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Spotlight: MidAmerica - Heartland Serves Up Big Slice of American Pie

By Mark R. Smith

soundstage stages
Cretaceous chalk formations at Monument Rocks in western Kansas.
Photo by Meredith Corporation/John Noltner

For a region that's often identified with broad sweeps of flat land, the states that comprise America's Heartland actually offer a range of landscapes and cityscapes that the production community knows can help make a production.

What the states in MidAmerica lack in incentives — Missouri has the fullest till at $4.5 million — they make up for in looks, from the beauties of The Great Outdoors to the charms of small-town America.

Minnesota Looks to Build on Snowbate, 3D Prospects
While Minnesota has been limited in what it can offer the production community in the way of incentives, Lucinda Winter is hoping that the rising stereoscopic 3D market will help propel Minnesota's strong production and postproduction base toward the forefront of the industry.

The executive director of the Minnesota Film & TV Board thinks that "eventually, some percentage of TV series and spots will be acquired and produced in 3D. And that will be a wide-open market. We're trying to get everyone on board before the wave hits. That way, producers can come here to find people who are experienced in lighting, shooting and posting in 3D. Major League Baseball just announced that it will broadcast a game on our local CBS affiliate, WCCO, in 3D, so that's already happening."

Splice Dishes Up Edwards Ice Cream

Minneapolis-based post house Splice (www.splicehere.tv) recently edited "Awards Show," a national :30 spot for Edwards Ice Cream's Singles Hot Molten Lava Chocolate Cake from agency Brew/Minneapolis. Peter Chelsom of Independent Media directed in LA with DP Barry Peterson manning two Sony F-35s and a RED camera. "Just about every single shot has some type of effects work," notes executive producer Kel Nelson. "We did everything on the post side — but I was the agency's producer and our VFX designer, Tom Reiner, assisted."

Splice did the edit and color grading on Apple's Final Cut Studio 3 tapping Adobe After Effects, CS4, Imagineer Systems' Mocha, Syntheyes and CINEMA 4D for the extensive effects. The commercial airs this summer, when viewers will see how Splice "made a small-scale food idea more cinematic."

Winter hopes for more incentive money after the state's administration changes in November. The Snowbate rebate program offers a reimbursement of 15-20% of Minnesota production expenditures. The incentive is available to feature films, national television or Internet programs, commercials, music videos and documentaries. Funding for the current fiscal year is just $1.25 million, available until expended. "We would like to build on what we have and increase the funds available for Snowbate," she says.

Minnesota's metrics point to the value of film and video production. The state's most recent report on revenues, from June 2009, reveals a $15 million direct spend; during that same period the state picked up the equivalent of 349 full-time jobs.

Cinequipt Supplies Geek Squad

Among recent work for Cinequipt (www.cinequipt.com) in Minneapolis is a corporate project for locally-based Best Buy's Geek Squad service. The company supplied two Panasonic AG-HPX500 cameras, a tungsten lighting package, several Panasonic BT LH17-10 monitors and a studio grip package for the three-day shoot. "Best Buy has been a consistent user of the company throughout the past couple decades," says Cinequipt general manager Greg Meyers.

Billed as the #1 source for film, video, lighting and grip equipment rental in the Upper Midwest, Cinequipt also rents the Canon 5D Mark II and EOS 7D Digital SLRs, "which have made a strong entry into our market," Meyers reports. The company is adding a 3-ton grip truck with another tungsten package, has acquired two 1800-watt Arrimaxs and a wider variety of LED lighting, and has two ARRI Alexa digital cameras en route.

The most recent feature to shoot in Minnesota wrapped in March and had "a good indie-sized budget" in the $4-5 million range. The Convincer tells the story of a salesman's search for a rare musical instrument that triggers a series of dramatic consequences. The Midwestern crime drama starred Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Billy Crudup and Leah Thompson, and was financed and produced by the Minnesota company Werc Werk Works. A fall release is planned.

