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The Not-so-secret Campaign to Bring Major Film Productions to Northern Minnesota

Posted by John Scarr on
The Not-so-secret Campaign to Bring Major Film Productions to Northern Minnesota

by Philip Gilpin, Jr. 

Executive Director 

Catalyst Story Institute


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” 

- Margaret Mead 


Hope. Optimism. A sense of belonging.  

Talk with anyone about their aspirations in life and these general themes arise over and over again. In practical everyday terms, it means having financial stability, housing/a sense of place, a high cultural quality of life, and a voice in their community. Or, as governments and corporations talk about it: these are issues of economic development, workforce development, and cultural development. 

Everyone is saying same thing in different ways. At its core, however you phrase it, the conversation is fundamentally about priorities. Leadership is required to lift communities out of crisis.  

Unfortunately, the discussion about priorities is too often dominated by those who claim therare too few resources to go around, so priorities need to be pitted against each other and presented as a limited set of choices where giving to one issue means taking away from another. For example, if you invest more in fixing potholes, then you have to invest less in building new low-income housing. When one goes up, the other has to go down. 

This method of limited thinking is wrongIt suppresses hope, optimism, and sense of belonging. It creates a morally depressing status quo that feels unbreakableLife cannot endure as a zero-sum game where the fear of failure closes off new pathways forward. Eventually, this type of reasoning causes quality of life to deteriorate and tensions to rise. At that point, change has no choice but to force its way through. 


Life in the Northland is beautiful. Innovation and adaptation are core parts of our ethos, along with gritty determination and a strong sense of community. But tensions are risingJust listen to the voices. Hear what the storytellers are saying.  

Want to know what the zeitgeist is feelingPay attention to the artists. They lead the way. And around the north, you’ll quickly discover that the forces of change are already in motion. 


“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” 

- Seneca 

An Industry at the Gates 

 That was the overall objective we shared with neighbors, business owners, community leaders, and everyone else we met during 200+ community meetings that re-introduced our industry to the Northland. The problem was simple, we had to figure out a way for the local community to accept a seemingly new industryand to do so with a level of international pride and excitement that typically takes generations to build. While storytelling and production are NOT new industries to the Northland, they have been dormant for decades kept alive by a renegade group of artists and believers who have always known that this region would one day be a worldwide leader in the creative industries. 

 For a newly arrived outsider, it was easy to see that simple truth from the first day. For example, how does a person walk around Duluth and see its multiple theaters, music venues, art galleries, restaurants, hotels, cultural shops, beautifully preserved architecture, and purposefully designed lakefront parkand not think that this is an arts community at its core? The same is true for places up the shore and on the range. The Northland community at-large haalready prepared everything it needs to be an international arts industry hub. Most importantly, there is already a vibrant network of world class artists here. 

 From that first day exploring the area, it was just a matter of time: how long would it take to break through the existing political, businesses, and social power structures in the region to build a vast coalition that can forge ahead without needing anyone’s permission. The irony, of course, being that the faster our objective receives support, the faster the region benefits - but there is a deeply ingrained hesitancy against investing in the area’s own growth by supporting something that iperceived as being “new” and “from the outside”. In fact, our industry has been here for decades and used to play a significant role in economic, workforce, and cultural development. Sadly, it was left behind by a string of leaders without the vision to see that the storytelling arts would become the giant economic industry that they are today (i.e., theatres, Netflix, podcasts, Disney, TV, social media, movies, etc.). 

 This de-prioritization of the arts created an entire generation of Northlanders who never knew the positive impacts of the creative industries. And people often fear what they don’t know. Adding to that fear is the sheer power and daunting size of the arts industry. TV and film production are a multibillion-dollar global industry that employs millions of people in hundreds of countries – and production is just one slice of the overall arts universe. For example, one network TV series alone can employ more people than Cirrus, UMD, and Minnesota Power combined. 

And so, we began doing the work. One meeting after another. A small band of merry warriors driving all around the Northland putting the pieces of a broken industry back together – alleviating people’s fears one by one. It was slower and more difficult than it should have been. The fear was more deeply engrained than any of us anticipated.  And when fear overtakes obvious opportunity, when people will walk away from doing something that benefits them, that’s the final sign that the zero-sum cycle of pitting people and priorities against each other has completely broken down. That’s when people move away. That’s when tensions rise. 

Duluthians, please stop asking young people why we would choose to live here! This city struggles to keep talented young people within its bounds, and devotes a lot of resources into figuring out how to get them to stay. At the same time people in this city are constantly judging us who choose to be here. “You’re so talented, why wouldn’t you work in a bigger city?” “You’d be better off somewhere else.” “How long until you move away?” These are all things I hear fairly frequently, and every person I know my age has a similar story. It probably plays into why so many of us have left. There’s no need to commission any more studies, the answer is clear. If this city wants to retain its young people, it needs to stop making us feel stupid for being here and show us we’re valued. 

- Jordan Van Der Hagen 

Organic Change 

The artistic heart is still here. Beating. Creating. Being its gritty, undeniable, persevering self. Creating a blossoming arts industry here isn’t a situation of needing to build new things, it is about bringing together what already exists. 

 In business, the concept of profit just means when the output is greater than sum of the inputs. So, that makes our practical day-to-day goal very simple: lower the existing boundaries between social groups, arts groups, business groups, and community leaders to bring people together so they can experience how their value multiplies when they’re working side-by-sideCreate that tiny snowball at the top of the hill. 

