DULUTH — They will never be confused with Hollywood, but the forests, lakes and small towns of northeast Minnesota have growing appeal to filmmakers who are flocking to the region to shoot small-budget movies.
The state’s decision to sweeten the pot hasn’t hurt.
Aiming to lure more filmmakers to Minnesota, state lawmakers last year resurrected the “snowbate” program which provides a rebates to film companies for 20 percent of what they spend in the state — and 25 percent if they shoot outside of the Twin Cities metro area.
The effort, first established in 1997, is made possible by $10 million in state spending over two years. On top of that, the Iron Range Resources Rehabilitation Board has set aside $800,000 to offer a 20 percent rebate to projects that film in its service area in northeast Minnesota.
Since the state money again became available last August, five feature films have qualified for funding. Two are in northeast Minnesota, including “Heart of Wilderness,” which is under way, and “After the Reality,” which started filming last week on Crane Lake near the Canadian border.
At least five additional films are scheduled to begin filming in northeast Minnesota later this year.
A few are also scheduled for the Twin Cities, but industry insiders say the preponderance of activity is in the northern part of the state. Several have projected budgets of $1 million or more.
“The big wave is definitely coming and we’re already feeling it,” said Riki McManus, director of the Upper Minnesota Film Office.
McManus said when movie productions move in, they typically spend half their budget on location.
“Talk to the places where they’re lodging, talk to the restaurants and caterers, talk to the dry cleaners, the rentals for lots of different kinds of equipment,” she said. “Those can be big dollars.”
To reach the set of the independent film “Heart of Wilderness” in mid-May, the 14-member cast and crew took a fishing boat across Garden Lake outside Ely on the edge of the Boundary Waters. There, on an island, they built a set that looked just like a national forest campsite.