Next will come Stuck Between Stations, an indie film inspired by a song by Minneapolis rock band The Hold Steady. Starring Sam Rosen, it was written and directed by Brady Kiernan and concerns a couple thrown together by the whirlwind of a strange evening's events.

Minnesota Twins Tap Pixel Farm System

New Major League Baseball parks are meant to generate business, and one beneficiary of the commerce fueled by the Minnesota Twins' Target Field is Minneapolis-based Pixel Farm (www.pixelfarm.com).

The postproduction and design studio created "more than 300 graphic elements for the five—story, 54,000 square-foot, main Daktronics HD display" in the ballpark as well as graphics for three ribbon boards, the bullpen board and the out-of-town scoreboard, says senior animator Rich Haesemeyer. Pixel Farm shot "all 90 players who came to spring training" and combined the live action with 3D elements crafted with Autodesk Maya; Apple's Shake was used for compositing and Autodesk Inferno and Fire for additional effects and compositing. Music was composed on Digidesign Pro Tools. The ballpark graphics give Twins fans "an almost theme park-like experience," Haesemeyer reports. "The animations tumble, turn and rotate with this great kinetic energy that is awesome."

Minnesota also hosted some cable TV series, including The History Channel's Monster Quest, The Sportsmen's Channel's Born to Be Wild, Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives and segments for Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern.

The state does a considerable amount of spot work, says Winter, "because we have a number of large corporate headquarters here," including Best Buy (which last year spent $18 million through its Yellow Tag Productions), Target and Buffalo Wild Wings. Also, the four major sports leagues have franchises in Minneapolis/St. Paul, which keeps superstars such as Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins in demand for commercial appearances.

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Des Moines skyline and downtown Blue Bridge.
Photo by Colby Clark

Iowa Struggles to Overcome Scandal
Iowa governor Chet Culver has suspended the state's film incentive program until 2013 in the wake of allegations of abuses by former Iowa Film Office manager Tom Wheeler and others. Wheeler has been criminally charged with nonfelonious misconduct in office, and two filmmakers have been charged with first-degree theft.

Prosecutors say more than $1.85 million in tax credits were fraudulently obtained for the movie The Scientist; another incident charges other filmmakers with attempting to turn tax credits into luxury-vehicle purchases.

Also at issue is the state's liability to reimburse the producers of projects completed in Iowa last year. Nineteen films that wrapped before the September suspension are presumably due tax credits.

Preserving Iowa's Land at Full Spectrum

The mention of Iowa conjures up bucolic landscapes, and Full Spectrum Productions of Des Moines (www.fullspectrumproductions.com) addressed those musings by producing The Land Remains, a one-hour program for Iowa Public Television on conservation and stewardship options for landowners.

The project "invokes the spirit of Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac," says president Kent Newman (at left in picture), and includes interviews with Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. "Iowa has some of the richest soil in the world. It's the # 1 producer of corn and soybeans in the country — but we're losing soil and they are not making any more of it."

Shot in spring 2009 with the RED camera and five Nikon lenses, the show is being edited on an Apple Final Cut Pro HD system with RAID array; the RED Rocket accelerator card expedites posting RED RAW files. Also underway: the low-budget indie, Fortnight, with Newman serving as DP.

To date, more than half of 99 active projects in various stages of preproduction and production have either been halted, lack funding or moved to another state, reports Becky Gruening, director of the Greater Des Moines Film Commission. She notes that just six major film productions are likely to proceed with filming in Iowa in 2010 "if their tax credits are honored at the percentage rate that they were given, which was 50 percent of the total (cost of production) before September 18. Today, the producers are being offered less."

Film commissions in Des Moines, southeast Iowa and the Quad Cities are still waiting to hear about "the status of 14 projects and if their agreement/contracts will be honored as written in 2009," Gruening says. Filmmakers are lobbying to delay the suspension of Iowa's incentives until Jan. 1, 2011. "That would give us a year to put a much stronger program together and prevent the state from losing two full seasons of filming," she points out.

