Snowbate: The vital program keeping filmmaking alive in Minnesota


The Woody Harrelson movie, “Wilson,” which was shot in the Twin Cities in 2015, is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes

Mark Wojahn, a local filmmaker who is president of the International Alliance of State Employees & Studio Mechanics (IATSE) 490 union, earns his bread and butter as a crew member in prop and art departments. Last year, he was prop master for “Wilson,” offering him and other locals a chance to work with A-list talent in a studio feature. “You become a better crew person working on a higher level,” Wojahn says of the experience.

Big studio features like “Wilson” and “Spinning Man,” which Wojahn will also work on this summer, use a payroll for their crew rather than paying them as independent contractors, which means workers are eligible for worker’s compensation and unemployment benefits. That’s better for the state, he says, because it means the employer is paying more taxes to the state instead of passing those tax costs on to the worker.

Keith Arnold, one of the producers of “Spinning Man,” is originally from St. Paul, and wanted to shoot the film here. “We couldn’t have shot this film here without Snowbate,” he says. Even though Snowbate’s incentive is rather modest compared to some cities, like Atlanta, where over 40 films are being shot this summer, Minnesota had the look and feel of what the producers were going for in the film, about a professor who gets accused of a murder.

Arnold says they plan to begin shooting around July 4, at college campuses around St. Paul, as well as in Stillwater. “I knew Stillwater was beautiful, but when we did some scouting there, the whole team fell in love with it,” he says. Arnold says he was especially attracted to the St. Croix River. “Water is an integral part of this film,” he says.


Filmmaker David Ash (left) // Photo courtesy David Ash

Besides big-budget films, Snowbate also supports smaller, independent films. Filmmaker Dave Ash, who works at Ecolab as a finance director and makes films on the side, just completed his latest movie, “Twin Cities,” which took about three and a half years.

Ash applied for Snowbate funds in the summer of 2014 and was approved funds for 20 percent of his budget. When the film wrapped up shooting, he sent in a detailed accounting of expenses—and received a check for that 20 percent. “It was awesome,” he says. “It really funded post-production.”

Screenshot from David Ash's %22Twin Cities%22 copyWEB

A still from David Ash’s “Twin Cities” // Photo courtesy David Ash

The whole cast of “Twin Cities” comes from Minnesota, Ash says. He had to provide addresses for everybody, and only used one person, a story editor from Los Angeles, whose fees weren’t eligible for Snowbate dollars. Under current Snowbate rules, only out-of-town principal actor salaries, not directors or other creatives, are eligible for the Snowbate incentive, and even then, actors not based in Minnesota can only be compensated up to $100,000 for films getting the 25-percent incentive, according to Winter.

Patrick Coyle is another Minnesota filmmaker whose films have all received Snowbate. The majority of actors in Coyle’s films have been locally cast, but he’s always included at least one or two big names from Hollywood as well to help secure distribution deals.

Coyle says he couldn’t make films in Minnesota without Snowbate funds, in spite of the fact that there is an incredible wealth of talent in the state. “If we want to call ourselves a place that prides itself on the arts,” Coyle says, “we cannot turn our back on the film industry.”

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