A Hollywood In West Michigan?

November 30, 2004
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Two local women are striving to break open West Michigan's access to the film industry and other national media, especially to highlight the work of area women.

Holland resident Chris Jackman and Muskegon's Laura Stanberry, both alumnae of Compass Arts Academy in Grand Rapids, found they had much more in common than experience within the film school. Among shared interests were a desire to apply past experiences in the business and nonprofit world to the creative endeavors they were increasingly becoming involved in, and a desire to help and promote others with similar creative inclinations.

"We were on a writing weekend up in Traverse City and she and I were talking about how great it would be if there was a company for women that promoted women who are creative," Stanberry said. "We started playing with the idea and decided, 'Why don't we just start something?'"

Soon after, the two formed Hemline Creative Group, a grassroots company focused primarily on writing for film and television with significant interests in film and commercial production, project management, Web development, graphic design and publishing.

The Hemline entrepreneurs completed filming their first short film, "Manasseh," less than a month after the company's formation. Filmed entirely in West Michigan, the production used local talent for cast and crew on a volunteer basis.

"There really is a lot of talent here," Jackman said. "But one of the weird things is that there are so many talented people, (but) there is never enough opportunity for them to do their craft." Individuals like Adam Herz, the East Grand Rapids native who created the American Pie franchise, and Michigan State University grad Sam Raimi are then forced to ply their trade elsewhere.

At least as a filming location, Michigan has slowly worked its way into the spotlight. The recent Tom Hanks film "Road To Perdition" featured scenes filmed in Saugatuck. Since his initial success at MSU with "The Evil Dead," Raimi has returned to Michigan on a number of occasions.

"Michigan can be very valuable for film," Stanberry said. "It's an untapped resource. We have four seasons, beaches, vineyards, even caves. And in a lot of locations in Los Angeles, there are two-year waiting lists. That's why Vancouver and Canada are becoming so popular. Just like there, you can get cheaper labor here (than in California) and get locations quickly and easily. You don't have to deal with waiting lists and those types of things."

The Michigan Film Office and Michigan Film Advisory Commission are government initiatives that are working to help the film industry recognize Michigan as a resource.

Even if there is an increase in movie sets across the state, it will not change the fact that those crews and most of that talent are only visiting.

Some companies, however, like Jeff Daniels' Purple Rose Films and Michael Moore's Dog Eat Dog, are achieving independent success within Michigan's borders.

Hemline is unique in that its primary mission is the promotion of local talent, hoping to serve as an outlet for the creative fulfillment of women.

With contacts established in California and locally through several different media, the duo is hoping to apply their business backgrounds to that mission. Stanberry is most recently a project manager for Matt Brunell Creative Media. Jackman is a songwriter and veteran of Christian radio, currently president of Project Grace, a nonprofit women's missionary group. The pair expects that such experience will become especially handy in generating revenue to subsidize the company's film and promotion efforts.

Hemline is offering low-cost media solutions to churches, community organizations and other nonprofits, including Web development, graphic design and commercial production, among other services. Those same low-cost services are available to other companies as well.

A second potential profit center will be launched later this fall when Hemline introduces a series of products that complement one of the company's core competencies: organization.

"By virtue of their nature, creative people are not usually well-organized," Jackman said. "We want to help them be organized and more efficient so that they can concentrate on being creative."

This can be especially problematic in the film industry; with inherent production costs rising dramatically with each additional hour, efficiency becomes a necessity. Hemline's patent-pending products approach that concern as organizational aides for use in production and pre-production film processes.

A similar process has already been seen in the course of Hemline's first film project, as the entire production was coordinated through the company's Web site.

Through that first project, the duo learned a number of lessons, including an important one when dealing with unpaid help. "We planned spontaneity," Stanberry said. "We had T-shirt giveaways and a huge cookout; we're planning a luau. Those kinds of things help people to be more creative, and it lets them know they're appreciated for their work — that they are not just slaving away for nothing."    

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