MediaWork Tells Diverse Range of Stories

It's the contention of Davenport, Iowa's MediaWork Productions (www.mediaworkproductions.com) that "every person and every company has a story" and the company can "help them tell it," says co-owner/president Rich Webster (pictured seated with Joe Brown). The full-service video production house shoots a wide range of stories in HD, DVCAM and Beta SP and edits in its Media 100 suite.

MediaWork does fund-raising videos for non-profits and healthcare-education programs such as surgical demos which mix footage of procedures with physician interviews and commentary. "We've gotten good at having a small footprint and staying out of the way of people doing jobs more important than ours," says Webster of shooting in the OR. The company recently completed a shoot for America's Most Wanted and enjoys repeat business from Montel Williams and FOX News. In addition, every four years MediaWork sees "a spike" in political work as presidential hopefuls flock to the state.

A number of state legislatures want to revisit the issue in January to create a better program, too. In the meantime, the Iowa Film Office remains open under interim director Jessica Montana.

While Iowa currently has no incentives to offer to producers, Gruening says, "We are still selling what we always sell here: our diverse landscapes, such as flat lands, hills, cliffs and rivers, plus small-town America and rural communities. That's how The Bridges of Madison County and Field of Dreams came to be shot in Iowa in the days before our film incentives."

Missouri Shows Producers the Money
Missouri has a little more money in its incentive fund than many of the smaller players in the Hollywood sweepstakes: The state's fund is set at $4.5 million, with $3.3 million left for calendar 2010.

"We're trolling for a Hollywood feature now," says Jerry Jones, director of the Missouri Film Commission, who explained the state's offer. "A film with a $10 million budget typically spends $6 million on location for qualifying expenses. So that would earn the production about a $2 million credit, since we reimburse 35%."

Missouri also counts out-of-state wages as part of the local spend, and applies them toward the tax credit. "So if the DP comes here from out of state and Missouri income tax is withheld, that counts," says Jones.

Like many film office heads nationwide, Jones feels fortunate that Missouri has the same amount in its till as it did last year. "The legislature was contentious on the subject, due to the economy and because our state has numerous tax credit programs," he says. "So that made it tougher to get more money for our program this year."

Healthy Market for Avatar

From its St. Louis home Avatar Studios (www.avatar-studios.com) has kept busy with Illinois-based Christie Clinic, the subject of a three-spot campaign shot and posted by Avatar via agency Jones & Thomas/Decatur, Illinois. Avatar shot in its studio on greenscreen then lensed footage in and around St. Louis using the Sony XDCAM EX camcorder, Pro35 Zeiss lenses, Fisher 11 dolly and Jimmy Jib. The offline was done on Apple's Final Cut Pro with the online, compositing and graphics performed on the Avid Nitris DS. Avatar owner Bill Faris was the campaign's director and Doug Hastings its DP.

Faris says the company is expanding its global reach through Avatar International working on projects "such as content, distribution and display on big HD boards" for clients like Anheuser-Busch Satellite Network.

Recent shoots in Missouri include Paramount's Up In the Air, which shot in St. Louis for seven weeks, and Winter's Bone, a winner at Sundance in the dramatic competition category, which shot in Branson and Forsyth. Directed by Deborah Granik (a prior Sundance winner), Winter's Bone was picked up by distributor Coming Attractions and is set for release in June.

Missouri's TV credits include a segment for The History Channel's Life After People, shot at Bonne Terre Mine, which encompasses the largest underground lake in the world; part of an HBO doc about St. Louis Post-Dispatch founder Joseph Pulitzer, which shot in that city; and a segment for CBS's 48 Hours about Josh Keezer, who was wrongly incarcerated in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Also in the mix are Branson, a soon-to-be released doc from producer David Wilson about the entertainment mecca, the "Money Talks" music video from St. Louis native Nelly and various spots.