 It does not take a large flashy group of people to make a big impact. In fact, it is typically easier to get things done with a smaller team of highly dedicated partners. People will self-select their own relevance level to your cause. Some won’t understand your visionsome will understand it but think it can’t be done, and some will wait for you to achieve it and mooch off the benefits of your hard work without giving a dime of support. But then there are the believers. Your team who sees the vision, shares it, and jumps in the trenches to get it done. 

 That is how change happens organically. In a community like the Northland where there are plenty of people who naturally see the value of the arts and believe in their power to shape a better future, it does not take long to find your team. Plus, the Northland is already tremendously connected to the international arts industry. Sometimes it feels like everyone here has a friend or family member working in the professional arts world; from singers to writers to Hollywood executivesthe Northland is 1 degree of separation from everyone it needs to be the international arts hub it wants to be. 


Once the core team is established, the most difficult challenge is figuring out what to devote your time and limited resources on. Instead of focusing on swaying those who are uninterested, it is far more effective to grow the impacts of those who care. A natural sense of gravity and momentum begins to form around the best ways forward. The only way to advance is to try different pathways, quickly accept which ones aren’t leading anywhere, and follow the roads that add to the energy. 

There’s an invisible force that entrepreneurs can fall prey to when forging a new pathway: the negative impact of lip service. It can be appealing to try and beat the critics. For example, a prominent business owner in the Northland whose companies make money from the visitors who come to town for theatre shows & arts events also has some influence over how much the performing artists are paid for their work. When asked why the artists are paid so little, his response is, “Because they don’t know better to ask for more.”  So here is a person who is known within the community as a supporter of the arts actually making money off the backs of local artists, knowing the value they bring to his own pocketbook, but not advocating for higher wages for the artists. It is the zero-sum game mentality rearing its ugly head again. It is all lip service. No real action. No skin in the game. Just an immoral attempt to use the arts scene to his business benefit. 

Trying to overcome obstacles like that can drain a movement’s energy. It is important to move on while also taking names. There will be a day when the local arts industry will have the power to decide which businesses get more money from the economic activity it generates, and at that time the artists will remember who supported them from the beginning. Times of crisis reveal true priorities. There is also great benefit for the visionaries who do see the future and get involved in a movement early: they get to have a say in how the community’s future is shaped. Those who aren’t involved, don’t. When it comes to keeping an organic change movement striving forward, trying to jump over an artificial hurdle gives credibility to the hurdle’s existence in the first place. It is important to move around the headwinds and hurdles to find the path that works 

Remember, artists lead the way. And in this time of crisis, many are at the point where they have nothing left to lose. 

 Catalyst (n.): an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. 

 - Webster’s Dictionary  

Lowering the Final Barrier 

Community is the key. 

One of the most powerful forces in life is exponential growth. It starts off with one person meeting another. Then 2 becomes 4, then 8, then 16. And maybe getting from two people to 16 people takes months, or even years, and the growth feels small and impossible. But 16 becomes 32, 64, 128, and suddenly ainescapable sense of gravity forms. 

Now, to be clear, this is not about the TV and film production industry being a silver bullet to every issue in the NorthlandWhat our industry does offer is good paying jobs that can offer opportunity to the underemployed/unemployed people in our region who want to spend their days doing work that they love. It can create a series of cascading economic impacts on local businesses by bringing in cast and crew from around the world who spend their money locally at hotels, restaurants, shops, lumber yards, florists, costume shops, and hundreds of other small industries. It can connect generations through apprenticeship programs and unite trade schools with art schools. Production lives at the intersection of art and manual labor. It can cause huge soundstages to be built and entire neighborhoods to be created. The Northland can do big things – and this is no exception. 

Look at the credits of a TV show or film and you will see the hundreds and thousands of people is takes to produce even the simplest projects. 

The production industry is economic, workforce, and cultural development all combined in one. 

But it is just a starting point happening in concert with many other artistic industries. When combined, the entire creative arts community will lead the way as an unstoppable force that drives commerce and politics in the region. Generations will grow up with hope and opportunity, and a sense of belonging.  

To get to that point, the final and most daunting barrier needs to be lowered: the barrier between commerce and art. While it is not a real barrier, it is a powerful one that exists only the imaginations of those who do not understand their connection. Once that challenge is dissolved, the arts can transform from being seen as a fun amenity into being considered a core industry and take its rightful place alongside the other historically American industries around the Northland. 


The greatest difficulty in that fight is a simple communications issue. The Northland’s information flow is fractured. That makes it tough to build momentum. Each community has its own source of hyper local news, social media groups, and gossip watering holes.  

Everything we learn is either through direct experience or storytelling. Storytelling is how a community supports and lifts up unheard voices. This is the moment to prioritize what we already know to be true about our love of arts and culture. 

Recently, St Louis County leaders took a major step forward in this movement through their approval of a $1million production incentive fund. This program is built to attract new money to the region at a rate of at least $4 dollars for every $1 the county spends. If someone offered to give you $100 under the condition that all you had to do was give them $25 back, you would likely do it.  

This is only one example of countless other local organizations, social groups, business groups and others all working towards changing the status quo in the Northland. As more of these groups discover each other, the momentum will grow exponentially and life in the Northland will be lived by generations who shaped their own future into what they want it to be.


Read more of our stories in Issue 18 of Lake and Company


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