'We're in a race': Inside the drive to build a soundstage in Duluth
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.
DULUTH — "'Game of Thrones' had 3,600 W-2 full-time employees," said Philip Gilpin Jr., addressing a group convened at the Caddy Shack pub in the Lincoln Park neighborhood April 5. "That's not counting your 1099s and your vendors. That is more than UMD and Minnesota Power combined."
Gilpin immediately conceded, "that is not coming tomorrow, and there's no reason to think it is, because we don't have the infrastructure for something like that." That particular limiting factor is what Gilpin, his colleagues at Duluth-based nonprofit Catalyst, and a growing number of other local stakeholders are working to change: infrastructure.
In an ongoing series of community meetings, Catalyst staff have been sharing a passionately articulated vision that, if realized, could bring a full-fledged film production campus, with a towering soundstage as its most conspicuous feature, to Duluth. Specifically, the Catalyst pitch identifies Lincoln Park as the ideal place to build such a facility.
As of yet, there's no confirmed site for the prospective soundstage, and no guaranteed source for the tens of millions of dollars required to build it. Still, the prospect is real enough that a contingent of Duluthians — including people connected to city and county government, as well as from an architecture firm and from local nonprofits — recently traveled to Los Angeles to take a look at an existing soundstage and to begin seriously considering what it would mean to build one in Duluth.
"Let's say the land transfer and the funding fell out of the sky in the next 30 days," said Gilpin at The Boat Club Restaurant on March 31. "You'd see the doors on this open (in the first quarter of) 2024. Once the modeling and the design is done, and the money's in place, there are (communities) building soundstages around America right now in under six months."
If it sounds unlikely for big-budget film production to land in Duluth rather than, say, Hollywood, consider that Catalyst itself moved here from LA — with a stop in Vermont along the way.
"We spent six years in Vermont," Gilpin said at The Boat Club, where he pitched the soundstage idea to a full room of curious Duluthians. "The vision we had was then the same vision we have now, which is finding a community in America that can be an independent film and TV production hub. In Vermont, they only have about 600,000 people ... and our industry was just a bit too big for that tax base."
After a national search, Catalyst relocated to Duluth, which offered both an affordable location and a desirable destination for the organization's annual Catalyst Content Festival. "It's not a lot of fun to go to a festival in LA or in New York and you have 2,000 cool people that are creative hanging out," Gilpin continued. "Then when you leave the theater, you're in the middle of Manhattan, right? It's not like a retreat getaway vibe like we had in Vermont. Duluth offers that. People love coming here."
Catalyst was founded in Los Angeles in 2006 by two television producers who saw the need for a festival to showcase the explosion of creativity in video storytelling. (For context, YouTube launched in 2005; Netflix, then a DVD-by-mail company, debuted its streaming video service in 2007.) Gilpin, formerly a business affairs analyst at HBO, took the helm in 2012 and moved Catalyst to Vermont in hopes of finding a distinctive location and taking advantage of the increasingly decentralized nature of content production.
The organization's website is a little more concrete about the type of content the festival, and Catalyst generally, supports: "a story that is episodic or narrative in structure (aka, a TV show, webseries or podcast)." That happens to be precisely the form of content that people now voraciously consume, a trend that pandemic lockdowns accelerated.
The festival is part of what the organization's website describes as "a step-by-step pathway of meetings, workshops, seminars, festivals and social events designed to showcase your stories to the industry, advance your career opportunities, and grow your trusted professional network."
The plot thickens
Upon its arrival in Duluth, Catalyst became part of a statewide push to increase film production incentives. In 2019, Catalyst organized a trip to Los Angeles for stakeholders including state Rep. Dave Lislegard, D-Aurora, and Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park. (Although Catalyst organized the California trips, said Gilpin, "everybody pays their own way" when it comes to expenses.)
"We brought them to HBO and Disney and all kinds of places," Gilpin told the News Tribune, "and we had the executives out there tell them to their faces that if they had a tax credit in place, and local trained crew and soundstage infrastructure, they would have spent X numbers of millions of dollars in Minnesota on projects that they wanted to shoot here. But we didn't, so they couldn't."
In 2021, the state Legislature passed a film production tax credit, funded at $5 million a year. That credit allows producers spending at least $1 million in Minnesota to reclaim up to 25% of their costs by saving on state taxes — or selling the assignable credits to other entities. Meanwhile, St. Louis County had already decided to offer a cash rebate of 25% for film productions within county boundaries, and the city of Duluth added to the pot with another 25% rebate for money spent within the city.
