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Local filmmakers weigh in on the demise of Michigan's film incentive program

Lon and Diane Stratton of Stratton Camera

Chris Anderson at Crisler Arena

Lon and Diane Stratton of Stratton Camera

Chris Anderson at Crisler Arena

Donald Harrison at the Ypsi Experimental Space

Donald Harrison at the Ypsi Experimental Space

U-M screenwriting professor Jim Burnstein

U-M screenwriting professor Jim Burnstein

Michigan's film incentives program – which former Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm signed into law in April 2008, and current Republican Governor Rick Snyder scaled back by applying a cap of $25 million in 2011 (before halting the program altogether in 2015) – played the role of political football from the get-go.

Supporters argued that the state had to focus on the long-term revenue potential, and get ourselves on Hollywood's radar (by way of an aggressive 40 percent rebate for film production companies), before we'd see a significant return on our investment. Critics argued the rebates-to-revenue ratio would never tip in Michigan's favor, and that the longer we stayed on the film incentives path, the more money the state would stand to lose.

In the end, when Snyder was voted into office, the program's critics won the day, and the program started being phased out. Indeed, the recently released Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was among the last Hollywood productions to be filmed in Michigan, drawn to the Mitten State by incentives.

So now that the film incentives program appears in our collective rearview, it's a fair time to ask local filmmakers: What legacy, if any, did they leave behind?

Back where we started

Lon and Diane Stratton of Stratton CameraLon and Diane Stratton, of Stratton Camera in Farmington Hills, oversee a business that's been renting high-end motion picture equipment since 1984, so when Hollywood came calling, they tried to keep their cool.

"There was never a doubt in my mind that this was going to be temporary," said Lon Stratton. "So we didn't re-structure our business. … We said to ourselves, ‘We were here before the incentives, and we're going to be here long after the incentives go away, so let's not overreact. Let's take the business while it's here, but let's maintain our relationships with the customers we had before, too. That was our take on it. … But it was sure nice while it lasted."

Having been in business for so long, the Strattons have watched the film landscape in Michigan shift – from skewing heavily toward industrial films in the 80s and 90s, to commercial films becoming predominant in the early 2000s.

Then came that fateful day of Michigan's film incentives being signed into law.

"It really was like someone flipped a switch," said Lon Stratton. "We were all sitting around, …and we thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder what's going to happen,' when the phones started to ring." 

"It was like going from 0 to 100," said Diane Stratton. "It happened so fast."

The Strattons didn't have enough equipment to meet the sudden, enormous spike in demand –from the production teams of movies like Scream 4, Real Steel, Five Year Engagement, Transformers and more – but they supplied everything they could while also offering up the names of locally-based crew workers. (The incentives encouraged production companies to hire Michigan residents by offering an additional rebate.)

Once again, in regard to manpower, demand far outstripped supply. Though critics had argued that the incentives didn't create enough full-time job opportunities, Lon Stratton explained that crew work is, by definition, a profession that's performed by contractors.

"A lot of these guys got used to making a different kind of living when the movies were here," said Lon Stratton. "Before, they'd get jobs that lasted anywhere between one and five days, and they'd depend on getting lots of those jobs. With movies, they'd be booked for weeks or months on one job. A lot of local crew people got used to that. … So when the incentives stopped, a lot of them left the state to pursue more of that type of work."

As for the Strattons, with the exception of having a shorter list of potential crew workers, "We're kind of back where we started," said Lon Stratton.

Building an industry takes time and investment

Chris Anderson at Crisler ArenaSomeone who aimed to work on a film production, but didn't get the necessary training in time, was Ann Arbor's Chris Anderson, who works for Apple and does occasional video work for Michigan Sports Television.

"I was doing a lot of TV work, but my plan was, I'll take this seminar and try to transition into doing film work," said Anderson. "I know how to do the things film crews need to be able to do, but it doesn't matter now. They're not coming anymore."

By way of comparison, Anderson points to Georgia, which has, in recent years, lured multiple movie and TV crews with 30 percent rebates, and thus built a multi-billion dollar industry.

"If they hadn't put effort into that, it wouldn't have happened," said Anderson. " … When you're building an industry up, you need to put money down. Anyone building a business will tell you, you don't expect to make money out of the gate. But once people recognize the quality of the people here, the work ethic, the landscapes you can't see anywhere else, then you realize that it's not about getting in an arms race with Georgia or anyplace else. … It just feels like it when you're trying to get in."

