Lights! camera! profits!

Filmmaking brings glitter—and dollars—to the Ninth District

Kathy Cobb | Associate Editor

Published April 1, 1996  | April 1996 issue

A rural Minnesota community greets visitors with a sign that says: Welcome to Wabasha, home of "Grumpy Old Men."

In Michigan's Upper Peninsula the location of the Academy Award-winning film "Anatomy of A Murder" has become a bed and breakfast.

Japanese tourists search rural South Dakota for the Indian winter camp pictured in "Dances With Wolves."

Montana's tourism office takes calls from potential vacationers who ask if the fish are really biting in the river where "A River Runs Through It" was filmed.

These are some of the tourism dividends resulting from shooting feature films in the Ninth Federal Reserve District. But the principal advantages are measured in the jobs created and the dollars spent in the region by film, television feature and commercial production companies, video producers and advertising still photographers.

While many film projects are conceived in Los Angeles or New York, filmmakers and other producers who want authenticity in their work look for specific production locations. There is, after all, only one Mount Rushmore—and it happens to be in South Dakota. And you won't find buffalo grazing in Manhattan's Central Park. Sometimes film producers look for period buildings or streets where they can shoot without the hassle or congestion of a New York or Hollywood.

Although movies have been filmed on location for years, the formal effort to lure production to remote locations began to flourish in the '80s. All six Ninth District states have an individual or a small staff devoted to promoting their state's film locations, which receives state funding through their respective tourism departments.

Minnesota is the exception, with the only nonprofit state film commission in the country. The Minnesota Film Board receives partial funding through state appropriations and the remainder from corporations and other private donors. Randy Adamsick, the board's director, says most legislators would agree that it's money well allocated: "The $2 million in taxes brought into Minnesota in 1995 is 10 times our appropriation."

Anyone looking for snow? abandoned missile silos? vast plains?

The film offices maintain a photo file of locations and also provide scouting and support services to producers, directors, location managers and studio executives. In addition, each state publishes a production guide, a reference book with information on available actors and crew, amenities and location details.

Competition for films is fierce across the United States and Canada, as well as in distant foreign locations. Lonie Stimac, director of the Montana Film Office, says the United States especially competes with Canada and Australia for foreign film locations. It seems that everyone wants movies made in their backyard: The Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), a location trade organization, counts among its members all 50 states, 150 counties and cities, and 50 foreign government offices. The determining factors, says Stimac, who is also on the AFCI board of directors, are often simply what the location looks like and how cooperative people will be.

The north central states may have to work harder and cooperate more than some other regions if they want to draw film industry activity. "We all suffer from being flyover land," says Adamsick, whose Minnesota Film Board slogan is: land of 10,000 locations. "We're complementary and don't compete with each other." Adamsick says the real competition is with Vancouver, Pittsburgh and Chicago, for example.

Regional cooperation is evident at the four or so annual location trade shows—the largest of which is Location Expo held each spring in Los Angeles. Often states will arrange their displays under one banner, like the Great Lakes/Great Locations shared by Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. The Northern Rockies/Northern Plains group includes exhibits by Montana and North and South Dakota, along with Idaho and Wyoming. "It makes sense to cooperate," Stimac says. "If one state can't do it, it's better for everyone to keep the production in the region."

Another way to promote film locations is to network with industry people who have regional ties. The location fairs and other events stimulate those ties, for example:

  • North Dakota hosts the Northern Lights reception at trade fairs for former North Dakotans who work in the film industry.

  • Minnesota keeps in touch with the Ice Pack, which boasts about 500 industry people with Minnesota origins who live in the Los Angeles area.

  • Montana sponsors a breakfast for young filmmakers at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Filmmaking adds to state and local tax revenues and business activity

All those networking and marketing efforts pay off, say state film office directors. One day of 35 mm film shooting equals $100,000 spent, says Minnesota's Adamsick. The following 1995 revenues, which exclude personal expenditures by actors and crew members, also tell the story:

  • Minnesota. 1995 was the state's best year for moviemaking: Nine feature films brought total revenues of more than $23 million. From 1990 to 1995 feature films have reaped an estimated $74 million in revenues and $6.5 million in taxes.