All those incentives are "stackable," meaning they can all be used simultaneously for eligible projects: a film shot within Duluth, thus within St. Louis County, thus within the state of Minnesota, could potentially recoup 75% of its expenses. Suddenly, Minnesota was financially competitive for filmmakers scouting locations, and the Northland was particularly attractive.
"Having a stackable incentive has caught the attention of many, many people," said Anna Tanski at The Boat Club event. (Tanski, previously president of Visit Duluth, is now Catalyst's head of festivals and events.)
There are multiple organizations dedicated to attracting and supporting those producers. Minnesota Film & TV is the film commission supporting the entire state. In 2019, Riki McManus and Shari Marshik founded the Upper Midwest Film Office (UMFO, pronounced "umm-foe" by those in the know) as a regional office supporting film production in northern Minnesota, central Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin.
Marshik, UMFO's executive director, emphasizes that her organization is "Switzerland" in its independence, supporting any producer in the area. She noted that Catalyst is specifically focused on "episodic" productions (television, for example, versus feature films), but added that UMFO is "just like any organization. If you look at your business prospects, which for us is incoming productions, and you look at your sales leads, and you see that 95% of your leads come from one place, you pay attention to that."
With the new incentives, the Northland has a busy production schedule this year — and Catalyst has been key in attracting out-of-state producers. "We have some local projects that are here," said Marshik, "and then literally every other outside project has been because of leads generated through Catalyst. So they're very important to us."
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson attributes policymakers' growing willingness to support film production in part to "the changing economics of our region within the last decade, that is creating enthusiasm in new ways for new industries," including Duluth's "huge creative economy." Also, she credited Catalyst for bringing a "new perspective" to the region's film industry.
In recent years, said Larson, community members have been "leveraging the relationships of people in the industry who have a history of being successful, who have kind of tied into us through Catalyst. Really, for me, Catalyst has been — you know, not to be corny about the word, but it has been a very catalytic infusion of strategy here. That's really new, and really different."
Setting the stage
The industry pros Larson mentioned include the likes of HBO production executives, and leaders at Manhattan Beach Studios in California — where the Duluth contingent visited on March 2. Larson was planning to go on that trip, until President Joe Biden unexpectedly announced a Twin Ports visit that coincided with the California trip. Arik Forsman, a Duluth councilor at large, took Larson's place as the mayor stayed to welcome the president.
Forsman said his interest in movie production began in adolescence, when the movie "North Country" (2005) was shot on the Iron Range. He and his mother both appeared in the movie, said Forsman — in his case, as an extra. "I had a firsthand glimpse into what something like that brings to a community as far as the economic impact, and just the excitement of having something like that up here." (Lislegard, who introduced the Minnesota House bill creating tax credit incentives, was also an extra in that movie.)
When St. Louis County passed its new production incentive, Forsman brought forward a resolution passed by the City Council, "encouraging the city to look at options to create our own incentive plan." The city's Economic Development Authority would subsequently roll out a $200,000 incentive plan.
"One of the things I picked up on, in picking the brains of the soundstage experts down in Los Angeles," said Forsman, was: "How do you turn your city into a competitive advantage? Obviously, we have the landscape and we have all the outdoor beauty that you would want to shoot a project in, but that's the missing piece, is that you don't have a soundstage."
With all the fresh holiday content that floods streaming services each year, Duluth's reliably snowy climate could be attractive. "I'm just spitballing," Forsman mused, "but maybe we're a Christmas town." To host major productions, though, Duluth would need a place for cameras to roll when they're not capturing winter wonderland meet cutes. "There's enough there," said Forsman, "that I'm interested in seeing the feasibility of hosting one of these facilities."
In Catalyst's community presentations, Gilpin has been arguing that Duluthians need to discard any preconceptions about film production being limited to Los Angeles. "Oklahoma is coming online right now as the No. 1 production state in America," he said at The Boat Club.
Another example is a city that regularly ranks high on MovieMaker magazine's annual lists of best places to live and work as a moviemaker — despite being a quarter the size of Duluth. "Ashland, Oregon, has 22,000 people," said Gilpin. "So the population argument in Duluth that I'm tired of hearing? Out the door."
Due to advancing technology, growing demand, and rising costs on the coasts, Gilpin explained, film and TV production has been spreading outside of its traditional hubs: a process predating, but accelerated by, the COVID-19 pandemic. "I'm telling you, we're in a race," said Gilpin, gesturing to a U.S. map marked with indicators of film industry growth that appear just about everywhere but the Upper Midwest. "It's encircling us. In one way or another, this is going to happen here."
