How Can Northern Minnesota Become a Hub for TV and Film Production?

Local film and TV professionals discuss how to make the Northland a regional center in the media industry

DULUTH, Minn. – Movies like ‘North Country’ and ‘Iron Will’ were shot right here in the Northland.

And according to media professionals, more producers want to bring their projects here.

“We have some of the most talented people in the United States if not in the world, we have scenery that is unmatched,” said Steven Sanders of Ironbound Studios.

In Minnesota, filmmakers have access to lakeside cliffs, dense boreal forests, towering cityscapes, and small-town streets.

“We have a massive sound stage, we have crew, we have talented crew, we have hard-working crew, we have the equipment, we have the locations, we have everything,” explained Sanders.

Ironbound Studios is located in the basement of Chisholm City Hall.

“The stage itself is 50,000 square feet in a single sound stage. You’re not going to find that anywhere else in North America,” said Sanders.

Interior rooms, a tunnel, and a crypt are just some of the sets at the movie studio built for the 2018 production of ‘The Harbinger.’

“Where else could you be sitting inside a cave that’s not dripping on your head from condensation or a bat flying through? Now granted, we could make all that happen for you,” said Sanders, an Iron Range native who bought a stake in Ironbound.

“Having the ability to play here, to fulfill a lifelong dream for myself right here at home, I couldn’t pass that up,” he explained.

The studio provides a space, production equipment, and crew members for any production that chooses to make its home in Chisholm.

Meanwhile, in Duluth, writer-director Alexander P. Gutterman works in his studio on East Superior Street. His first feature film, ‘In Winter,’ is now available for viewing on Amazon Prime and other streaming services.

“[Of] the genuine regional productions, our work has gone the furthest, it’s carrying the beauty and power of this region around the globe,” said Gutterman who’s now working to complete his second feature film, ‘The Hunter.’

“The film the Hunter is one day in the life of two filmmakers and we dive into the world of their film and then come out into their world again,” he explained.

Gutterman loves making movies because it’s a collaborative art form, bringing dozens or sometimes even hundreds of people together for one common goal.

“If you count the people that supported the film in terms of providing meals, housing, and transportation in the community, we’re at about one-hundred-fifty,” said Gutterman, speaking to how massive feature film crews can be.

‘The Hunter’ was shot almost entirely at Denfeld High School. It has a small budget of around $80,000-90,000, but that’s enough for Gutterman and editor Caelan Mars to make a movie here, a place they say is a great setting for independent filmmakers.

“The people involved become personally to a degree with your work and also there’s a big spirit of volunteerism because people are aware that you’re not flowing in money,” said Gutterman.

A big step toward growing the local film industry came last year when the Catalyst Content Festival, formerly the ITV Festival, left Vermont to make Duluth its new home.

“There aren’t many other locations in the U.S. that are a small town that have that professional level of existing infrastructure and we looked at a lot of places,” explained Catalyst Executive Director Philip Gilpin, Jr.

He tells us Hollywood producers liked what they saw when they came to Duluth for the festival last October. More than eighty percent of attendees said they would consider coming back to work on projects here.

“You could see a couple dozen projects being filmed each year in the area and they might be small to medium-sized projects that would have budgets between half a million dollars and a couple million dollars each, but it would be a good start to get the infrastructure growing and get people used to the jobs,” said Gilpin.

So why haven’t more movies and TV shows come to the Northland?

Hollywood films and national cable TV productions have reportedly been interested, but they’ve often picked places like Canada, New Mexico, and Georgia to take their projects, and their money, instead.

Sanders says that’s because Minnesota doesn’t have a simple, cost-effective tax credit program aimed at growing the media industry.

“When you look at more of an independent film, an incentive is the difference from them either coming here, going somewhere else, or not even being able to make their movie,” he explained.

The state has what the Minnesota Film and TV Board calls a “woefully underfunded” $500,000 per-year rebate for the 2019-2021 biennium.

The board is now working with state lawmakers to get a tax credit bill passed. They say that kind of incentive will encourage long-term projects like TV shows to come to Minnesota.

According to Ironbound Studios, similar tax credits have brought billions of dollars in spending to other states.

“With an incentive that has productions coming on a regular basis, these are full-time, long-term career jobs,” said Sanders.

He believes that could make a huge impact on the Iron Range, and says it could even help supplement the boom-or-bust mining industry.

“The mines in this area are such an important part of the history and future of this area. But to be able to provide an additional industry for them so we don’t have these kids who may not want to go into that, they don’t have to leave here. Let’s keep our kids and our families and our future here,” explained Sanders.

Until better incentives are introduced, Gilpin wants local focus put on supporting artists. He says that will encourage people who work in film and TV to live here year-round.

“A lot of times people see the film and TV industry as just being Hollywood or part of the big media, but it’s really not. These are local storytellers who are our neighbors and our friends and our family and our co-workers and they have these artistic talents to make film and TV stories,” explained Gilpin.

Gutterman is one artist who’s optimistic about how much the industry could grow in Northern Minnesota.

“Whether or not we’re going to have this explosive, massively significant economic growth in the film industry here I leave to the next five years to show us and I’m open to whatever happens,” he said.

“It’s just going to require everybody to take a little bit of time and effort to look into what the potential is and I think everybody is going to be very excited about it,” added Gilpin.

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