As Michigan's once-wobbly movie business builds, key questions emerge: Does the 42-per-cent state kickback help? Is it worth it?
That was the key subject when the East Lansing Film Festival had its forum. In a moment, I'll relate what filmmakers said.
Remember that there's still plenty of the festival to catch -- through Wednesday at the Hannah Community Center, through Thursday at Celebration Cinema. (Details are at www.elff.com.) But the portion of the festival focusing on state filmmakers has passed; here's my account of the forum:
After two years of going Hollywood, how
is Michigan doing?
Bad or good, depending on whom you ask.
“We're such a negative state in general,” filmmaker Amy Weber
said at the East Lansing Film Festival. “Anything positive, it gets
She's heard the arguments: Michigan
dishes out more in incentives than it gets back in taxes; the program
“The whole premise got a little
confused,” Weber insisted. The idea was never to instantly break
even, she said. “It was always to build another industry in
By that standard, filmmakers said, the
program has become a quick success. “This summer, there were eight
films going at once” in Michigan, said Jeffery Schultz, who makes
short Detroit films.
That compares to – well, close to
zero some summers. “We've gone from $2 million (annual impact) to
$600 million,” Weber said. “What other industry can do that?”
A movie industry arrives quickly, but
there's a catch: “It can leave just as fast,” said Scott Magie.
He made films in Mississippi and North
Carolina, before moving to East Lansing for his wife's grad-school.
Hollywood can fall in love with one state, he said, then switch to
one with a better deal.
The worst-case scenario has Hollywood
bringing all its own people into Michigan, taking the incentives (up
to 42 per cent of the budget) and leaving nothing behind. That
happens sometimes, Weber granted. “They bring in their (directors
of photography) and gaffers.”
But gradually, filmmakers say,
Hollywood is filling jobs in-state. “There are people I used to
hire all the time (for documentaries),” said Carrie Lezotte. “But
they're working on bigger features now.”
So she hires new people or ones fresh
from bigger jobs. Little films build and sustain a talent pool, Weber
said. “I don't think the Michigan Film Office cares if it's $50,000
or $50 million.”
The $50,000 figure is the minimum
budget for getting incentives. Film-festival examples include:
– Lezotte submitted a $107,000 budget
for “Regional Roots,” a Detroit documentary. Most of that
qualified and she got about $35,000 in state incentives. She was able
to hire top technical talent – and hire herself. “Now I'm
actually able to make a living and pay my interns.”
– Weber budgeted $92,000, got about
$34,000 in incentives and hired heavily. “My crew was humongous,”
After years of making commercials and
industrial films in Royal Oak, she created “Annabelle & Bear,”
with a hulking, tattooed biker suddenly in charge of a 2-year-old
daughter he barely knows. Sometimes gritty, often charming, the film
has drawn applause and awards at festivals.
Part of the appeal involves Olivia
Walby, who was 2 when this was filmed. In movie history, Weber said,
this is “the youngest film actor to make a feature-film debut in a
Part has involved the movie's rich
music score, with 12 Michigan acts. “It's just beautiful,” she
And much of it involves the production
quality. Talent worked for the minimum, but with the possibility of
deferred payments. If everything clicks, Weber said, the budget
She's talking to distributors and
insisting that “Annabelle” get at least a token moment in
theaters. “If you work so hard, you should go (see it in) a movie
In the independent-movie world,
however, that's just a fringe. “With the Internet and downloading,
it's an industry that's completely been revamped,” Schultz said.
Movies are sold directly, Magie said.
“The niche market is the future of independent filming.”
It allows people to keep making small
movies – and maybe to perpetuate a Michigan movie industry.