Larson said she was struck by a conversation, at a Catalyst event, about the history of the Sundance Film Festival, which began in 1978 in the then-unlikely location of Salt Lake City. Today, Sundance is one of America's major movie events and a global brand name. "We're not trying to be a city we're not," Larson clarified. "But it was really helpful to understand how the positioning of things early on can grow into something that's just exponentially exciting. That really feels like where we're at right now."
In Gilpin's view, Duluth is just too good for film producers to pass up, at least as long as competitive incentives are in play. "You can shoot the 'ocean,'" he pointed out, "and then turn around and shoot downtown and then go up the hill and shoot in a forest. You can't do that in LA. It's a two-hour move from the ocean to downtown in LA or New York."
What's more, Duluth has an airport — and the capacity to meet a major production's construction needs. "When I first landed here, back in 2018, I got off the plane," said Gilpin, "and the thing I saw that made me most excited was that rental place that has all the lift trucks. And I was like, 'Yes! They've got lift and construction equipment. This is fantastic.' Because you need all of that in order to make our industry work."
Working in film production, whether as a gaffer or an actor, does require training — and even now, the Northland is racing to develop the workforce needed to staff the new slew of productions, as well as to make the region competitive for even larger productions. Melodie Bahan, executive director of Minnesota Film & TV, said she sees workforce development as a priority only eclipsed by the need to ensure continued production incentives.
"I think UMFO is doing the right thing in trying to build up their workforce first," said Bahan, "because what you don't want to do is invest a lot of money in a facility that is not going to be utilized."
UMFO's Marshik said that if a new facility were to appear in Duluth, her organization's role would be to "to fill that soundstage." She pointed to the importance of existing facilities like the production studio being operated, in the Chisholm City Hall basement , by Lost Forty Studios, and explained: "We're aiming at getting different projects going in order to build an ecosystem that is balanced." A full-fledged soundstage, which would be larger and differently equipped than the Chisholm production studio, would literally raise the roof of that ecosystem.
"Right now, the incentives that we have are such that they are geared towards small productions," said Marshik. She went on to explain the hierarchy of size in film and television productions. "There's student films, and then indie films, and then you get into the big feature films. The Holy Grail is a TV series, because that's regular, well-funded work. ... We will never attract those kinds of projects without a (sound)stage. That work is done on a stage, and so for us to have a stage here, that is the next step in having long-term, large budget projects."
Certainly, the existing incentives have succeeded at attracting productions. "We've been almost a little bit too successful," said McManus, chief production officer at UMFO. "We have so many productions that want to shoot here that we've kind of blown our wad. So we have to go back and try to put more money into the incentive, because we want this economic opportunity to continue and not just to stop until the next year, because we've got a lot more that we want to do, and there's a lot more productions that want to come and spend their money here."
The idea that production incentives could increase in future years, generous though they may now be by Minnesota's historical standards, is not far-fetched. As Variety reported when lawmakers agreed on Minnesota's $5 million annual incentive, supporters had advocated five times that funding. "Several other states provide credits of $50 million or more," noted Variety's Gene Maddaus, "and the largest U.S. credits — in Georgia, New York and California — each provide hundreds of millions of dollars annually."
Gilpin thinks it's time to build on the current momentum and seize the moment with a major investment in Duluth's production infrastructure. "Right now, there's a lot more demand for production infrastructure than exists in the United States," he told the News Tribune. "For people who don't follow our industry, I think it's easy to still think of it as only being a thing that takes place in LA, in New York. And that's just not true anymore. It takes place in small-town America. And it's just a matter of if, when, and by how much Duluth wants to get in the game."
Where's the end of the rainbow?
Although Gilpin and Catalyst have been sounding the rally cry for expanded production capacity in Duluth, Gilpin emphasized that "Catalyst is a nonprofit. So this isn't our project, right? Our role, our specific mission, is to advance visual and literary storytelling, the arts. And this is our way of doing it: building community and showing what's possible, and opening people's eyes to what Duluth can be in this industry."
Gilpin said he's received "inquiries at all levels," both locally and nationally, about potential investment in a soundstage project. Catalyst's recent efforts to spark discussion about a soundstage have been successful, he said, in generating increased interest among parties who might have the resources to make it happen. "So who comes in and who decides to do it? Maybe it's a local group, or maybe it's a hybrid public-private partnership. I have no idea where that that will all end up. Look, if I was independently wealthy, (we) probably would have done it on our own by now. But I'm not."
An investment in a soundstage could potentially be lucrative, Catalyst has been telling the Duluth community. At the Caddy Shack event, Tanski pointed to the map indicating production boomlets all over the country. The communities marked with projectors, she said, are where Catalyst is finding interest among potential funders. "Those communities have experienced, they've seen the success. So the interest is there, because they know the revenue model works."
