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It's Friday afternoon on a normally sleepy Bloomfield Hills cul-de-sac lined with modest ranches and tri-levels with big, sloping yards. But today, 27 cars border the road. At the bottom of the street, adjacent to the neighborhood playground, are four RVs, a catering tent, a process trailer, a generator, three box trucks, three trailers—one with gold stars on the doors—and dozens of people milling around with headsets and walkie-talkies.
The entourage of people, vehicles and equipment will be here all weekend shooting scenes for an independent film, The Job, a dark, comedic thriller starring Patrick Flueger, Ron Perlman, Taryn Manning and Joe Pantoliano.
The film is one of the first productions to take advantage of Michigan's new film incentives package, and one of at least 22 approved by both the Michigan Film Office and the Treasury. The production spent a month filming in Detroit, but also in Bloomfield Hills, where one suburban neighborhood amiably dealt with congestion, late-night activity, and general hubbub in the name of healthy Michigan commerce.
Hollywood Apathy No More
But the skies weren't always so sunny or star-studded in the mitten state. In fact, past years have seen numerous films that were set in Metro Detroit, but actually filmed elsewhere, like the Assault on Precinct 13 remake, Birmingham native Mike Binder’s The Upside Of Anger and The Crow—even Detroit Rock City, which was primarily shot in Toronto.
But today, the tides are turning as metro Detroit has a chance to become the next Toronto or Vancouver B.C., a place where producers of feature films, music videos, and television pilots flock for the cash back incentives—namely a 40 to 42 percent rebate on all Michigan expenditures.
Already productions are looking to the mitten state as the place to shoot. Aside from the incentive package (which is, of course, a mighty big hook), Michigan boasts a wide range of geographies and settings. Need coastline? We're second only to Alaska. Looking for small town Americana? The state is blessed with some of the most photogenic downtowns around. Shooting a battle in the Sahara? Sleeping Bear Dunes has more sand than you can imagine. And though winters are long, we've got all four seasons on full display. From gritty urban mean streets to ivy-strewn college campuses, Michigan can stand-in for virtually any place a film production might require.
And Hollywood is starting to get it. Whip It, a rollerderby movie set to star Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page had already begun shooting in Austin, Texas when they caught wind of what Michigan had to offer and moved their production north.
Bob Brown a consultant to the Michigan Film Office and producer with Farmington-based Charity Island Pictures, sees nothing but upside for the state. He talks of investment returns of 25 percent and soundstages moving into long empty auto warehouses in Ypsilanti and twentysomethings finally seeing a reason to stay in Michigan with a evangelist's zeal.
"With the stroke of a pen we've created a creative economy that didn't exist here before," Brown says. "In the 60 days that we've been on the books we have had $200 million, brand new dollars, float into the state. We're the most aggressive in the country and it's working."
"Where else are you going to get a response like that?" Brown said at the meeting. "State investment in alternative energy companies or biotech will take years to realize. With the film industry it's almost immediate. They're ready to do business here now and if we do this right they'll keep coming."
So, with what is now the best film incentive package in the United States, how can Hollywood's attention on our state translate to booming business for local communities?
Talk to Me, Baby
"The biggest thing communities and organizations can do is respond quickly and comprehensively to film industry requests," says Carolyn Artman, manager of Film Detroit, an arm of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. A point person within city governments, visitor bureaus or chambers can serve as a liaison with film crews and help expedite approvals for filming while communicating with appropriate public departments, like police and fire.
"Sometimes it takes an act of city council to get a location approved," says Mark Adler, director of the nonprofit Michigan Film Alliance. "For a feature film it might be okay to drag out a week, but when commercial producers come from out of state, they don't have that kind of time."
Bob Brown points out that movies shoot all hours of the day and that communities should be savvy enough to assign a go-to guy for a visiting production company, a liaison producers can call any time of day to find what they need locally.
"The biggest learning curve for Michigan communities is responsiveness," Brown explains. "There's real world speed. There's business world speed. And then there's the entertainment industry speed, which is 'we need an answer right now.’ Our sense of urgency is a thousand times greater than the real world because it costs us so much money to make a movie. 'I'll take a couple of days to get back to you' just doesn't work. You can take a couple minutes to get back to me but otherwise we're moving on."
Resources and Infrastructure
But while solid, speedy and friendly communications will help Michigan communities attract film business, our region also needs the resources, in terms of people and equipment, to meet Hollywood demands.
According to Adler, film crews look for production office space, serving as temporary headquarters, where they can easily put in phone lines and Wi-Fi. They may also need residential accommodations. Adler says that condo developments in Ferndale and Royal Oak have benefited from several film groups staying there. Metromode recently wrote about the impact this has had on the local apartment rental market.
But that means identifying property owners in your community who are flexible enough to grant three or four month leases instead of the traditional year-long commitment. Film crews may not stay long but the production company will rent large blocks of rooms and apartments for the duration of their stay.
Crews also need transportation and food. Dan Gearig of Ciao Catering in Grand Blanc is catering The Job, which is the sixth film his company has catered in Michigan. "It's great. It's real money that's helping people out," says Gearig. "This is real cash for chauffeurs, caterers, hotels, lots of people."
Production vehicles are yet another necessity but appear to be in short supply. The star trailer, process trailer and honeywagons for The Job came from Chicago.
And probably most importantly, an ample supply of skilled production people and of actors are also necessary. While The Job eventually found needed crew, it took longer than normal.
"The film package itself is great, but resources for crew were very limited. There were three or four productions trying to hire the same crew we were," says Tuffendsam, who ended up with a crew composed of 65 percent locals. Which dovetails with the incentive packages goals. Michigan communities, with unemployment rates higher than the rest of the country, have an opportunity to turn today's crew shortages into tomorrow's job opportunities.
Even with production challenges, Tuffendsam is positive about his Michigan film experience and says that he understood the film would encounter challenges because Michigan was not used to doing multiple feature films at the same time. "I would encourage others to come here, but also encourage those in the state to figure out a way to build the infrastructure. Films will benefit a lot more if they don't have to bring resources from out of town."
Location, Location, Location
Michigan is clearly a good fit for almost any film with its quaint downtowns, rural countryside and big city skylines. With the incentives in place, and producers' curiosity piqued by cash incentives, a community's first and last step to luring film productions should be a proverbial polishing of the storefronts and washing of the windows. We've got the goods; let's make them sparkle.
Reprinted with permission by Metromode online magazine.
Melinda Clynes is a Detroit-area freelancer. Additional quotes and information provided by Jeff Meyers.