Northern Minnesota is a region of pristine and wild beauty, and soon the region’s forests and lakes could become the backdrop for movies and television shows. As state and local incentives continue to intrigue film industry executives, organizations like Lost Forty Studios and the Upper Midwest Film Office are working to bring more films to the area, a move that could provide a boost to Northern Minnesota’s economy and more job opportunities for local residents.
Nick Swedlund is a co-founder and producer for Lost Forty Studios, a studio and production services provider based in Chisholm, Minn. Swedlund is a Minnesota native who spent 10 years studying and working in the film industry in Los Angeles before returning to Minneapolis. Over the years he’s had experience in many areas of film, including writing, direction and production, and he’s now putting those skills to work in Northern Minnesota.
“I’ve been doing my part to help build the Minnesota film community,” Swedlund said.
Lost Forty Studios had its beginnings at the 2019 Catalyst Story Institute & Content Festival, the nation’s only independent television festival that is now held in Duluth every fall. It was at the festival that Swedlund and business partner, Matt Roy of Headwaters Entertainment, met Karl Gajdusek, a producer who has written screenplays for films such as Oblivion and has worked as a showrunner on shows such as Stranger Things. Gajdusek, Swedlund and Roy began the plan to start Lost Forty Studios together, which started its first productions in January 2022.
“We’ve successfully produced three projects, two in Chisholm and one in Duluth,” Swedlund said. “The state, as well as St. Louis County and the Iron Range, have reimbursement incentives for films, and these incentives are the primary reason that films are happening here. When you combine them all, they’re the best incentives in North America, and they’re acting like a beacon to the film industry.”
The idea of film coming to Northern Minnesota could be good news for the local economy. Currently, Lost Forty Studios has been working with independent films and TV shows coming to Northern Minnesota, typically with budgets from $500,000 to $2 million. Half of those budgets are spent locally, which brings an opportunity to diversify local economies: many pockets of the Northern Wilds have economies that are heavily dependent on tourism, which can be challenging when tourism demand is concentrated during just a few months of the year. Film opportunities, by contrast, could provide more year-round income for local workers and businesses. For example, one of the films that Lost Forty Studios recently produced was filmed in Chisholm in January. This brought an injection of spending to the area during a time of year when local hotels, restaurants, and shops typically see lighter traffic. Not only that, but the film industry brings opportunities for locals to find non-tourism related work.
“Film is a great opportunity to change careers,” Swedlund said. “It’s a common misconception that you need some sort of degree to work in the film industry, but that’s not true. The majority of jobs are blue-collar skills, such as construction or transportation. And one of the most amazing things about the film industry is the transferable skills. Have a background in graphic design? We could use your skills in the art department. Finance and accounting? We need those skills in production. Writing or more creative skills—it’s all transferable.”
Despite the promising incentives and opportunities, large-scale film productions still need large crews and the infrastructure to support those crews. To help with some of this, Lost Forty Studios partners with the Upper Midwest Film Office, which is headquartered in Duluth, to put on quarterly workforce training workshops. These workshops typically take place over a weekend, and train about 20 new people at a time to work on film sets. Swedlund said that funding for the Chisholm workshops comes through the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, while the Upper Midwest Film Office is working with the City of Duluth and other partners to bring more workshops to Duluth. (The goal is to alternate workshop locations between Duluth and Chisholm.) The next of these weekend workshops will take place October 21-23.
“Putting on these workshops is essential. More crew means more films will come here, and more films means more jobs for crew,” Swedlund said.