SPECIAL REPORT: MICHIGAN TAKES FILM PRODUCTION SERIOUSLY
LANSING, MI — Thanks to some fairly aggressive tax incentives for productions shooting in Michigan, as well as for those establishing businesses here, some are referring to the state as "the new Canada," which has been the popular choice for cost efficient film production. But Michael Shore, communications manager at Michigan's Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), prefers "the new Hollywood."
While the state has had a film office operating since the late 1970s, it was about a year ago that the legislature passed, and Governor Jennifer Granholm signed, a new package of incentives for those doing production work in Michigan and additional incentives for the establishment of location and film production facilities in the state — details can be found at: www.michiganfilmoffice.org.
Since this legislation, Michigan has seen an extraordinary jump in business. Between April of last year and the end of 2008, 35 films did production work here. That's about $125 million in total business generated in Michigan compared to three films and $2 million spent in 2007. "What you are seeing is a 12-fold increase in the number of productions in the state and about a 60-fold increase in the number of expenditures in the state," reports Shore, saying this jump is directly related to the incentives.
LET THE GROWTH BEGIN
In addition, in February of this year, he says, the Michigan Economic Growth Authority — the state entity that authorizes tax credits — awarded tax credits to three production companies to locate production facilities in Michigan.
Motown Motion Pictures is opening soundstages and more in a former GM truck plant in Pontiac; Detroit Center Studios, owned by LA's Wonderstruck, is taking over the old MGM Casino with a large visual effects and animation studio; and Stardock Systems, a small computer gaming company already doing business in Michigan, is expanding in Plymouth Township, just southwest of Detroit. All three companies expect to be up and running by the end of 2009.
"In total, those three entities will invest about 156 million dollars in the state and create about 6,000 permanent, five-day-a-week jobs," says Shore, who describes the MEDC as an agency of the state overseen by an executive committee appointed by the governor, but independently operated. The state's film commission is housed within the MEDC (www.themedc.org).
These new ventures join already established post and production companies in Michigan, such as Farmington Hills-based Grace & Wild, Oak Park's Ringside Creative and Southfield's Parallax Production Studios, which has announced a $60 million deal with New Castle Entertainment.
"Our tax credits aren't cash in hand," says Shore. "They are a guarantee of discounts on their state taxes. They become part of the financing package. Someone starting a production facility here can go to investors and say when we hit agreed-upon targets in terms of investment and employment, we will see a significant reduction in state taxes over a number of years. It will be a valuable part of the cash flow going forward."
But it's not just in the area of film production that Michigan is being aggressive. With the decline in the auto industry here going back nine years, they have been well ahead of the rest of the country in terms of recessionary economics. "We need to diversify our economy, we've known that for generations, and it got really obvious in the last 10 years," says Shore. And the way to do that was in knowledge- and talent-based industries, and film production is one piece of that."
TRAINING & RETRAINING
With all these new jobs opening up in Michigan, the state knows it has to retrain people who have been laid off in other job sectors, like the automotive industry. "It is absolutely part of the plan," says Shore. "It's not just about providing incentives for film production or locating studios here, but to work it through our educational system so there is a workforce that is competent to do the work we hope to grow here."
Currently, the Michigan Film Office is reaching out to people in training programs around the state, and Michigan State University and Lansing Community College are working on a joint program.
According to Charles Steinfield, professor/chair, Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University in East Lansing, the school has a number of courses that target the film industry. Most of these courses already existed or were under development even before the film incentive law was passed, but they "are involved in a certificate program to aid in retraining under or unemployed workers in cooperation with LCC and Capital Area Michigan Works," he says. "This is aimed at helping to fill the void for entry-level workers with enough familiarity with work on a set to be useful."
The program offers TV, cinema and radio concentration, and has such courses as "Story, Sound and Motion; Introduction to Audio and Video; Film Style Production for Cinema and TV; Producing for Cinema and TV; and Design of Cinema and TV Projects. In addition, a number of other courses, such as 3D animation, multi-camera production and audio production are part of this major.
"We also have two new specializations, to be offered jointly, such units as the 'Film Studies program in English,' that are currently under final review as the University Curriculum Committee," says Steinfield. "One is on fiction film production, which will involve a senior capstone course involving the making of a fiction film, and the second is on documentary studies, which will have its own capstone documentary course."
To emphasize its commitment, the department of film has hired Andrea Meditch, executive producer of Man on Wire (winner of Best Documentary Academy Award this year), to direct their Film and Media Arts Initiatives.
Steinfield feels the state's tax incentives directly affect the university. "By attracting productions to the state, they are helping to create opportunities for both students and faculty. Students are finding opportunities to intern and work in the summer on sets, and it is encouraging graduates to look for work opportunities here instead of Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. Industry professionals are coming to the state, and this creates opportunities for visits to class or talks with student groups. Production companies are looking for ways to partner with the university, and our department, to pursue projects that qualify for the incentives and create opportunities for students and faculty. It's been a tremendous benefit to our program."
Steinfield also expects an influx of students into its cinema programs as a result of the growing film industry in Michigan. "This area really excites students."
For its part, the MEDC has approved training funds for the project through its Economic Development Job Training program. The MEDC will provide an employee training grant of $2,000 per job for up to 106 new jobs expected to be filled in the first two years of the project. This training grant could be worth up to $200,000; it doesn't only apply to film production, but it certainly helps new businesses like Detroit Center Studios, Stardock and Motown Motion Pictures.
So the next time you are considering heading north to Canada to shoot your film, maybe consider heading up north to Michigan instead.