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North Star Story Summit to bring unprecedented content convergence to Duluth

The Catalyst Content Festival, Duluth Superior Film Festival and newly arrived Minnesota WebFest are consolidating on the calendar, aiming to become a creators' gathering like none other.

Two smiling women stand in foreground of photo with smiling crowd in background. Woman at right holds trophy and wears badge on lanyard.
Ireon Roach accepted her award — a hand-blown glass trophy made in Duluth by Lake Superior Art Glass — for Outstanding Drama Actress at the 2021 Catalyst Content Festival.
Contributed / Catalyst
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DULUTH — "The closest thing I can think of is South by Southwest," said George Reese, "in terms of bringing together different kinds of complementary content."

"Content" may sound a little vague, but it takes a broad term to encompass the wide range of material being showcased in Duluth this fall under the auspices of the newly anointed North Star Story Summit. The event, which runs from Thursday through Oct. 1, is a new umbrella covering three existing festivals that have arranged their schedules to run back-to-back.

First up is the Duluth Superior Film Festival (Thursday through Sunday), a 12-year-old international festival showcasing films from shorts to features, the kind of things you'd expect to find in a theater. Essentially, cinema.

A group of men surround a camera in an outdoor setting.
Guy Pearce, center, and Minneapolis filmmaker Andrew Hunt during the making of "The Infernal Machine," the opening night selection at the 2022 Duluth Superior Film Festival.
Contributed / Duluth Superior Film Festival

Then comes the Minnesota WebFest, from Sunday through Wednesday, Sept. 28. That festival, launched by Reese in 2017 in Minneapolis, is moving to Duluth as of this year, specifically to become part of the Story Summit. It centers on podcasts and web series: the kind of short videos you'd expect to find on YouTube.

Finally, the Catalyst Content Festival runs from Wednesday, Sept. 28, through Saturday, Oct. 1. Catalyst moved to Duluth in 2019 in search of an appealing getaway destination that also offers serious resources for filmmakers and audiences. It focuses on episodic series, the kind of shows you'd expect to see on Netflix or HBO Max.

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All told, the festivals wrapped into the Story Summit run the gamut — from something as long as a full-length movie or even a multi-season TV show to something conceivably as short as a single TikTok video. (The WebFest opened submissions to TikToks and Instagram Reels for the first time this year, but didn't get any entries in those formats. "We didn't do a good enough job reaching out to those communities," said Reese.)

"On the creative side, people are definitely starting to mix it up," said Catalyst executive director Philip Gilpin Jr. "But on the business side, on the finance side and distribution, those are still three very separate industries."

The feature film follows the Hermantown and Eveleth-Gilbert boys' hockey teams through the 2019-20 season in "Minnesota's unforgiving North Country."

There's enough overlap, though, that Gilpin suggested consolidating the three festivals on the calendar. Each festival is still run by its own organization, with its own funding and goals, but now they're chronologically adjacent and have launched a shared ticketing option for attendees who want to hit more than one.

"We were just really interested in that collaborative opportunity," said Duluth Superior Film Festival founder Richard Hansen, who moved his festival from August to September to fit the Story Summit's timeline. "With film, web, television, it really just feels like the industry has an opportunity to take a step up."

A group of smiling people cluster together in front of a backdrop covered with logos, smiling and holding a sign reading #MNWebFest2019
A "purple carpet" moment at the 2019 Minnesota WebFest. The festival, formerly held annually in Minneapolis, is moving to Duluth this year as part of the North Star Story Summit.
Contributed / Minnesota WebFest

"It's definitely a toe in the water towards expanding the offerings for next year," said Gilpin. "There's been some excitement from creators down in the Twin Cities about being able to come up for a few days and do all the events at once, which is good. We also have some excitement from our (out of state) industry folks who are coming in early, and they're going to do WebFest and then overlap into Catalyst."

While the festivals' schedules, styles and content vary, they all share a few key features in common. They all involve creators bringing moving picture productions to share with one another and with members of the public. They all give the creators opportunities to make professional connections and learn about the state of the industry. At Catalyst, creators also bring scripts and pitches to put forward for prospective productions.

"You're seeing tomorrow's content before the industry," said Gilpin, "and I think the most important part is, you're getting to see these stories told directly from the artists. These aren't just artists who are coming in to town to meet each other and talk with other industry people; they want to connect with local audiences. They want to have their work in front of local audiences, because that's why they made (the shows). And Duluth is the first place they're being showcased anywhere in the world."

Not every piece featured in the Story Summit will be a world premiere; in fact, many of the WebFest entries are already available online. (That's one reason there's no admission cost for most WebFest screenings and events.) What all the content has in common, from the Catalyst pitches to the finished films, is that they're in the early stages of life. Generally speaking, creators come to festivals seeking a larger platform.

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What that means, exactly, varies among the three festivals. Catalyst has played a major role in connecting the local film community with national creators and platforms; this year's Catalyst Content Festival will feature representatives from the History Channel, 20th Television (as in 20th Century Fox) and Sony Pictures Television Kids, among other well-known studios.

The WebFest is part of the Web Series World Cup, which Gilpin sees as an "exposure mechanism for Minnesota, where (WebFest founder Reese) can get Minnesota's name out to the world."

Then there's the Duluth Superior Film Festival, which Hansen said is cultivating a reputation as a "boutique" event on the festival circuit. "If we think of a boutique environment," he explained, "it really is something that's that's hand-selected, heavily curated, really going out of our way to seek out films rather than than just allowing, you know, the shotgun effect of just bringing everything in (that) you possibly can."