"Netflix, in the next 12 months, is scheduled to spend about $17 billion producing TV and film," said Gilpin at the Caddy Shack. "To put that in Duluth terms, they're going to spend 18 new Essentia hospital projects in the next 12 months. They're basically spending one Essentia hospital every three to four weeks, and right now a lot of that money is being spent elsewhere in the country. Our job is to get it here as much as we can."
"If we can't find local channels for funding," said Tanski, referring to the soundstage project, "this is all new money and investment coming in. However, because it is a revenue model, that also means the revenue doesn't necessarily all stay in Duluth. When an outside investor is the one putting the money in, they're getting the money that's coming out."
Where, exactly, would a soundstage land? Catalyst leaders, as well as staff at local building and design companies, say Lincoln Park is an attractive option: It has the land, it has the infrastructure, it's readily accessible to an interstate highway. What's more, a soundstage project could include an entire production campus with office and retail space, forming connective tissue between downtown Duluth and neighborhoods to the west.
At the community meetings they've held to date, Catalyst staff have shown attendees a map marking the real estate a soundstage campus might occupy in the block currently occupied by buildings including the Lincoln Park post office. In an interview with the News Tribune, Chad Ronchetti, director of project planning and development at the Duluth office of Kraus-Anderson Construction Co., called that block "the perfect site."
"It's a good juxtaposition of all things that are Lincoln Park or that Lincoln Park has become," he said. "You've got the industrial aspect ... if you've seen a soundstage in action, it's actually quite an industrial building, has an industrial feel. But there's also the hospitality piece, and with the service offerings that come along with what we envision for the soundstage, it plays well into that hospitality piece that Lincoln Park has."
"It also activates Clyde Iron," said Gilpin at the Caddy Shack. "The empty building that the Giulianis (Clyde Iron Works owners) have there right now would be a great office space. It brings that entire district together."
Ben Olson, group manager for Northland Architecture at TKDA, told the News Tribune that in Lincoln Park, "utilities, infrastructure, the way that the current zoning code is set up ... no issues whatsoever. It would just be a great design project and a great build in that area."
Building on that specific block, though, couldn't happen without the U.S. Postal Service relinquishing the land. At points over the past decade, it has at times appeared that might have been in the cards: In 2012, the USPS announced plans to move processing operations from Lincoln Park to the Twin Cities area, which could have left USPS with significantly reduced space requirements in that location. Plans were reconsidered in subsequent years, though, as the move met with local resistance that by 2014 had then-Gov. Mark Dayton addressing a rally from the steps of Duluth's Federal Building , calling the planned move "nonsensical."
Today, while Duluth mail does go south for processing, it comes back to Lincoln Park to get sorted for local carrier routes, a representative of American Postal Workers Local 142 explained to the News Tribune. Via email, USPS representative Desai Abdul-Razzaaq told the News Tribune that "USPS utilizes the entire Duluth Post Office at 2800 W. Michigan St. to support postal operations. We have no available space to lease to a soundstage and have no interest in selling the building."
Gilpin told the News Tribune the mock-up of a potential soundstage site in Lincoln Park was simply meant to be "a visual representation of how big it is," presented for reference. He said he didn't intend to stoke any controversy over that specific site, and didn't intend to put any pressure on existing occupants.
"If we go around and give that presentation," Gilpin explained about the soundstage pitch, "the first thing everybody's going to ask us is, 'Well, where are you thinking,' right? And if our answer is, 'Oh, we don't know yet,' then audiences will kind of take the whole presentation as not being too serious yet."
If a soundstage campus were to be constructed, Gilpin added, it could potentially incorporate existing businesses into the design: "You can build that kind of indoor/outdoor mall area that would incorporate all the existing small businesses and add more."
Gilpin said there are other options for a soundstage site, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and elsewhere. The first spot that soundstage scouts considered, he said, was the former AAR Corp. airline repair facility at the Duluth International Airport. However, it would be hard to insulate a soundstage from aircraft noise.
"We have a couple of backup spots in mind," Gilpin said at The Boat Club. "Basically, across the street from (the USPS site). And elsewhere, there's been talk about the old Central (High School, located at 800 E. Central Entrance). That's something that's come up on our radar time and time again."
The next episode
Stephanie LaFleur, president of the Lincoln Park Business Group board of directors, has been producing films with her husband, Chris LaFleur, since 2014. The LaFleurs also own businesses including the Caddy Shack, where Stephanie LaFleur paused for a conversation two days after the Catalyst event.
