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Statewide View: Simple tax incentive could make Minnesota leader in TV, film production

Why would FX Productions decide to spend $40 million filming "Fargo," the iconic TV series set in Minnesota, in Alberta, Canada? And why would Walt Disney Studios choose Portland over its first choice, the Twin Cities, to produce "Timmy Failure,"...

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Why would FX Productions decide to spend $40 million filming "Fargo," the iconic TV series set in Minnesota, in Alberta, Canada?

And why would Walt Disney Studios choose Portland over its first choice, the Twin Cities, to produce "Timmy Failure," a venture that could have poured an estimated $40 million a year into Minnesota's economy?

By all rights, the nation's TV industry should be flocking to Minnesota. We have almost everything it needs: varied and stunning locations, four distinct seasons, brilliant and talented actors and crews, a world-class airport with nonstop service to almost everywhere, a highly educated union workforce, and famously nice people.

What we do not have is a simple, cost-effective tax-credit program designed to attract and keep long-running, big-budget TV series. Think "Blue Bloods," shot in New York City, or "Chicago P.D." in Chicago. Such shows can generate good-paying local jobs over many years.

Minnesota's legislators need to fix that. Hundreds of producers, writers, designers, and industry leaders are set to descend on Duluth in October for the annual Catalyst Content Festival (formerly ITVFest). A new tax incentive program would give them one more good reason to return and stay.


Big opportunities await. RT Features is considering Hibbing and Duluth as locations for "Blood on the Tracks," a feature film inspired by the Bob Dylan album partially recorded in the Twin Cities. Warner Brothers has given the green light to "Clouds," the true story of Stillwater, Minn., teenager Zach Sobiech, his battle with cancer, and the song he wrote that inspired the world. They can begin shooting in Minnesota if incentives are available - or in Canada if they are not.

Similar to plans available in more than 30 other states, a Minnesota film tax credit would not send a single dime to Hollywood. Instead, once money has been spent on permissible items - including salaries for Minnesota-based actors and crews, lodging, transportation, catering, sets, wardrobe, and equipment rental, just to name a few - a film company would be able to apply for a 25 percent credit on any Minnesota taxes owed. Or it could sell the credit to a Minnesota company for 80 percent of its original value.

Anyone questioning the sensibility of such a program should look to Georgia and New York, just two examples of how successful, cost-effective tax incentives can generate tens of millions of dollars and thousands of good-paying jobs for local economies.

According to a recent study by the nonprofit FilmLA, Georgia has become the No. 1 film location in the world, with Pinewood Studios Atlanta producing such fan favorites as "The Hunger Games," "Ant Man," "Captain America: Civil War," and "Guardians of the Galaxy." The state provides about $500 million a year in film production tax credits, a lot of money to be sure. But in July 2017, then-Gov. Nathan Deal released an economic impact study that found $9.5 billion in economic benefit to the state from 320 film and TV projects shot during the previous year.

In New York, which offers an estimated $420 million a year in tax credits for film production, post-production and production of commercials, the returns are equally impressive. According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state received 1,151 tax-credit applications between 2011 and 2017, representing $17 billion in statewide spending and more than a million new jobs.

One of the highest-profile moves came in 2013 when NBC decided to move "The Tonight Show" starring Jimmy Fallon back to New York City in return for $20.8 million in tax credits per quarter. In return, Empire State Development, the agency that oversees the program, reports that the show spends nearly $94 million every year in the state and has hired more than 1,900 workers with annual wages of $11.4 million.

In short, the explosive growth of the online and network TV and film industries presents Minnesota with a wealth of opportunities to grow our economy, create new jobs, attract tourists, and boost our state's image both nationally and internationally. Hopefully our legislators will seize the day and create the relatively simple, economically sensible tax incentive program to help make it happen.



Trevor Lawrence is secretary-treasurer and the principal officer of Teamsters Local 638, based in Minneapolis. The union represents workers in the transportation and entertainment industries.

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