Rochester filmmakers are pinning their hopes on tax incentives that could, they say, bring millions of dollars into the state.

Sara Hamilton, a 10-year Rochester resident and film producer, has thrown her support behind the Film Production Tax Credit Bill (HF-1975 in the House and SF-1986 in the Senate), which would provide up to a 25% tax incentive for in-state spending.

According to MN Film & TV, Minnesota has missed out on hosting several big-budget movies and television series set in this state, largely because Canada and other states had tax incentives available. The organization cites Warner Bros.’ “Clouds,” FX’s "Fargo" and Fox’s “Juno” as films that should have been shot in Minnesota, but went to Canada or British Columbia instead.

Currently, Minnesota offers a rebate of 20-25% for qualified projects, out of funding that the state legislature appropriates. That funding can vary year to year, meaning film producers may not be able to plan on the same funding in year two of a project as they received in year one.

A tax credit, on the other hand, would allow production companies to reduce their year-end tax liabilities. The in-state expenditures, such as vendor services and in-state labor, would all help companies qualify for state income tax credits — which is appealing to big-budget production companies.

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Republican Sen. Carla Nelson backed the bill early on, and Hamilton hopes to see it ratified over the summer of 2021.

Hamilton sees the tax incentives as a way to revitalize Minnesota’s film industry after COVID.

“It’s a post-pandemic bill,” she said. “And the further things go down the road, the more entrenched the systems will be.”

The Film Production Tax Credit Bill has not been signed into the 2021 budget, but hopes remain high, Hamilton said.

How would it help Rochester?

Hamilton has spent the past decade working with a short list of Rochester filmmakers — Mike Kramer of Ambient House, Tyler Aug of Canvas & Chardonnay, Kayla Arend, Jon Julsrud, Jon Bergmann, and Avai d’Amico Her daughter Jane is an actress.

Related: Film student, Rochester native, finds drama on home turf

Film incentives would help bolster Rochester’s film industry, Hamilton said. Larger productions in Minnesota would help build infrastructure that would eventually extend to Southeast Minnesota. At the moment, large productions would need to bring in professionals and equipment from the Twin Cities, at the very least.

Larger productions bring in better-trained sound and camera people, as well as the possibility of renting equipment closer to Rochester, she said.

Shoot for indie film “Seed of Doubt” in Rochester, with Rochester residents Michael Kramer (cinematography) and Mary McPhee (actress) and with William Cox, director (from Duluth)
Shoot for indie film “Seed of Doubt” in Rochester, with Rochester residents Michael Kramer (cinematography) and Mary McPhee (actress) and with William Cox, director (from Duluth)

Hamilton’s narrative film, “Seed of Doubt" (directed by William Cox, co-produced by Hamilton and Jon Julsrud), was shot in Rochester between 2018 and 2019.

The incentives are geared toward larger productions than hers, Hamilton admitted. “Seed of Doubt,” with its $150,000 budget, would not have qualified for a tax break.

The “Seed of Doubt” team contracted with Rochester’s Hy-Vee and Great Harvest for catering and coffee, and hired a 35-member cast and crew. The art community got involved — Rochester Art & Framing helped with props, while Canvas & Chardonnay donated supplies for set dressing. Hamilton said she ran to Natural Grocers for must-haves, while any traveling collaborators stayed in local Airbnbs or Microtel Inn & Suites.

Actress Naiyah Scaife of "Seed of Doubt" filming at Calcagno Dentistry in Rochester (contributed photo)
Actress Naiyah Scaife of "Seed of Doubt" filming at Calcagno Dentistry in Rochester (contributed photo)

The film industry hires workers in construction, food, acting, housing, sound, and many more areas, she said.

“It’s dry-cleaners, it’s Airbnbs, it’s the caterers! There are so many people who are involved in this," she said. "Even smaller, independent films can have an impact on the local economy.”

“Yeah, we’re not bringing millions of dollars in,” she added. “But we’re bringing thousands in.”

In the far-off future, Hamilton envisions certificate training programs, or a nearby sound stage. And film students, who tend to migrate to New York or Los Angeles to work for large companies, might get to stay in-state.

“But without the incentive, we won’t even get a seat at the table,” she said.

Mike Kramer of Ambient House films a commercial piece (contributed by Sara Hamilton)
Mike Kramer of Ambient House films a commercial piece (contributed by Sara Hamilton)

“I think there’s an opportunity where we can have more eyes, larger production houses looking at us as an option,” said Mike Kramer of Ambient House Productions.

“If this all gels and becomes something real, tangible, the filmmaking community has an opportunity to create a voice in the region,” he continued. “It allows us to energize our industry so there (are) more people to tackle projects as they come. Having a thriving film community as a whole lifts all boats.”

Kramer said there would be “trickle-down” benefits for commercial workers like himself if the tax incentives went through.

“For someone like me, having larger productions come through the area is only going to create more interest in the industry as a whole,” he said. “It could have an impact on advertising, marketing, and really creating excitement across the board.”

As a final perk, Hamilton said people in Minnesota tend to be excited about film productions — and enthusiasm translates into willingness to help.

In May, she shot a locations trailer featuring the historical architecture of Pill Hill, the Rochester Art Center, several churches in town, the beach area of Foster-Arend Park, and medical infrastructure of — well, quite a bit of Med City.

“We have all four seasons, we have gorgeous architecture, and we have amazing people who are talented and hard-working,” she said. “We want to show off Minnesota.”

Where is it now?

The June 2 MinnPost reported that the tax credits for film producers had tentatively been included in the final tax bill, but await approval by Gov. Tim Walz. The most recent version of the bill, per the Minnesota House, provided $10 million in credits per fiscal year for four years.