From the intrepid antics of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to the Coen brothers’ darkly funny “Fargo” to Diablo Cody’s brooding “Young Adult,” Minnesotans are proud of these locally shot Hollywood narratives.
And now Melodie Bahan, new executive director at Minnesota Film and TV Board, wants to net even bigger stars and more production dollars for the state. With a professional background divided among theater, public affairs and nonprofit experience, Bahan sees herself as uniquely equipped to run the film board, an organization that works to promote film and TV production in the state while administering Snowbate, a financial incentive program designed to lure studio projects to Minnesota. She succeeds longtime director Lucinda Winter, stepping down after nearly 12 years, who hands over what Bahan called “a tremendous legacy.”
Bahan previously served as vice president of communications at Artspace Projects and communications director at the Guthrie Theater. The go-getter brings fresh enthusiasm, schmoozing skills and an appreciation for a wide variety of entertainment, from the thought-provoking to the heartwarming. We asked the Illinois-born Bahan about the economics of moviemaking, the challenges she faces in her new job and her vision for Minnesota’s film and TV industry. The conversation has been lightly edited.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Minnesota’s film industry in general — and specifically for the film board?
A: The biggest challenge is always money. If a producer or a network production company has a story set in Minnesota and they can make Toronto look like Minneapolis and it’s going to be cheaper to film there, they’re going to make Toronto look like Minneapolis. We have to create an environment that makes filming in the state really attractive.
That includes incentives. We’ll get passed over if we don’t offer incentives to compete with states like New Mexico, Georgia and Illinois.
Q: Why is Minnesota a great place to make movies?
A: The physical part of it: We have urban, rural, lakes and rivers, beaches and parks and woods. And we have four seasons, something we need to remind people about. When folks in L.A. think of Minnesota, they think of snow only.
But the thing that really makes us stand out is our incredibly deep pool of talent, both on the technical side with the union crews we have here and certainly on the acting side. We have actors who make a living here, primarily in theater, but they need that work — that film, television, commercial, industrial work that gets shot here — in order to have a decent life and buy a home and raise their kids here in Minnesota.
Q: Why are Minnesota-made films so important for the state?
A: There is a lot to be said for state pride. People will reference films that were made here, particularly if they were part of the production or somebody [famous] walked by on a shoot. It’s kind of cool.
Film and television are important art forms, certainly, but they’re also important industries. They bring a lot of money to a state, in terms of employment and wages, but also indirect spending for hotels, restaurants and equipment. That influx of economic development and spending has got to go somewhere. I want to see it come to Minnesota.
Q: What about the film board position appealed to you?
A: It is a great combination of so many things I care about. There is the arts aspect, the economic development aspect. Doing that sort of work in this state — my adopted home that I love so much — is exciting.
Q: What professional skills or personality traits will help you succeed in the new job?
A: Any job where you’re responsible for raising funds, whether it is privately or from corporations, foundations or through public funding through the Legislature — it’s really important to be able to have conversations and develop relationships with people from all kinds of different backgrounds. My life has gone from small-town Illinois — where my family owned a tavern — to moving in social circles in New York where you learn social skills and a level of sophistication and worldliness that I didn’t grow up with.
I’ve also been lucky enough to develop relationships with people in the entertainment industry through my work at the Guthrie.
Q: This is a state bureaucracy job to some degree.
A: We are not a state agency. We are funded by the Legislature through an appropriation to fund Snowbate, which is our incentive program, and that is administered through DEED [Department of Employment and Economic Development]. It’s a little complicated, but we are ultimately a nonprofit organization.
Q: Do you have contacts in the Legislature?
A: I have a number of contacts. I have known some folks in the Legislature, like Sen. Dick Cohen, for years because he’s been so involved in the arts. I don’t want to get into listing names.
Q: Did either of your positions at Artspace or the Guthrie require lobbying?
A: Oh, yeah. When the Guthrie was getting ready to move and build its current theater, there were several years of lobbying for state bonding money. It took several years because we were rejected; Gov. Ventura was in office and he vetoed one year. While I certainly didn’t lead those lobbying efforts, I worked with the folks who were doing the lobbying and all the grass-roots campaigning around that effort, which ultimately garnered $25 million in bonding for the new theater.
At Artspace, I’ve been supporting the president and the government relations staffer who have been working to get funding for renovating the historic Hennepin Center for the Arts. It desperately needs a new roof and a new elevator. They did get some funds for that this year.
Q: What advice do you have for Minnesota filmmakers?
A: At this point, I want them to give me some advice. I have a very steep learning curve. We’re going to schedule a town hall meeting — for anybody but primarily filmmakers and folks who work in the production and postproduction community — so I can listen to them and find out what their priorities are, what their needs are, how this organization can work to serve them in a better way.
Q: What are your favorite Minnesota-made movies?
A: I really love “Dear White People.” I would have liked to have seen more Minnesota talent, but I thought it was a great film. I have a real soft spot for “Untamed Heart” — I saw that movie right before I moved to Minnesota. I also really loved “Sweet Land,” the film about a German woman immigrating to marry a Norwegian guy.
Q: Any particular projects you’re jonesing to lure here?
A: [Laughs.] Of course I want big feature films. I want everything. I am really into a number of streaming TV series — “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Hulu is doing great stuff with “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I would love to get a Netflix, Amazon or Hulu series set and filmed here.
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and book author from Minneapolis.