"I look at it as Lincoln Park coming full circle," said LaFleur, whose family shot scenes for their horror film "The Hand That Feeds" in the neighborhood last year. "This was the hub back in the day. So for me, it's really great as an adult to see things being lifted back up again, and coming full circle. And that's the whole movie thing. We just wanted (the neighborhood) to be showcased. That was hugely important for my husband and for me, and to employ locally."
"It's very exciting," said Julia Mattson, executive director of the Lincoln Park Business Group. A soundstage campus, she said, "would be just a wonderful thing to have happen to the Lincoln Park Craft District."
LaFleur said the Northland's paucity of suitable production facilities has forced her family to shoot elsewhere in the past. "Our first movie was done on the Iron Range, but only half of it was shot on the Range. The other half was done on a soundstage in LA. And then all the other items, like the post-production and the sound and special effects — that was all done in LA. That'd be nice to have it done here and keep that money here in Duluth, rather than shipping it off."
Despite the fact that a soundstage development remains hypothetical, Gilpin said he's convinced the time is right to start sparking conversations about the prospect.
"This is meant to be a community project. This isn't meant to be something that happens in the dark," he told the News Tribune. "The worst thing that could happen is, we do a bunch of work behind the scenes, we get all the way down the road, some private company comes in, they raise a bunch of money, they've got the site done, they've done everything. And right before they go to break ground, there's a huge community outcry of, 'Oh, nobody told us about what's going on!' You know, 'Scary Hollywood moving into our community!'"
"I think there's there's a lot of education that still needs to be done for folks about, you know, what is this industry?" said Forsman. "What kind of job opportunities does it provide? I know that the trades and others are excited for the potential to create more more job opportunities within the community. All the feedback that I've heard so far has been very positive."
"This notion that not only can you visit Duluth and celebrate and talk about and plan your creative endeavor, but you can actually choose Minnesota to do this work," said Larson, "that has been so exciting to watch continue to grow and gain momentum."
The mayor alluded to political climates in other states, such as the generously subsidized Georgia, that may inspire filmmakers to look elsewhere for their creative endeavors. "I'm one of those people who really believe that this is an industry that: not only can we make it work," said Larson, "but this is really a synergetic industry for Duluth and for Minnesota."
"Film and TV can be thought of as the four actors in front of the screen that get Oscars at the end of the year," said Gilpin at The Boat Club. "It's really the 96% of the people behind the screen, who are blue-collar union labor, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, builders, architects, finance people, accountants, lawyers — there's probably not too many businesses in Duluth that can't be touched by our industry in one way or another."
One of the attendees at the Boat Club event was Duluth-based film and TV producer Keely Gelineau. "I won't speak on the 10-plus features that we have coming this year," she said to the assembled group, "but I can tell you something that was turned down because of not having a soundstage. We had a team come in and they wanted to spend $1.2 million in under five weeks. And we didn't have a soundstage ... that was something that our economy had to let go because we weren't set for it."
One of the purposes behind the Manhattan Beach Studios visit was to show Duluthians what it would look like, logistically, to build a soundstage: a specially insulated structure with 45-foot ceilings and specialized equipment, not something that could be easily achieved by retrofitting an existing large building.
Olson, of TKDA, said he came away from the trip energized. "It is really just a very well-insulated warehouse; insulated meaning sound- and light-proof so you can create any environment that you want on the inside and not have to worry about the outside interfering with it," he explained. "It's in our wheelhouse. The structural part of it, the electrical, mechanical, the soundproofing, we've been doing buildings similar to this for forever. So at that point, I was very relaxed and very excited and couldn't wait to get back and start putting some stuff together."
At The Boat Club, Gilpin referred to TKDA's planning work as the "first money in" for the soundstage project. Olson confirmed that his work on the project is not a charitable donation. "This is definitely an investment for TKDA," he said. "As a professional service provider, we don't donate time, but we certainly provide promotional material ... at no cost, because we're hoping that, like everybody's investment into the project, as it moves forward, we will eventually be able to provide those professional services."
How much money would be needed to make this happen? "Probably about $30-$45 million," said Gilpin at The Boat Club. "I'm starting to get calls from people outside the region and outside the state who want to do this, for whom a $10 million investment is kind of their average normal business cycle on these things."
He continued: "I really would prefer it to be local money. We get to control it better. We get to have more involvement in the community. We aren't outsourcing it to people who can just come in and dictate everything. It's really, really, really important we start having those conversations yesterday."
This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. April 27 to correct a naming error in a mention of The Boat Club Restaurant. It was originally posted at 6:01 a.m. April 27. The News Tribune regrets the error.