Lights Camera Wheres The Action

February 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — $80,000. That is how much a moderately produced, independent, full-length feature film can be expected to spend each day on location. The average crew is 100 people, with the majority coming from the local market.

Then there are the tourism possibilities. Throughout the course of any given day, hundreds of tourists jog up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, turn to look out over Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the city skyscrapers downtown, and raise their arms in triumph, just as Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa did 30 years ago in the film "Rocky." Likewise, it's not uncommon to see tourists fake a tumble down the steps at the New York County Courthouse, mimicking the death throes of Don Barzini in 1972's "The Godfather." What if those scenes had instead been shot at Grand Rapids' Lookout Hill steps, or the striking entryway of the Ryerson Library downtown? Perhaps Grand Rapids might be less known as the former "Furniture City" and more as the Hollywood of the Midwest.

Most of all, a film production of any size would provide needed employment for the region — and for its historically underserved film talent. Local film and video professionals, educators, and economic development officials believe that our area has the lights and the cameras, and all it needs now is the action.

"Far too many people leave West Michigan because they think that they can't make a living here," said Tom Clay, a local independent filmmaker, at a recent forum on the industry sponsored by the West Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. "I think we could become a mecca of the Midwest. It could have a huge impact here."

David Anderson, another forum guest, believes West Michigan is primed for such an opportunity.

"Michigan, specifically West Michigan, is a best kept secret," said the founder and president of Grand Rapids-based film school Compass Academy and instructor at Cornerstone University.

Anderson heard that opinion verbatim from Ralph Winters, a producer for Twentieth Century Fox. The Hollywood executive has visited Anderson's school, and Anderson has taken trips to the Hollywood studio.

"When we toured the set of "X-Men 2," I counted 400 carpenters," Anderson said. "And then you're going to need electricians, audio and lighting technicians, lodging and catering."

Of course, if such a production were filmed in West Michigan, those would be local carpenters, electricians and so on. To avoid transportation costs, Hollywood generally leaves its homegrown contractors behind, if possible.

And there is the irony.

Not only does West Michigan have what Anderson feels to be prime locations for filmmakers — a combination of urban, rural and historical settings —  it is friendly and hospitable, is blessed with an entrepreneurial ethos and a sensory-enhancing "lake effect," and even has a working submarine in Muskegon.

But above all else, it has individuals trained in the industry, with the technical skills but with extremely few channels in which to use those talents — even fewer in the dim economy. Clay used to employ 17 at his company, making commercials and industrial films for many of the region's largest companies. Now, eroded by improved technology and client cutbacks, he is the only full-time employee.

"It's frustrating. A lot of students come out of the program, and because we're not situated in Chicago, New York or L.A., there's not a lot of production here," said John Philbin, associate professor at Grand Valley State University's film program, in a separate interview. "So students generally go somewhere else."

For its summer film project, Grand Valley annually brings in a Hollywood director and actors to work with an all-student crew. The result is film students tempered with real world experience, and films that have won awards on the festival circuit.

But, as Philbin and Anderson agreed, graduating students enter a regional market with little need for their skills. Some join or launch production companies, focusing on the commercial market. Others become small, poorly funded filmmakers on their own, hoping to gain exposure at festivals.

There are roughly 300 film majors in the Grand Valley program today, coupled with graduates from Compass, Cornerstone and comparable programs. There are also many veteran crew workers who relocated to Grand Rapids for its high quality of life, Anderson noted.

There are 140 names in the talent engine maintained by the West Michigan Film and Video Alliance. This would easily accommodate a major motion picture production, argued Deb Havens, the group's chairperson.

"We've got many talented, capable individuals ready to go," she said.

Havens' group even has a virtual location scouting program on its Web site.

Bradley Porter, a Cornerstone senior and graduate of Compass Academy, interned in Hollywood, and has turned down job offers there since. "I know there are filmmakers that want to make an investment in Michigan," he said. "They're just sitting on their hands waiting for the legislature to act."

Like so many industries, a state's competitiveness in the film industry is measured by its legislature's generosity. Canada does not attract $1 billion of Hollywood investment with its temperate climate — it offers a 40 percent kickback on all below-the-line costs (anything other than script, director and actors).

When Illinois enacted a tax incentive package recently,  impact from feature films rose from $25 million to $100 million in less than a year. New Mexico went from minimal filming to one of the top five venues in the U.S.

To date, Michigan has no incentive package, but has seen some success from Jeff Daniels' "Escanaba In Da Moonlight," which brought $1.2 million to that city in 2000, and "Super Sucker," which brought $800,000 into Jackson's economy.

Then there is the Detroit rap epic "8 Mile." Janet Lockwood, executive director of the Michigan Film Office, said that Detroit's sordid depiction in that movie attracted three major commercials for global brands in the year after its release.

The legislature has already given Lockwood a boost, kicking her organization's funding from $130,000 to $2 million this year. State Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, is currently on his second take trying to pass legislation that will offer substantial tax credits and exemptions for film productions spending more than $250,000 in Michigan. The package failed for political reasons a year ago, blamed alternately on GOP foes Michael Moore and Geoffrey Fieger.

"It's a little tough to write into legislation: 'Everyone will get all these tax breaks' with 'except for Michael Moore' in parentheses,'" Huizenga said.

This time around, his House Bill 5204 and four accompanying pieces of legislation were passed by the House and are before the Senate for consideration.

"This new package will catapult us into the top 10 in the country," Lockwood said. "And West Michigan will more than hold its own."   

Kevin Murphy contributed to this report.

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