coast. Snowbate definitely helped us establish our production networks with the major companies.”

Tremendous films all around the U.S. and the world, but many of their shoots do take place in Minnesota. Often, Tremendous has a Minnesota-based crew that travels with the shoot, though they do hire on-location assistance, too, Durkee says.

While production companies like Tremendous and Committee provide the jobs that fuel the Minnesota economy over the long term, big-budget Hollywood films, like the 2015 Woody Harrelson movie “Wilson,” or this summer’s “Spinning Man,” which is being filmed in St. Paul and Stillwater, provide great opportunities for local actors and crew members, and help raise the bar for the Minnesota industry.

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