mn film board

Minnesota’s Snowbate: A View from the Indie Side

January 26, 2015, at KFAI studios with TruthtoTell

January 26, 2015, at KFAI studios with TruthtoTell

By JT Haines — February 18, 2015

Did you know that filmmaking in Minnesota is a $225 million dollar industry? Me neither, and I’m a filmmaker!

On January 26, I appeared on KFAI Radio’s TruthtoTell program with Siobhan Kierans as a local filmmaker to discuss moviemaking in Minnesota. Appearing on the program also were Ralph Matthews (Family Film Productions), and Lucinda Winter (MN Film Board). A few things stuck with me from our conversation, so I thought i’d follow up with some comments here.



First a little background about my company, Northland Films: We’re a three-producer collective and have been producing documentaries in and near Minnesota for about a decade. Our film Pond Hockey (2008) has been seen by nearly two million people, airing nationally on the NHL network, locally on TPT, and to multiple sold-out screenings at the Minneapolis Saint Paul Int’l Film Festival (among others). Gold Fever (2013), a film about transnational sulfide mining the Yes Men called “beautiful and empowering”, has been screened in over 200 cities in 35 countries. Gold Fever is still screening at festivals internationally (also having screened at MSPIFF), and recently won the International Federation of Human Rights Film Award at the Festival des Libertes in Brussels. We’re proud of our work.

As we continued our discussion of Minnesota’s film industry on TruthtoTell, talk turned to the MN Film and TV Board’s “snowbate” program. According to the website, the program rebates “up to 25% of qualified MN expenditures.” It states further: “above the line talent (non-resident) will be included as an eligible rebate cost (cap $100K per person), and a production that spends more than $1M in MN will automatically qualify at 25% and will be audited by an independent auditor paid for by MN Film and TV.” Snowbate guidelines can be found here.

I began to wonder — we’re local filmmakers with (I think) a relative level of success and experience, has any of this related to our work? We’ve not been a part of the Snowbate program to date. (We have of course applied for the limited number of grants that most everyone targets.) Perhaps Snowbate is a successful program towards its designed ends, but institutional support for our projects has been near zero, with most help being of the “friends and family” variety (thanks, gang!).

It has been a few years since we took a fresh look at Snowbate, but that said (and with no offense intended to the Film Board or Ms. Winter), so far it just hasn’t connected with our real-life local filmmaking realities. We’re a small shop, wearing a lot of hats, and we’re generally too busy trying to tell stories to get fully down with the types of reporting and guidelines that generally accompany larger projects. Indeed, our budgets start in the low six figures. It would be quite the project to even make it half way to $1M. In other words, our documentaries move forward by hook or crook, and in my observation this isn’t unusual. The Snowbate numbers are someone else’s game.

Perhaps it’s time for us to revisit whether we’re doing a good enough job as filmmakers in reaching out to programs like Snowbate. But it also seems possible, based on what we heard on TruthtoTell and elsewhere, that we’re also not being reached out to, and rather that programs like snowbate are actually designed to bring in big, well-heeled projects from outside of Minnesota, not support independent filmmaking in Minnesota like ours. (I understand that of the 70 applications to the Snowbate program over the last two years, two were docs.) If I’m wrong about this, that would be happy news to me.

I checked with Ralph Matthews for his thoughts, the other filmmaker on the show, and he seemed to share my question. “It’s been my interpretation, and one that I’ve heard echoed by many, that Snowbate’s goal is one to attract more out-of-state productions rather than aiding local productions wanting to focus on and employ MN talent,” he told me. He went on to add that “although most of us love living and working here, it becomes difficult not to question what our gains are to stay in Minnesota versus moving elsewhere.” I’ve heard similar thoughts from other local filmmakers, who have also shared with me some details about a bit of a split between Minnesota-based crew who benefit from outside projects coming in and those more focused on actually local projects.

Given all this, I began to wish I’d posed the question on the show: To what degree is Snowbate designed to support local filmmaking? And more generally, how are we doing for Minnesota filmmakers? The runners, gunners, writers, and producers. The people learning how to edit while they also learn how to shoot, put together a budget, and market. The people with a vision and a commitment to telling our stories. Should existing programs be aligned more closely with their realities?

I’ve reached out to Ms. Winter to see if she’d like to follow up with further insight — perhaps on ways Snowbate could be improved or even feedback on how local projects might be able to better and more easily make use of it. (I’ll be sure to publish her response as an update should I receive one.)

In the meantime, we work on films in Minnesota because we’re Minnesotans, and so far, right or wrong, programs like Snowbate haven’t had much to do with that. Obviously as a local filmmaker — but also as someone who takes note if public programs favor big business over small — I think it’d be great if Snowbate better aligned with the real business of local filmmaking as we experience it. Institutional support with this goal would certainly help us tell even more and better stories here at home.

And we do have a few ideas.

** Thanks to the illustrious Siobhan Kierans and KFAI’s TruthtoTell for having me on. You can hear the hour-long January 26 program here.