West Michigan's Tinsel Town

March 17, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Of the fantastical rumors surrounding the riverfront “mystery project,” the speculation that a major film or television company might set up shop in West Michigan deserves special attention because of its distinct, if distant, possibility.

Though its recent incarnation can almost certainly be attributed to the in-name-only connection between mystery project real estate broker Grubb & Ellis/Paramount and Paramount Studios, the rumor of a Grand Rapids studio extension has actually been circulating at the state level since State Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, proposed an incentive package for filmmakers in 2004.

His House Bill 5204 and four accompanying pieces of legislation would together provide substantial tax credits for productions spending over $250,000 in Michigan. It passed the House with overwhelming support late last year, but has since stalled in the Senate Finance Committee.

“If the incentives come through, someone could absolutely build a studio here,” said Janet Lockwood, director of the Michigan Film Office. “It’s happened in other states.”

A relatively simple scenario, according to Lockwood, that has proven true in several regions: A state enacts an incentive package, Hollywood producers and filmmakers begin using it as a filming location, and infrastructure follows. It has happened in Toronto and in Canton, Miss., and a studio is currently under construction in Louisiana.

“If the incentive is enticing and more business comes to the state, someone will build a studio where they can do all the production work from start to finish,” Lockwood said.

Dave Anderson, founder of Compass Arts Film Academy in Grand Rapids, has seen the possibility first hand. Compass recently placed eight interns on a multimillion-dollar motion picture project filmed principally at EUE/Screen Studios in Wilmington, N.C., the nation’s largest motion picture studio outside of Hollywood.

With a dozen soundstages, the studio is the size of a moderate to large manufacturing facility. Even then, one episodic drama, WB’s “One Tree Hill,” fills 80 percent of its capacity.

“What happened is that Wilmington is a very nice place to raise a family, and there are an unusually large number of talented craftspeople in that town,” Anderson said.

Among them is Frank Capra Jr., who founded the studio in the 1980s. Capra, son of the legendary “It’s a Wonderful Life” director, first came to Wilmington to film the Stephen King thriller “Firestarter” alongside producer Dino De Laurentiis. The two fell in love with the area, settled there and drew business to it.

“That’s the kind of thing that can happen,” Anderson said. “We already have department heads that love West Michigan, love to be here, and I think you’re going to see that creative talent pool grow in the next few years.”

Bill McKendry, founder of Grand Rapids advertising firm Hanon McKendry, began his career in Denver, and later returned to his hometown. Although many of his firm’s commercials are shot in places like New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, he sees potential in the growth of film programs at Compass Academy, Grand Valley State and Cornerstone universities, among others.

“As people get their experience and create their own companies, a lot will move back to West Michigan,” he said. “That’s more likely than someone relocating here.”

One such company is Purple Rose Films. Founded by actor Jeff Daniels and Bob Brown, the company brought $1.2 million in direct financial benefit to the town of Escanaba and $800,000 to Jackson, Mich., while filming “Escanaba in Da Moonlight” and “Super Sucker,” respectively.

“Fundamentally, people recognize how beneficial this kind of business is,” Brown said, referring to its lack of pollution and minimal requirements for infrastructure. “It’s basically somebody coming in with a 747 worth of cash, hanging around for a few months and leaving the money behind.”

As for attracting companies like his, Brown is skeptical. He pointed out that the single largest factor in determining location is script. He shot 80 percent of his last picture in Utah because that was the setting of the story.

Incentives are a secondary concern; facilities even less so.

“If you think that because you have an empty 80,000-square-foot facility, you’re special, then you’re misguided,” he said. “If you build it, they won’t come.”

Providing such a space for free, however, would be a different story.

“The facility isn’t the issue,” he said. “It’s financing the facility.”

Using a plan already in motion in Detroit and Kalamazoo, there is opportunity for Michigan to attract filmmakers with a resource unique to the Rust Belt: empty manufacturing facilities.

“Film stages are basically just giant spaces where they can construct whatever it may be, cityscapes or whatever,” Huizenga said. “Look at the number of empty manufacturing facilities in the state; they’re just big open spaces. They are assets that can be utilized in the interim or maybe converted permanently.”

Several of the sources interviewed for this story had heard the Grand Rapids studio rumor, with universal agreement against its validity.

“You’d have to pull me up from six-feet-under if that were true, I’d be so shocked,” Huizenga said. “It’d be great, but at the end of the day, Michigan is not a film-friendly state — no economic incentive. We don’t even have the blocking and tackling, much less something extravagant to attract something like that.”

And the opportunity is fading fast.

Michigan remains one of a handful of states with no film incentives whatsoever. Meanwhile, Louisiana has integrated the industry into its business culture, facilitating relationships with local universities and even attracting corresponding video game developers. In New Orleans, a 150-acre plot is being privately developed into an entertainment complex with eight soundstages, four broadcast stages, post-production facility, five-star hotel, restaurants, multiplex theater and retail.

With its three-year-old incentive, Illinois has attracted $77 million and 15,000 jobs. In Mississippi, a $1.6 million sound stage/production center is the centerpiece of the Canton Industrial Park.

The Film Wisconsin initiative, likely to become the nation’s strongest incentive package, should roll out this spring. Indiana also has legislation pending.

“We need to do this before it becomes vanilla — before everyone is doing it and we’ve lost any advantage,” Huizenga said.

Worse yet, the state could soon lose what industry it does have. Dating back to its time as the world’s industrial capital, metropolitan Detroit has significant film infrastructure. Its studios are still powerful in the advertising world, but the large corporations that rose to service the industry are under fire.

In recent news, Troy’s Mid America Cine Support narrowly decided against relocating to South Carolina.

“They stayed only because they have deep roots here,” said Mark Adler, president of Michigan Production Alliance. “Sure, people might come. But right now, we need to give the people that are here a reason to stay.”    

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