A group of Duluth stakeholders are convening around a vision for a soundstage and film production campus. The next step: securing a location, and the funds to build it.

For all three events, Duluth is an important part of the package they offer to prospective participants. It's a distinctive locale, and the event organizers say their artists like it that way. "They're very excited by it," Reese said regarding the WebFest participants' thoughts on the move up north. "Duluth is a more exciting destination for them to come visit."

It was WebFest, in fact, that initially led Gilpin to consider Duluth as a potential home for Catalyst. The organization was previously based in Vermont, but Gilpin was shopping for new locations in 2018 when he accepted Reese's invitation to be keynote speaker at Minnesota WebFest, then held in Minneapolis.

"Philip really said, 'I'm looking for something a little different,'" said Hansen. "'I'm looking for a smaller town, a great arts community ... a beautiful location, maybe somewhere on an ocean or a lake or something like that.' After he named all the things that he wanted, Melodie (Bahan, of Minnesota Film & TV) was like, 'You're going to want to go to Duluth.'"

The crew of the film “Merry Kiss Cam” get the camera ready to shoot a scene
The upcoming movie "Merry Kiss Cam" was filmed at Duluth locations including, on June 13, the Radisson Hotel. Producer Mandy June Turpin discovered Duluth through the Catalyst Content Festival.
Jed Carlson / 2022 file / Superior Telegram

Gilpin confirmed the account. "That was where I met Melodie," he said, "and she was the one that introduced me to Riki McManus (now of the Upper Midwest Film Office). By Halloween of 2018, I had visited Riki and that was it."

At the beginning of 2022, former Visit Duluth president Anna Tanski joined Catalyst as head of festivals and events. "It's just such an important part of showcasing this part of our downtown and the fact that it is the living, breathing heartbeat of our community," said Tanski about the Historic Arts and Theater District, where the Story Summit is centered. "It's also really a way to activate a part of our downtown for this entire Story Summit."

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The Story Summit will be based in Zeitgeist, which has a two-screen cinema and two-level lobby as well as a cafe and theater. "Zeitgeist will forever be our partner," said Hansen. "When we came here in 2010, it wasn't even done yet ... it just seemed like a miracle to me that there was going to be this place that was going to show art house quality films, and then was going to have (digital) projection and all the things I was looking for."

The National Critics Institute is a rare opportunity for arts writers to hone their skills through an intensive two-week "boot camp."

Tanski said she and fellow organizers are working to ensure most events and screenings are in close enough proximity that attendees don't feel rushed trying to get from one part of town to another. At the same time, Catalyst is branching out for its climactic awards presentation Oct. 1.

"We're going to be utilizing Grandma's, (the space now called) The Garden, for the first time," she noted. "Trying to showcase more of our community, and give attendees a fresh perspective."

The Duluth Superior Film Festival is also exploring the Twin Ports. Hansen said he's pleased to welcome professional skateboarder Nicole Hause, who's featured in the documentary "Skate Dreams," for a screening and subsequent skateboard art event at the Hostel du Nord Annex.

A young woman rides a skateboard high in the air, with fences and low brush visible in the background.
"Skate Dreams," part of the 2022 Duluth Superior Film Festival lineup, is a feature-length documentary about female skateboarders.
Contributed / Film First

Operations director Trey Wodele recommended that documentary after seeing it at South by Southwest, said Hansen. "He sent me the link and I watched it, and I saw one of the gals, when she was very young, wearing a helmet that said 'Third Lair' on it. ... That's in Minneapolis, why does she have that sticker? I looked her up instantly, literally while I was watching the film, and I was like, 'That's Nicole Hause! She's from Stillwater, Minnesota!' It turns out now, she can't wait to get back."

The film festival will also be staying true to the "Superior" portion of its name by crossing the bridge for a screening and Earth Rider party on Sunday night. This year's Superior screening will be at the Douglas County Historical Society, but Hansen said he's looking forward to the upcoming renovation of the Princess Theater.

During a tour of the building, city officials and local historians struck history gold.

"The Princess, in Superior, is going to be a jewel," said Hansen. "We really want to make a point to say that we're excited to add activities over in Superior."

Reese pointed out that this year's Minnesota WebFest will feature two world premieres by creator Alonge Hawes. "He showed up at our first festival with a series called 'Blue Collar Hustle,' and it did well," said Reese. "He really likes our festival a lot, we like his shows ... so he asked if he could do a world premiere here in Minnesota."

The Duluth Superior Film Festival's opening night film, a Minnesota premiere from local filmmaker Andrew Hunt, will play at the West Theatre in Spirit Valley. "The West has done this incredible restoration, and it's a beautiful theater," said Hansen. "You can't recreate this kind of environment at your house."

101419.N.DNT.CatalystC1.jpg
Rachel Ravel, middle, and Avalon Christie react to pictures that photographer Tasos Katopodis had just taken of them at the Catalyst Content Festival Red Carpet Awards Gala in Duluth in 2019.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Gilpin said he hoped that Duluthians interested in television will attend not only the screenings, but also the pitch sessions and script reads.

"You get to see television shows in their pure and rarest form, before they get into the development of the Hollywood system," said Gilpin. "You can actually go and be part of the process of seeing and hearing and deciding which pitches, which scripts, which shows advance to awards."

"I'm hoping that we will see a real strong local activation," said Tanski. "Not just to support all three of these events, but really to show that there is a keen interest in what this industry is all about, and the amazing creative capacity that exists."

For information on all three festivals, see northstarstorysummit.org.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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