A ‘Catalyst’ for economic change

Onstage at the NorShor Theatre, television producers and other showmakers answer questions from the audience after a screening of a new TV show at the 2019 Catalyst Festival in Duluth.


The Catalyst Story Institute envisions a day when Duluth is a major hub of independent television and episodic storytelling, feeding the world’s endless appetite for new streaming content. In 2019, the in-person Catalyst Content Festival drew 1,100 television executives, creators, and fans to Duluth and brought $1.7 million into the local economy.  

Now, with the recently announced connection with Duluth Sister Cities International, Catalyst is extending its global outreach. “A key goal is to create long-term relationships between Duluth and the artists’ home cities,” explained Ben Thwaits, executive director of Duluth Sister Cities International.  

“This is where real magic can happen,” continued Thwaits. “These deep, lasting relationships across the globe can create transformative cultural, economic and personal impact locally and abroad.”  

Thwait sees the partnership with Catalyst Story Institute representing a leap of growth and innovation for Duluth Sister Cities. “Yet it’s still directly in our wheelhouse,” he said. “We’ve been hosting international delegations for 35 years. It’s what we do. We’re excited to create an experience of a lifetime for these visiting artists.”

Catalyst has already begun exploring relationships with international film offices and artists, with the goal of up to 1,250 international artists attending the 2021 Catalyst Content Festival from Sept. 29-Oct. 3, whether the festival is in-person or virtual.

“While an in-person festival experience is obviously ideal, we realize it may be too early to count on that,” said Philip Gilpin Jr., Catalyst executive director, “In parallel with planning for an in-person festival, we’ll be ready to launch a great virtual event if needed.”

Catalyst is working with the U.S. State Department’s “Innovative Station: Creative Industry Lab” on a multi-city collaboration. The organizers have been talking to people in Algeria, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, South Korea, New Zealand and Hungary, said Gilpin. “Creating pathways for new voices and storytellers from all corners of the globe to have their stories shared is at the heart of Catalyst’s mission.”

In this international effort, Catalyst will collaborate with “Careers in Entertainment,” founded by the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation. This international showcase will advance new voices and storytellers from 10 countries on six continents, with up to five finalists and 10 semi-finalists selected from each country.

Gilpin said, “For too long, too many artists have felt a lack of connection to our industry, and this collaboration with The Innovation Station: Creative Industry Lab is a solution that gives creators opportunities for advancement in the industry. This initiative places the Catalyst Story Institute (and by extension its home city of Duluth) at the center of the global independent television industry.”

Gilpin noted how Catalyst chose Duluth because the arts are important to the area, and the group is looking to put Duluth on the map as an international hub. “Getting one major national television series to film here would bring more money to the local economy than Cirrus, UMD and Minnesota Power combined,” Gilpin said.

Catalyst’s ongoing Story Institute is more than just a one-off annual festival, according to Gilpin. He sees it as a year-round endeavor to discover artists, curate stories and advance careers.

“Our Institute can help create the nexus for the region’s arts scene, businesses, and related industries. Everything we need is already here. We just need to fund it, bring the right people together and it can skyrocket,” added Gilpin. “We want to stress that the arts are an industry, not a life amenity.”

Catalyst works with artists who are in the business of storytelling and production, encouraging those who are interested in making series with multiple episodes. Catalyst’s Institute offers a step-by-step pathway of meetings, workshops, seminars, festivals, and social events. It helps participants to build relationships, find jobs and agents and make career partnerships.

Writers, directors, creators, actors and producers are invited to present and discuss episodic content no matter the genre, length or style. Once people register to work with the institute, they also have access to a number of videos covering all aspects of the process.

Riki McManus and the Upper Midwest Film Office have long been the movers and the shakers when it came to feature films being made in the area. Now, having Catalyst as another voice for the episodic television and streaming genre has meant additional visibility. 

According to McManus, who directs the office, “We have so many things to offer here for films and shows, from the grit of the mining region to the industrial areas, from our natural geographic beauty to many old buildings and homes. We have all four seasons. We fill a lot of needs.”

McManus noted how the film and television industry builds the local economy, in part through job creation. The industry needs carpenters, seamstresses, construction workers, production assistants, drivers and many other technical specialties. It also benefits local shops, restaurants, hotels and housing. “This can be the fastest source of job creation,” said McManus. “From Insty-Prints to lumber yards, fabric shops to caterers, the amount of money spent with local businesses will be enormous.”

St. Louis County’s commissioners recently approved up to $1 million for 2021 for incentives for film and TV crews to apply for rebates on eligible expenses to be run by the Upper Midwest Film Office.

“We are so excited and appreciative,” said McManus. She added that she has more than two dozen productions interested in filming in the region, and these expanded county incentives will go a long way in encouraging projects to come here. 

“One of the many long-game storylines that was developing behind-the-scenes was a friendly understanding among local community leaders that if Catalyst showed it was legit and 1000+ filmmakers and industry execs actually showed up to Duluth, the community would support the future growth of our industry here. Well, everyone showed up and now parts of the community are holding up their end of the deal by putting real cash towards future productions,” said Gilpin 

McManus noted, “This is a starting point for building a full crew base and all the other necessary production industry pieces needed in the Northland. We are running ‘boot camps’ to help people understand the types of jobs that will be needed. We will be working with the colleges, universities and technical schools in the region to connect students with these potential opportunities as well.” 

Shari Marshik, who works with Upper Midwest Film Office, said, “It is exciting to contemplate that so many people may live, create and work here with a whole paradigm shift from the L.A. and New York scene. This is such an exciting way to put so many regional people to work. This is not a replacement for other industries. This creative economy can only add to that.”

Sheryl Jensen is a Duluth-based freelance writer.