House of Motion Finds Itself in Sin Bin

St. Louis-based House of Motion's (www.motionphotography.us) owner/operator Dave Rutherford recently relied on the G-70 Steadicam equipped with an ARRI Lite 35mm with anamorphic lenses to shoot an indie comedy in Chicago, Sin Bin, from director Billy Federighi.

"It's interesting shooting anamorphic lenses since they're so wide," says Rutherford (pictured shooting Steadicam for the action flick The Tournament), "but you have to watch your horizon levels a little more, plus the lenses are heavier than the camera and the magazine combined." His rig also consisted of an MK-V four-post sled used to shoot taller actors.

Lately, Rutherford's biggest client is the Four Seasons hotel chain. He's been traveling nationwide shooting its customized TV program, Luxury Explorer, on the Sony F-900 HDCAM. In addition he's shooting MonsterFish for National Geographic Channel on Panasonic's VariCam and AJ-HDX900 cameras.

With the sesquicentennial of the Pony Express approaching "and a group of indie filmmakers already on hand to make a doc," Jones has upcoming productions to look forward to. But what he wants for Missouri is something most filmmakers want, too.

"Producers from Up In the Air have told me that, from the executive producer's standpoint, a state should have a pool of $30 million" in its incentive fund, "because that way there are no worries that the money will be gone by wrap time. And while no one would take (incentive) money away (from a production already shooting in the state), that's the reality vs. the perception."

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Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
Photo by South Dakota Office of Tourism
On the set of Meet Bill in O'Fallon, Missouri.
The Convincer shot in and around the Twin Cities for 30 days in February and March; Dick Pope was the DP.

Kansas Pitching to Resume Funding
Peter Jasso is feeling the pain that many film office directors around the country are also experiencing — Kansas had its relatively small $2 million incentive fund suspended by the state's legislature for 2009 and 2010.

What to do? "We'll be working within the industry to make our pitch at the start of the 2011 legislative session," which starts in January, says Jasso, the director of the Kansas Film Commission, who now works as a solo act.

Still, some indie films shot in the state during the past year. One was a "Bollywood"-style Telugu-language film called Afterlife (or Maro Charitra), a romance directed by Indian cinematographer Ravi Yadav. It included an Indian cast and crew that visited various locations in Kansas and other states.

ObliquityHD's Full-Service Capabilities Prove Advantageous

Diversity reigns at ObliquityHD (www.obliquityhd.com) in Lenexa, Kansas where owner Scott Henson (pictured, left, with jib) writes, produces and directs a wide range of projects originating in the Kansas City, Missouri metro area. In the current economic climate "everyone is trying to figure out what they can do to move forward," he says. "My ability to do a number of things works to my advantage."

Henson's production company creates high-end corporate marketing and web videos, regional and local spots and documentaries, including Inside the Presidency, about the Eisenhower-Nixon relationship, which aired on The History Channel. He typically hires crew and shoots with Panasonic HD cameras, "from VariCams to P2s," and edits on Apple's Final Cut Pro. Henson is also in demand to write, produce and direct for others. His long-term goal is "to make documentaries of substance and interest to me," and to that end he has several docs in development.

Almost ready for the marquee in Kansas is the horror film Nailbiter which was still in production at press time. From local filmmaker and horror vet Patrick Rea, the movie tells the story of a mother and her daughters taking cover from a tornado and discovering they've sheltered with a terrifying creature.

The Only Good Indian, a period drama directed by University of Kansas professor, Kevin Willmott, also wrapped within the last year. Shot in various Kansas locations, including Lawrence and Wichita, it starred Wes Studi and is airing on Starz cable.

One popular attraction in Kansas is Western Frontier Adventure, a combination tourist and production locale in the town of Easton. It's often employed for projects ranging from movies and spots to cable programming, including several scenes for The History Channel's America: The Story of Us.