  • Montana. Four feature films, 20 television productions, 19 commercials, 8 documentary films, 18 still shoots, five videos and five educational/industrial productions equaled $12 million, up from $4.9 million in 1986.

  • North Dakota. 16 film, video and commercial shoots brought $72,000 in reported direct expenditures. Projects ranged from scenes for the feature film "Fargo," shot near Grand Forks ($52,620 for about two weeks), to a commercial crew from Amsterdam that spent over $14,000 not filming a chewing gum commercial because the snow melted.

  • South Dakota. "Crazy Horse," filmed for Turner Network Television in the Hot Springs area of the Black Hills, was the major production last year and brought $8.5 million to the state. Additional revenue was generated by other projects: 10 television projects, 10 documentaries and seven commercials, including one for a Korean truck manufacturer and another for a Japanese beer. Since 1989 the state has taken in no less than $2 million annually from feature films and other location productions.

  • Michigan. From October 1994 through September 1995, film activity, excluding commercials, totaled approximately $1.5 million. Five independent films were shot in their entirety in the state during this period. The Upper Peninsula (U.P.) attracts mostly commercial producers, who spend more than $100,000 on average per year shooting in that region.

  • Wisconsin. In 1993, the last year for which economic impact figures were available, the state received over $5.5 million based on three major feature films, seven independent/student films, 10 commercials, six television productions and nine other documentary or educational videos or films.

The Montana Film Office has tracked expenditures in the state and determined that only 17 percent to 19 percent goes to motels and hotels; the remainder is disbursed to other auxiliary businesses that benefit from filming.

An expenditure form completed for the Minnesota Film Board by producers of a major film shot over the course of 63 days in 1993 indicated $570,000 spent on hotel rooms and nearly $2 million for local actors and technicians. Airfare, equipment rental of vehicles and cranes, set construction, catering and office rental and miscellaneous expenditures added another $3.5 million to Minnesota businesses on just one major film.

According to the Montana Film Office, when "Beethoven's 2nd" was shot in Glacier Park in 1993, the film crew of 175 poured $1.2 million into the local economy in less than six weeks.

Plugging state tourism on the big screen

For all Ninth District states, a healthy tourism industry is a vital component of economic prosperity, which may explain why the film offices of Montana, Wisconsin, and North and South Dakota are part of their state's tourism operations. Wisconsin also lists 20 film liaisons throughout the state—at chambers of commerce or convention and visitors bureaus.

This impact of filmmaking on tourism is fairly recent, says Gary Keller, South Dakota Film Office coordinator. "'Field of Dreams' started this phenomenon," he says, referring to the film's Iowa corn field turned baseball diamond turned tourist attraction. It's not only the tourism dollars generated by the film itself, Keller says, but when a film crew on location is not working, "they become tourists, and in a state where the number two business is tourism, that's important."

"Grumpier Old Men" is expected to be seen by 40 million people worldwide. "Viewers will spend 90 minutes looking at Minnesota in the summertime," says the Minnesota Film Board's Adamsick. The film and video industry is a small investment to promote tourism, Adamsick says, and "you don't have to build a stadium to get people to come."

Montana film locations are highlighted in tourism literature, according to Stimac. "People like to visit the spots where films were made," she says. In addition to the fishing inquiries following the release of "A River Runs Through It," the travel office received inquiries about rafting on the same white-water rapids shown in another film, "The River Wild."

"The tourism benefits from 'Dances with Wolves' were incalculable," says Keller, adding that there was so much interest in areas where filming took place that two tour businesses were launched to accommodate visitors. "That film put us on the map," he says.

A film shot in North Dakota equals "millions of dollars of advertising" for the state, says Bonnie Barsness, market development director for the state's Department of Tourism, adding that the national and international exposure is good for both tourism and economic development.