Indeed, U-M screenwriting professor Jim Burnstein – who worked many years to draft, develop, and advocate for Michigan's incentives package – explained that the plan all along was to pull the rebate rate back to a competitive-but-more-modest level once Michigan had some productions under its belt.

"We were in a position to lower our incentive, and that's in fact what we proposed," said Burnstein. "It would be a loss leader for the first three years, but once people knew they could make a film here, we could pull (the rebate) back to 30 or 35 percent, and producers could base a decision on, well, where are there good crews? Where are there good locations? Is this a state that knows how to work with the film industry? … There were many of us that wanted to go back and change things (in the incentives legislation). We knew there had been abuses – producer fees and the rest of it – but we were told, every time we wanted to do that, that if we open up the bill at all, they'll kill it."

Donald Harrison at the Ypsi Experimental SpaceAnn Arbor-based indie filmmaker Donald Harrison – a former Director of The Ann Arbor Film Festival who's currently crowdfunding for a documentary about Ann Arbor's Community High School – vividly remembers a 2008 Sundance Film Festival panel about incentives that seemed painfully prophetic.

"Michigan had the highest incentive at the time, and all the film commissioners from the other states were saying, ‘It's not going to last. Don't go to Michigan. They're going to pull the plug one day and you'll be stuck.' They seemed to be ganging up on the Michigan guy. … But they knew as soon as there was fear that (the incentives) might go away, people wouldn't want to put their eggs in that basket, and instead would go somewhere where they feel like they don't have to worry, and won't run into problems."

Harrison, for his part, has been far more affected by the recent ascension of online videosharing than by Michigan's short-lived incentives, building a business (7 Cylinders Studio) that produces videos for organizations and companies.

"There's more work out there than I can take on, so it's all about figuring out, as a small business, how to grow and scale up," said Harrison. " … The work is not just doing the work, but working to get the work. … One of my biggest clients right now is out in California. He hired local animators for this documentary. There are five of us working on it. … He loves it. He feels
like we're hard working, and talented, and cool, but he's not paying Silicon Valley prices for the work. It's interesting to have that dynamic working at the national level."

Plus, as Harrison noticed, the Michigan Film Office appears, on its web page, to have been recently renamed the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office.

"That's encouraging," Harrison said. "But I don't know if they're actually doing anything to encourage digital media production, or if they did, what that would look like. So that remains to be seen."

"There's no business here."

U-M screenwriting professor Jim BurnsteinBurnstein, meanwhile, has felt an obligation to be blunt with his students.

"I'm honest with them," Burnstein said. "There is no business here. If you can find an independent film to work on, there's that, but the last of the incentives are playing out. … There is no film industry here. … I can't lie to my students. I can't lie to my son."

Burnstein tells the story of Granholm turning to him, upon signing the incentives legislation, and saying, "Tell your students to stay." And many of them did, "getting opportunities they never would have in L.A., where they would have been competing with people from 49 other states," said Burnstein.

Among those students was Marc Zakalik, who went from washing dishes at his uncle's restaurant, Cafe Zola, to pitching in on the script for Youth in Revolt, and subsequently getting work on several big budget productions that came to Michigan.

"(The incentives) were working exactly as we'd hoped, and even a little better than thought," Burnstein said. "The productions came more quickly than we'd anticipated. We'd been figuring that maybe in 5 to 10 years, we'd have a half billion dollar industry in Michigan, but we were on track to hit that in 5, easily."

According to the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 25 films, TV shows, and video productions were filmed in Washtenaw County between 2009-2015. By way of an update, City of Ann Arbor Communications Director Lisa Wondrash wrote, in an email, "We haven't had any film projects in the city for several years, nor do we have any on the horizon that I know of."

In Burnstein's view, rampant misinformation and confusion contributed to the incentives' downfall – "It was designed to create jobs, not subsidize films, per se," said Burnstein – so that even though more and more Michiganders landed jobs, with each successive production, and some non-local film folks bought homes and tried to put down roots, there was no changing the
incentives' doomed course.

After all the time and effort Burnstein invested in Michigan's now-dead film incentives, does he now feel they were a waste?

"That's a tough question for me," said Burnstein. "I felt like I donated 9 years to a cause that I believe in, and I saw it work. But I also saw us give it away. If I had it to do over again – I don't know. For a few years I couldn't talk about it. I was too bitter. But now I look back at the experience and careers it provided for my students, and that part of it makes me very happy."

Jenn McKee is freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a  pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
 
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