Wichita's Intake Studio Launches Kansas City Division

Intake Studio (www.intakestudio.com), the Wichita-based motion graphics, VFX, animation, editorial and production company, has opened a satellite division in Kansas City, Missouri, reports president Troy Lott (pictured, left, with fellow principals Heath Balderston and Todd Schwartz). The new space expands the company's offerings for commercials, cross-platform advertising and interactive media and provides a centrally-located creative resource for agencies in the region. Earlier, Intake Studio's flagship office doubled its size and talent roster. It netted a dozen wins at this year's Wichita and Tulsa ADDYs, including Best of Broadcasting honors for its animated Tulsa Health Department campaign. "Intake Studio is like the little engine that could — steadily building a reputation and brand that reflect our philosophy and commitment to our craft as we gain momentum, attract more challenging work and maximize the production value our clients get out of every dollar," says Lott.

Speaking of television, promos for Kirstie Alley's A&E reality show, Kirstie Alley's Big Life, were shot in Wichita. John Deere produced a long-form spot in the Lawrence area.

While its tax incentives are on hold, Kansas (a right-to-work state) does offer a break on its hotel occupancy tax for stays of longer than 28 days. Jasso is looking at other avenues to promote the industry, too, such as working with the University of Kansas's film department to stage programs and workshops and maximizing PR opportunities at the Kansas City FilmFest, Kansas International Film Festival and the Tallgrass Film Festival.

Nebraska Showcases Strong Indie Presence
Nebraska is another MidAmerican state that does not offer film incentives, yet film officer Laurie Richards of the Nebraska Film Office says the locals are tuned into the fact that the industry is a big moneymaker.

While she doesn't foresee getting any incentive money anytime soon, "the Nebraska Film Association has been coordinating an effort to promote incentives, and there have been several senators that are interested in film legislation," she reports.

Nevertheless, the indie film industry has made its presence felt in Nebraska with recent productions such as April Showers from director Andrew Robinson, which shot in Plattsmouth; Lovely, Still, directed by Nik Fackler, which lensed in Omaha; and For Love of Amy, directed by Ted Lange, which shot in Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

And in mid-spring, there was a casting call from LA for the suspense/mystery thriller, Geocachers. Directed by David Willnerd, shooting commenced in June in the town of Western, Nebraska. Another indie, Trunked, is slated to lens at the same time in Lincoln.

Great Plains Motion Picture Company Zips Through Traffic

Director partners Rod Jensen and Steve Thiesfeld enjoy "the best of both worlds," says Jensen, working independently or with the support of Omaha's The Great Plains Motion Picture Company (www.thegreatplains.com), which they opened 20 years ago. The company offers a 5-ton grip and lighting truck plus three HD editing suites, one with an Autodesk Smoke. Jensen and Thiesfeld shoot coast to coast, often lensing spots for fast-food, banking/financial and healthcare clients.

Jensen recently directed and shot a promotional video from Ervin Integrated/Omaha for Sacramento-based Barrier Systems, which makes movable concrete barriers for traffic management. He gathered six additional DPs and mustered two RED cameras, a Canon 5D for timelapse and HD stick cameras on Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Bridge and a stretch of the I-30 in Dallas. "They were very challenging locations. No camera cars were allowed, and we couldn't pose any traffic hazards while we captured the Zipper machine moving the barriers."

The only Hollywood movie to visit in recent years was Up In the Air, which spent just one day in Omaha where the story was set. If Nebraska had film incentives would the producers have shot in state?

"Absolutely," Richards says. "The director, Jason Reitman, and the producers made it known that they would have spent a lot more time in Omaha if we had been able to offer film incentives."

While there isn't much TV production in Nebraska, the state does have an active spot market. "The locals know where they want to shoot and it is beneficial that there is no permitting process necessary in the state," Richards reports.

One location hotspot is the Old Market in an early 20th-century building in Omaha's warehouse district. There are a plethora of prairies and interesting geological features in the area, like Chimney Rock, Jail Rock and Courthouse Rock.

"We have little pockets of activity here and we have all of the basics, just not the incentives," says Richards. "I would say that we're a well-kept secret."