Can filmmaking become a permanent player in the Ninth District's economy? ...

Some might argue that filmmaking is a fickle, seasonal industry at best, providing only sporadic, temporary jobs. Others say that those temporary jobs are better than none, and film productions are contributing to a growing permanent base of skilled crew and technical people. Regardless of the arguments, state film offices seem committed to taking part in the film location lottery.

While most other state film offices are part of the tourism operation, the Michigan film office falls under the state's Jobs Commission. "There's a core of legislators who understand that this is economic development and support us, as does the governor," says Janet Lockwood, film office director. Michigan's Gov. Engler is not alone: Minnesota's Gov. Carlson visited with film industry officials in Los Angeles this spring for the third consecutive year, and North Dakota's Gov. Schafer has hosted receptions at location fairs for North Dakota transplants and others who work in film.

Keller says the last four movies made in South Dakota hired thousands of Native Americans as actors and extras. During the 33-day filming of "Crazy Horse," the production used 50 local crew persons and employed an average of 100 to 250 Native Americans per day as extras, equaling between 3,500 and 4,000 man-days of work, Keller says.

According to Minnesota Department of Economic Security figures, Minnesota's film industry averaged 6.5 percent job growth annually between 1990 and 1994, and was topped only by the state's amusement and recreation industry, which grew at a 12.1 percent annual rate, largely due to a burgeoning gaming industry.

The 1995 Economic Impact Study of the Minnesota Film and Video Industry echoes the trend. Revenues from in-state industry activity last year were projected at $249 million, up from $219 million in 1994. "Our own homegrown film and video industry is substantial," says Janet Zahn, coordinator of the Minneapolis Office of Film, Video and Recording, which works largely with instate producers and published the study. The survey also acted as a reminder that Minnesota-based companies are still the bread and butter, Zahn says. A sign that the industry is in good shape in Minnesota is that 70 percent of the 204 survey respondents plan to expand their business, Zahn adds.

Michigan's Lockwood says a major producer is looking at the recently closed K.I. Sawyer Air Force base in the UP as a filming location. The base's large airplane hangars are suitable for studios, and on-base housing would be available for the cast and crew, she says. A major film production could soften the economic blow of losing 900 direct civilian jobs and many others through spin-off effects over the last two years.

In northern Minnesota, Adamsick is working with Minnesota Power, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and the city of Duluth to establish a state film office branch there, largely to encourage more Minnesota producers to film in the area. "Duluth has as many sites as some whole states—lakefront, forests, hills, the open pit mines of the Iron Range," Adamsick says. The region already has tasted some economic success from filmmaking: When tourism was down in the winter of 1993-94, more than 400 motel rooms were filled for three months with the cast and crew of two films shooting in the area.

... And how do states make that happen?

"You never know what kind of films are going to be popular," says Stimac, adding that after her office spent thousands of dollars to lure a production, the studio canceled the film. But that story had a happy ending: Two years later when the same studio wanted a ranch on which to film "Amanda," that Montana location was used.

"There are only so many movies you can make about inner city crime," says South Dakota's Keller, who adds that moviemaking outside Los Angeles has been a trend for some time. But he and Wisconsin's Film Office director, Stanley Solheim, also express concerns that technology eventually will win out over artistic integrity and location shooting may be replaced with digital re-creations of those buffalo herds or lake settings.

Because of these uncertainties, states are looking at other ways to make filmmaking and related work an ongoing piece of the region's economy.

Some district states look to build on a core of trained crew people who have developed expertise by working on location productions over the last few years, by generating more local work. To expand the expertise of his state's small film crew and to draw some newcomers, Keller is conducting a workshop via South Dakota's statewide telecommunications network on the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking process, location scouting and managing. Solheim says the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh's film program is producing some students with needed skills to help expand that state's film production capabilities. And the Reel Collaborators in Bismarck, N.D., a loose-knit group of people who have worked or want to work in film, plan to make a short film for public television, among other activities.

