The popular FX television series “Fargo” was shot in Calgary, Alberta. The recent film, “Woman Walks Ahead,” which examined an artist’s unusual relationship with Sitting Bull on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, was filmed in New Mexico.
Similarly, when ABC filmed “Blood & Oil,” a dramatic series based on North Dakota’s booming Bakken Formation, it was shot in Utah.
Clearly North Dakota is missing out on film opportunities — meaning that it is leaving money on the table. North Dakota simply isn’t in the game when it comes to luring lucrative television and film productions.
Minnesota, on the other hand, is one of a majority of states offering incentives to television and film producers — and has hosted a long list of movies and television shows spanning many years.
Just a few notable examples of movies filmed in Minnesota include “Iron Will” in 1994, “Grumpy Old Men” in 1993 “North Country” in 2005 and the Coen brothers hit, “Fargo” in 1996. Also, since 2014, many episodes of the FX series “Fargo” also have been shot in Minnesota.
Film and television production offer a variety of economic benefits for states. They can showcase the state’s beauty and cityscapes. They provide advertising and awareness that money can’t buy.
They also bring a significant infusion of cash. Film cast and crew stay in local motels, eat in local restaurants, hire locals as extras, buy or rent from local businesses for set construction, patronize local bars and entertainment venues — the list of economic beneficiaries is large.
By one Hollywood estimate, film productions on location spend at the rate of $50,000 a day, a sum that can quickly add up.
A producer for D&N Cinematics in Bismarck said a shoot for an activewear commercial in 2016 injected $200,000 into the economy of New Town from a 60-person crew’s lodging and catering. Imagine what an infusion of $200,000 means for a town of 2,500.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 32 states as well as the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands offer incentives for the television and film industry, usually tax breaks.
In spite of North Dakota’s unwillingness to offer incentives for film production, an independent film, “Tankhouse,” about exiled New York theater figures who turn up in Fargo, is being filmed here. (Forum Communications’ Click Content Studios is one of the film’s producers.)
The production likely is pumping several hundred thousand dollars into the local economy. By one description of the film, currently in production, “Every frame will be a postcard of Fargo.”
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Alex Escola, an actor in the cast of “Tankhouse” who earlier appeared in “After the Wedding,” believes incentives would bring more film production to Fargo and North Dakota.
“I think it would completely change the game for this market,” he said during a break in filming. “More people would love to shoot here. Fargo really is its own character in the film.”
Add low costs and friendly, cooperative residents and, with some targeted marketing, Fargo could find itself on the competitive map — with a boost from incentives.
“Film incentives remain a driving factor in determining where a film is ultimately produced,” the National Conference on State Legislatures report concluded.
North Dakota has dabbled in film production incentives, but lawmakers eliminated them in 2009. But the film world has changed drastically since then, thanks to the revolution brought by stellar television productions and streaming. Opportunities abound.
Matt Cooper, producer of “Tankhouse,” said incentives are so common that investors are leery of projects that don’t have them. His film, which depicts Fargo in summer, could easily have been shot in Georgia or the Carolinas — where investors could have gotten 20% of their investment back in two years, he said.
Making movies is a risky business.
“Truthfully, our biggest uphill battle with investors on the project was convincing them to invest in a project that doesn’t have incentives,” he said. “Every investor wants to know there’s at minimum a floor.”
Film incentives are popular among the states because they pay dividends. “They see the value that bringing 40 crews and cast members does for a community, for a state,” Cooper said. There’s also the lasting impact to the culture of an area and the ability to create a legacy. North Dakota has the means and the tools to provide meaningful incentives to draw filmmakers to the state. It merely lacks the vision to make it happen.