Of Vanity And Virtue

Of Vanity And Virtue

Findings from my junket to Minnesota’s filmmaking industry.

It began with absurdity—folklore of a woman who journeys from Japan to find the money buried beneath snow along a fence line in the movie Fargo, a fable turned into a movie filmed in Minnesota last year, called Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

So strange a concept that I embarked on my own adventure in the last six months to learn how a movie like this becomes reality, why it was filmed here and how it will benefit those who produced it. Along the way I discovered how Kumiko is part of a much bigger tale about a somewhat hidden, up-and-coming industry in Minnesota.

And I had the opportunity to watch Kumiko, along with a few other films at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Some of you are already fans of these types of movies, but I had never really taken them in before and was surprised at how good they were—from Kumiko and another film shot here in 2013, Dear White People, to the documentary Return to Homs (it won Best Documentary for its moving chronicle of the rise and near-fall of a 19-year-old national soccer team goalkeeper who becomes a protest leader and then a fighter in Homs, Syria) and Frank, a fun, offbeat comedy about a wanna-be musician who finds himself out of his depth when he joins an avant-garde rock band led by a musical genius who hides inside a large fake head.

Kumiko and Dear White People were two of only three feature-length movies shot mostly in Minnesota last year. The two were among 12,218 submissions to Sundance Festival planners, 4,057 of which were feature-length films. From this field, Kumiko and Dear White People stood out early as among “the five most anticipated films” at Sundance, according to BusinessWeek, before eventually winning two of only 16 awards presented to such films this year.

Kumiko is a well-filmed, sometimes funny journey with a painfully shy yet adventurous character. It’s different. But it’s worth seeing if you like movies as a form of art, and because of how well it shows Minnesota cold on the big screen, with a poetic blend of cinematography and music as planes at Minneapolis/St. Paul International are de-iced. Later, Rinko Kikuchi, who plays Kumiko, is seen walking along a road as strong sub-zero winds pelt her with snow; despite her lack of warm clothes, she just keeps walking. She so convincingly ignores the cold, as she does every other obstacle, including signs that perhaps the treasure doesn’t exist—as they say, it’s the journey that matters.

Dear White People is a bold, fresh take on race relations in the United States in the 21st century, instead of decades ago as most Hollywood productions continue to present. A story about four black students attending an almost all-white Ivy League college, it brings its audience into current and to some, controversial relationships among black, white and biracial individuals and their families. As Ordinary People in the 1980s helped us discuss more openly the issues of depression and family dynamics, this movie invites viewers to address their own feelings on race today.

Both are excellent films in their own right, and both were made in Minnesota because of the caliber of the people they could find here. That is to say, talent—and Minnesotans’ willingness to take the extra step to make something as good as it can be, even if we don’t have the budget and resources we’d like. Business owners with operations elsewhere in the world know this is one of the strongest economic assets Minnesota has, setting our workforce apart from many others.

There’s much more to be shared here, and I hope you’ll read the story. The aspect I find most appealing is that every movie producer is entrepreneurial. He or she has to develop a plan, sell it to investors, create a product and get the market to like it enough for someone else to agree to distribute it to the masses.

And any good entrepreneur pursues the best means by which he or she can stretch the dollars they have to work with. Even with our savvy workforce and its stellar work ethic, we need to provide a rebate to be competitive in this industry (even California is now providing financial incentives for filmmakers). I hate saying that, as I don’t usually think tax dollars should prop up industries that can’t stand on their own. But in this situation, we’re talking about a rebate on money we otherwise would never see.

The Minnesota Film and TV Board has been scraping along, doing a good job even though it was financially starved nearly to death in recent years, just as other states fattened their film boards or commissions with additional funding. Minnesota Film and TV also had little, and sometimes no financial incentives to offer to producers who wanted to film here. Reasons include recession-related budget cutting and differing views of such things by whoever is in the governor’s mansion at a given moment. Meanwhile, 41 other states, Canada, the U.K, Australia and other countries began or increased their incentives to attract filmmaking.

It gets a bit insulting when even the television series Fargo isn’t being shot here. FX was scheduled to begin showing a 10-episode limited series of the same name starting April 15, staring Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. It was filmed in Alberta, Canada.

For the first time, Minnesota Film and TV has substantial state backing to incent movie, television and commercial producers and directors to film here instead of elsewhere. Specifically, the Legislature granted $10 million to rebate such activity similar to how consumers receive rebates from Menards: show proof of purchase with valid receipts and you get your rebate. The point here is that they must first spend money in Minnesota before getting a rebate of up to 25 percent of filmmaking costs.

It’s a smart economic development program, one that generates anywhere from $2 to $10 in economic output for every dollar spent, based on industry research reports. The one movie I looked at that filmed here last year generated $4 in direct spending for every $1 in rebate funding.

More importantly, such spending creates jobs, launches or further establishes careers and helps grow an industry (one that, by the way, inherently then markets Minnesota to the rest of the world). One example: Melrae Pictures in Minneapolis. It received a small rebate years back to fund a project that tapped more than 20 professionals here. Since then, they’ve found work on other projects and reunited to produce two additional movies, all without rebates. That one rebate primed the pump, and business continues to flow from there. Melrae’s now producing some of the world’s best 3D movies for IMAX theaters.

Will Minnesota continue to provide incentives to filmmakers so we can have more Melraes? Will big studios start filming here again as they did in the ‘90s? Can this industry grow to the heights its biggest fans believe it can reach? I hope so.

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