Tuesday, November 20, 2018
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Minnesota indie filmmaking gets a lift
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IFP's Jane Minton and Bill Kruse. IFP is opening its new Center For Media Arts. The center will contain room and equipment for filmmakers and photographers to do their work, offer classes and host conferences for media artists. (MPR photo/Chris Roberts)
The people behind the new Independent Feature Project Minneapolis/St. Paul Center for Media Arts have big hopes. They want the new facility in St Paul to become a central meeting place for local indie filmmakers and other media artists. It's welcome news for Minnesota's struggling indie film scene.

St. Paul, Minn. — One Monday night not too long ago, an important film deal went down at the Marysburg Coffee Emporium and Wine Bar in downtown Minneapolis.

Actor, writer and filmmaker Patrick Coyle had arranged a reading of his new screenplay, "The Deep Bosom of the Ocean," to open the bar's spoken word series. Almost on a whim, Coyle emailed the script to producer Norman Stevens, former president of television at Warner Brothers. Coyle says Stevens loved it.

"I mentioned the reading we were having tonight and he said 'I really want to hear it, I'm flying in,' so you know it could mean I don't have to worry about my daughter's college fund," he says.

Coyle filled the Marysburg with family and friends, many of them actors and filmmakers. He joked that the place had taken on a "Waiting for Guffman" atmosphere as the crowd anxiously anticipated Stevens arrival. When he finally came and was seated, the reading started.

Stevens ended up offering Coyle a deal. The plan is to shoot the film in the Northwest next year, with Coyle in the director's chair.

While this kind of stuff happens all the time in Hollywood or New York, in Minnesota it's less than rare. Here, independent filmmakers depend heavily on luck and perseverance as they slug it out for themselves.

Award winning documentarian Emily Goldberg was ecstatic when she reported to her accountant that she made $15,000 last year. But Goldberg says income isn't how she measures success.

"I consider myself successful because I'm doing what I love to do. But it's certainly not any way to get rich quick," Goldberg says.

"What she said!" chimed in Melody Gilbert. "Except I made a little less."

Gilbert has developed a national reputation for her documentaries on subjects ranging from amputee wannabees to Mall of America nuptials. When Gilbert lamented Minnesota's isolation from the coasts, it launched a conversation with Goldberg about the merits of Minnesota's geographic position in the filmmaking universe.

"Showtime isn't based here," Gilbert says. "HBO isn't based here. PBS isn't based here. I mean we have a great PBS station but, you know the decision makers, the people who decide whether they want support your film up front, or on the back end and buy it. That's what I was referring to."

But Goldberg isn't so sure.

"I think that your film's gonna get seen by Showtime, by HBO, by all those people if it gets into the right festivals and things," she says. "So I don't even think it's a matter of having to be in New York or be in L.A. I mean, things get seen." She gestures at Gilbert. "And also, you're the master at like, pushing your work and getting it seen by people, even if they're not in your backyard."

"And that's the irony of it though," Gilbert responded. "I mean that's what's so interesting cause I have had success on the festival circuit and I have had people notice my films and I have had people buy them. It's a great feeling, but when you want to make a living doing this, which is what I'm trying to do, it's practically impossible in that way."

"But," Goldberg says, "I'm not sure it would be any different, if you were living somewhere else."

Geographic isolation aside, the Minnesota film scene, at least to some observers, has been stagnating. Gone are the days when the state was a sought-after locale for Hollywood movie making. The Minnesota Film and TV Board has been reduced to a skeleton staff. At this point, Minnesota's indie film scene's deficiencies outweigh its strengths.

Bill Kruse oversees Funding Programs for Independent Feature Project Minneapolis/St. Paul or IFP. Kruse says one of its ongoing goals is to get notoriously conservative Minnesota investors interested in homegrown independent filmmaking. Many assume it's a losing proposition, but Kruse says investors need to realize that digital technology is lowering costs, and local filmmakers are being encouraged to rein in their projects financially.

"I think the changing dynamic in the industry, and making the initial investments more modest and the possibility of recouping greater, I think that you will start to see people coming out from under their rocks and opening up their pockets and throwing some money at indie film," he says.

It would also be nice, says Kruse, if Minnesota had a top notch film school. Kruse says a film school would not only train fledgling filmmakers but also help retain them. He says the state of Florida has invested heavily in his alma mater, Florida State's film school, with the idea that some graduates will stay, make their films and generate revenue for the state.

"They've really done a great job of keeping filmmakers either living in Florida or returning to Florida to shoot movies and I think Minnesota needs the kind of film school that does something like that, that really invites people to stay here or to come back to shoot," he says.

IFP officials haven't given up on attracting Hollywood or other out-of-state filmmakers to Minnesota. The Pawlenty Administration did away with one of state's major incentives when it eliminated "Snowbate." Snowbate promised filmmakers a 10 percent return on every dollar they spent in Minnesota. IFP Executive Director Jane Minton thinks it's time Snowbate was restored.

"We can make it easy for them to come here or we can make it more attractive for them to go someplace else and right now we're really behind the curve on that," she says.

For indie filmmakers, the most difficult work usually comes after the movie is made, when they have to market their films. High up on Emily Goldberg's wish list is an agent who can represent them.

"Someone who knows the local scene, and someone who can represent us and represent the midwest and sort of say, 'Hey! Here's this great pocket where people are doing amazing things,'" she says. "'Let me show you, look at all these dvds.' That would be great because right now, each of us has to do that on our own."

On the positive side, there's no shortage of opportunities for Twin Citians to see films. There's an abundance of festivals, art house and second run theaters, and with the recently expanded Walker Art Center's new cinema, Jane Minton says it's only going to get better.

"I think in terms of exhibition, our cup is full," she says.

And, says Emily Goldberg, it's not like people aren't making films here or there's a dearth of local talent.

"Every time I go to like a short film screening or something I'm just amazed," she says. I'm like, who are these people, you know? There are people out there making these amazing imaginative wonderful things and I don't know them. And I know a lot of people in the community."

As a scene, the filmmaking community has long lacked the presence and cohesion of, say, the local music or theater scenes. IFP's Jane Minton believes that will change with IFP's new Center For Media Arts in St. Paul, which is holding an open house tomorrow from two to ten pm. She says it's already become a gathering place for media artists.

"People have been stopping in every day," she says. "It's like we've reawakened the monster of media arts in this area."

Minton says the indie film scene in Minnesota has a lot of room to grow. That is its curse, and perhaps its greatest blessing.

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