Dakotas Offer Own Cost Savings
While North Dakota doesn't offer film tax incentives and sticks to assisting producers with scouting through referrals from its tourism division, the effort is more focused south of the border, where the South Dakota Film Office does offer incentives.

To qualify, a production must exceed $250,000 in taxable costs incurred within the state; at that point, 100% of the sales and excise tax can be refunded. That typically amounts to about 6% of the total spend, according to spokesperson Katlyn Richter.

Also, if production crew (or anyone else) rents a hotel room in South Dakota for 28 consecutive days, the production is exempt from the city and state tax. The only caveat is that productions must apply 30 days before a shoot, and then send in receipts for the refund within 60 days after completion of the project.

Richter says shooting in South Dakota actually has more to do with what the state promotes as its "built-in" incentive — that is, no income tax on its citizens and corporations. "That makes for a bigger bang for the buck and has proven to be a good bargaining wedge."

Video Arts Delivers National TV Programming

Art and Mary Ann Phillips are the married co-owners of Fargo's Video Arts Studios (www.videoartsstudios.com), but this is no mom & pop business. The company has produced radio and TV commercials, corporate presentations and TV programming around the world since 1982; Hired Gums (www.hiredgums.com) is their national voiceover service. Video Arts shoots HD or SD on location or on its 2,000 square-foot greenscreen stage. The John Storyk-designed facility features two audio studios and a pair of HD online edit suites; a 1-ton grip truck is also available.

Continued work in the commercial and corporate arenas is Video Arts' mainstay, but general manager Art Philiips notes that "it is exciting to be working with Discovery Health, The History Channel and other networks producing television programming." The company's most recent "delivery" was Births Beyond Belief, a one-hour show that aired on Discovery Health (Troy Parkinson, Mitch Lee and Zach Marion pictured, left to right, shooting in Hawaii).

Richter also notes that obtaining products and services is very cost effective in the state, since its cost of living is relatively low compared to most of the country. "And we also have a talented crew base that's willing to travel the entire 400-plus miles across the state to work on productions," she says.

Another part of the equation is that the state is home to several universities offering arts programs with film classes. "All of those factors help, as do our various landscapes, from agricultural Midwest to mountains for that rugged, western look to the endless, wide-open spaces with roaming buffalo and rolling prairies," Richter notes.

Recent productions include a BBC doc about "Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank Baum, most of which was shot on location in the central part of South Dakota last spring.

On the indie front, Ephraim Media's Courageous Hart was shot 100% in the state. Written and directed by Tim Appel, it's the story of a young boxer who uses the talents he learned from his boxer-father to rise from poverty and pay for an operation for his childhood sweetheart.

Crow Ridge Grip and Audio Go Full Throttle

The reality TV phenomenon has been a revenue generator for Rapid City-based Crow Ridge Productions (www.crowridgeproductions.com), which offers professional services for film and video as well as western South Dakota's only grip truck. Husband and wife Rick and Chris Van Ness provided the grip truck to TruTV's Full Throttle Saloon set in Sturgis, South Dakota at "the biggest biker bar in the country," says Chris. As one of a crew of five, Rick also provided production sound, recording with a 5-channel Wendt mixer and Lectrosonic wireless lavaliers. The show's California-based production concern, A. Smith & Co., had five crews going 24/7 for 10 consecutive days, which paid off with six episodes that aired last fall.

What's next? "More of the same next season," reports Chris. Plus spot work for the Black Hills Playhouse and the Black Hills Film Festival and the indie film, You Don't Know Bertha Constantine, in the Badlands.

Also of note is You Don't Know Bertha Constantine, an indie short that illustrates the beauty of love and the outrageous acts it inspires. Written, directed and produced by Andrew Kightlinger, it's set in the Badlands.

Sara Coleman, director of the North Dakota Tourism Division office, says there has been some indie film activity in the state in recent years but has no way to track it. She reports more calls to her office and more interest in shooting in North Dakota in the last six months than in the past several years. Not having to get permits from the state is a big advantage for producers, she notes, although some cities do require permitting.