Nearly $267,000 of Minnesota Taxpayer Money Given to 'Tonight Show'

Snowbate program creates a 20 to 25 percent refundable tax credit

Getty Images

The Tonight Show told the state it spent more than $3 million to air in Minnesota, including a $162,000 paycheck for host Jimmy Fallon. Records obtained by Minnesota Public Radio via public records request indicate the show also pocketed $266,834.50 through a Minnesota government rebate program amid questionable eligibility.

The Snowbate program creates a 20 to 25 percent refundable tax credit for production costs of films to attract films.

Only certain expenses—excluding alcohol—were eligible.

Show staff lodging totaled $380,000, in-state production personnel cost more than $320,000, and several days of renting the Orpheum Theatre amounted to $275,000.

That doesn't count food tabs, including a $139.50 dinner and $45 of vitamin water for Super Bowl performer Justin Timberlake.

Documents show NBC received a $266,834.50 check last July for more than $1 million in qualifying purchases. That's more than half of the $500,000 the Legislature allocated to the Snowbate program in 2017-18 fiscal year.

Minnesota Film and TV Board email via Minnesota Public Radio public records request

Officials initially denied the incentive to Fallon due to Minnesota law.

But officials reclassified The Tonight Show as a "variety show," although some questioned the decision, so they could spend taxpayer money, clearing legal barriers.

One consultant questioned the handout because NBC had Super Bowl rights that year.

"They are coming here anyway because of the event, no further incentive needed," wrote Michelle Caron, a long-time industry consultant.

Melodie Bahan, an executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, which requires state consent to issue rebate checks, urged the executive committee of her board to approve the subsidy to keep their ongoing relationship with NBC/Comcast.

Bahn said she saw it as an opportunity to hire 100 plus local people and pay them well, not as a "controversial decision."

"I am very confident in the process that we followed and that we did everything correctly," she wrote. "And the program worked the way the program is designed to work,"

Annual appropriations for the rebate from FY 2014-17 ranged from $3.5-6 million but was slashed to $500,000 in Fiscal 2018-19.

That funding drop may have crowded out other Minnesota film opportunities such as Timmy Failure, a $40 million Disney film, an ABC-TV series called In an Instant from a fourth season, and a Warner Bros film Clouds, about local teenager singer-songwriter Zach Sobiech's battle with cancer that shows how he created a viral internet song in his final years.

Minnesota Film & TV officials said they will film Clouds in Canada if Minnesota offers no incentives.

The organization claims that from 2013-18, 260 Snowbate projects resulted in $81.9 million in spending and $60 million in wages for 9,237 Minnesota residents.

Officials discussed whether the one-off nature of the show rather than a movie lived up to the grant's mission.

"To simply give away funds to a large company that would shoot here regardless, with almost no hope for return isn't responsible on our part, especially when the statute is clear," wrote film producer Michael Tabor, a member of the advisory committee and a current film board member.

In 2015, Fallon took his show to Phoenix—a state without an active TV and film industry tax incentive program.

Bahan said whether The Tonight Show would have come with or without the Minnesota money is "not relevant to the program" because "it's not a requirement in the statute or guidelines,'' she wrote.

Others disagreed, emails show.

"I'm fairly certain we could look at the list of Snowbate recipients and find numerous examples of projects that received funds that would have happened regardless," wrote advisory committee member Emily Stevens.

In a March 2018, DEED Deputy Commissioner Kevin McKinnon told then-agency Commissioner Shawntera Hardy that Snowbate needed to refocus on laws to keep spending in check.

"Example – the Film Board paid 'The Tonight Show' $266,000 for Jimmy Fallon to have dinner with a MN family around the Super Bowl," McKinnon wrote, referencing an internal analysis of various project values. "If we are going to keep it, some guidance in law would be helpful to create threshold investments that are eligible for Snowbate."

Bahan said rules might change to emphasize the long-term economic impact of the program.

Final guidelines could be released by the end of summer. Snowbate awards' applications are paused until then.