Many Minnesota film and video industry survey respondents expressed the need for a four-year university film program to expand state-based film activity. Minneapolis' Zahn agrees with them, adding that she would like to see additional post-secondary programs that would offer practical experience and technical education. And because many people who work in film do so on a free-lance basis, Zahn says some course work in running your own business also would be helpful.

Tom Tollefson, creative director for Snyder Film & Video and a member of the North Dakota Film Commission Board, says training local people can be a Catch-22. If a North Dakotan chalks up some screen credits for major productions, chances are that person leaves the state, Tollefson says. "He'd be like the Maytag repairman if he stays in North Dakota," Tollefson says, referring to the appliance ads that suggest no one ever calls for repairs.

Minnesotans in the industry are not so lonely. The state is the 10th ranked feature film locale in the country and has the largest number of trained crew and talent in the Ninth District. This is due, Adamsick explains, to an unusual number of corporate headquarters and successful advertising agencies forming a strong technical base coupled with a large theater community providing the talent. When "Mighty Ducks 3" was filmed in the Twin Cities last year, 70 percent of the crew was local.

And the instate film and video industry generates more than 10 times the revenue of out-of-state feature films and keeps more than 5,000 people employed full time, creating enough activity to staff independent film offices in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The Minnesota Film Board and other local film organizations have worked to expand support for home-grown film projects. That led to the formation of the Blockbuster-McKnight Film Fund, the nation's first feature film development fund. In 1995 Blockbuster Video of Minnesota started a three-year awards fund that will provide up to $25,000 each year for competing screenwriters, producers and directors who are Minnesota natives or state residents. The 1995 awards went to four film projects selected from more than 70 submissions. This year Blockbuster has been joined by the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation, which has promised an additional $150,000 over the next three years to provide further technical support to the winning projects.

"We need to be less dependent on Los Angeles," Adamsick says. "We're working hard to keep work in America, but the Canadian exchange rate is killing us now." Filmmakers can save 20 cents on every dollar spent for film productions going to Canada, he adds, making it all the more important to develop the local film industry.

Finally, the intangible benefits of location filming

Montana's Stimac says film productions also serve to generate community pride. When the recently released "Broken Arrow" was filming around Lewistown, Stimac says she had to find room for 200 crew members, and people were enthusiastic and generous.

"Dakota Sunrise," a low-budget production filmed near Belfield, ND, used local volunteers to stage a parade and act as extras. Susan Dennis, Belfield Chamber of Commerce secretary/treasurer, says the whole town was involved. "Some people were skeptical" of the largely New York cast and crew, she says. "But they were friendly, and I'd welcome them back any time." The Chamber of Commerce even designed and sold souvenir T-shirts to mark the event.

Look for familiar locations in a few of the many feature movies filmed in Ninth District states:

Cobb, 1994
Hoffa, 1992
Die Hard II, 1990
Presumed Innocent, 1989
Roger and Me, 1989
Anatomy of a Murder
   (Upper Peninsula), 1959

Under Siege II: Dark Territory, 1995
Amanda, 1995
Broken Arrow, 1995
Beethoven's 2nd, 1993
Forrest Gump, 1993
A River Runs Through It, 1991

Grumpier Old Men, 1995
Mighty Ducks 3, 1995
Beautiful Girls, 1995
Feeling Minnesota, 1995
Mallrats, 1995
Fargo, 1995
Little Big League, 1994
Iron Will, 1993
Grumpy Old Men, 1993
D2: The Mighty Ducks, 1993
The Mighty Ducks, 1992
Untamed Heart, 1992

North Dakota
Fargo, 1995
Dakota Sunrise, 1995

South Dakota
Crazy Horse (made for television), 1995
Wyatt Earp, 1993
Thunderheart, 1991
Dances With Wolves, 1989

I Love Trouble, 1993
D2: The Mighty Ducks, 1993
Iron Will, 1993
Dillinger (made for television), 1991
Major League, 1989