'Steam'-heated economy

February 16, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Several movies were shot in West Michigan last year, lured here by the state film industry incentives. The big one was "The Steam Experiment," shot in Grand Rapids in September and apparently a boon to several local businesses — especially the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

"Steam," starring Val Kilmer, Armand Assante, Eric Roberts and Megan Brown, is about a mad scientist who locks several people in a steam room and threatens to turn up the heat if the local paper doesn't publish his treatise on global warming. (Hopefully, this won't ruin the movie for you, but the Business Journal is not the local periodical on the hot seat.)

"Steam," which is a $7 million production according to its Web site, was filmed by Cinepro Pictures of Senoia, Ga., in temporary studios built in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, and in Deano's Inc. sound stage in Plainfield Township. Scenes were also shot in The Grand Rapids Press newsroom and in the Bull's Head Tavern on Monroe, across from the Amway.

The film is scheduled for release to theaters later this year, but a spokesperson for Cinepro could not be more specific than that.

"Steam" generated "a great piece of business that filled up over 350 to 500 room nights for our hotel, over the course of the filming of the movie," said Chad LeRoux, director of marketing for the Amway Hotel Corp. He declined to reveal how much Cinepro paid in total to the Amway Grand Plaza.

The normal rack rate at the Amway is $215 a night, although the production company negotiated a group rate less than that, said LeRoux. He guessed that overall, about 300 people associated with the movie stayed at least one night at the hotel, including Kilmer, who is best known for his role a few years ago as Batman.

There was also a "general usage fee" charged for use of the Amway ballrooms. LeRoux said there were two sets built inside the Ambassador Ballroom, which was "tied up for approximately one week." One of those sets was a police department interrogation room, and the other a medical room set. The movie people also used the Imperial Ballroom as a set and the Pantlind Lobby.

The Amway charged Cinepro a "day shooting rate," which covered eight hours at a time.

"The majority of the filming they did throughout the night, in a lot of circumstances," said LeRoux. "During the day, everything was back, organized and in order, and you would never know they were here. They were a fabulous company to work with."

"We would definitely love to have another film come to Grand Rapids because of, obviously, the big impact it has on our economy here," said LeRoux.

According to LeRoux, "Cinepro really loved and raved about our facility, that it was so big they were able to house a lot of their cast and crew (and) they were able to build the sets they needed."

The steam room featured in the movie was built inside Deano's Inc., a studio owned and operated by Dean Horn and his wife and business partner, Rene Anderson.

Deano's has been used for years for shooting commercials and corporate videos, and as a studio for still photography. However, Horn has also worked as a crew member on location on several feature films. In addition to use of his studio for the steam room set, he was hired as the gaffer on "Steam," meaning he was the chief lighting technician.

The movie was "a union job," said Horn, meaning the cast were members of the Screen Actors Guild and the crew was represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which has a local in Grand Rapids.

Horn said that if he had to make a living on what he was paid as the gaffer, "it would be a challenge." That is because even in "union jobs," movie industry pay scales can vary from one location to another, and it is lower in Grand Rapids than in Hollywood.

Horn said the producer of "Steam" sought him out for use of his studio because it is large compared to other studios in the area. He noted that "they wanted deals."

"They made us jump through some hoops," said Horn. He said when faced with the offer from the "Steam" producer, he and his business partner finally decided that as long as they didn't lose money, they would do it.

"I took it purely for the fact that there's (well-known) names attached to it, and I took an unusually low rate for my services. So when people think we were getting rich on it, it wasn't that at all," said Horn.

Horn said feature film productions are "like a circus that has a whole group of people" required to make it work. He said he does not particularly prefer the circus atmosphere.

He also said there are a wide range of movies being made today.

"Features can be low-budget," said Horn. "They can be no-budget features — that's a term you hear sometimes," which represents "someone's dream of making a movie, but they have no money."

Someone who wants to work as a grip on movie sets — grips move stuff around — may have to start out working on no-budget features, he said.

A luckier person was Mitch Nyberg, a West Michigan resident who landed the job of unit production manager on "Steam." Nyberg, 48, who grew up in Coopersville and now lives in the Hart area, went to the West Coast in the early 1980s and worked on movie productions for about 20 years, including a number of films with "name" actors.

"As the unit manager, you're responsible for managing the project for them. I basically lived and breathed that job for three months," he said of his work on “Steam.” Connections are what led to him getting the job, he said.

Nyberg said studio infrastructure and the availability of local professional crew members are required to build a movie industry in a region.

To get movie producers to come here, "it's important that our crew base emerges," said Nyberg, so that “Hollywood knows that we have professionals here" who "can take their projects and run with it, and make it happen for them on the ground. Because otherwise, basically, you're bringing your crew in from out of state."

Having to bring crew members here adds to the cost.

"Travel expense, rental cars, hotel rooms, per diem, laundry … on and on," said Nyberg. "It’s line item after line item, (and) that begins to be cost prohibitive."

Producers who come here also would need equipment rental companies, such as John S. Hyatt & Associates and Lowing Light & Grip, both in Grand Rapids.

A local company that hopes to cash in on a movie industry here is Visual Edj Productions, owned by Ed DeJong. DeJong said he has worked since 1996 on video productions for corporations and nonprofit organizations, as a director of photography. He also owns and operates a camera crane, a piece of specialized equipment sometimes required for feature films. He said he worked on "Red and Blue Marbles," which he described as a sci-fi production shot in southeast Michigan last year. DeJong is also a co-founder of the West Michigan Film & Video alliance, founded in 2005.

 DeJong said studio facilities are what is lacking in West Michigan, although he said that "as soon as the cold weather clears, you're going to hear an announcement …"

Several films were made in West Michigan last year in addition to "Steam," including "Tug," filmed at TicTock Studio in Holland by Hopwood DePree, and "Offspring," filmed in the Muskegon area by Andrew van den Houten of ModernCine in New York. Nyberg said he believes both "Tug" and "Offspring" cost about one million dollars to make.

Part of "Offspring" was shot in a temporary set — an improvised “cannibal cave” — built inside the vacant former Shaw-Walker plant. The owner of the property is ANM Group, a development company based in Brooklyn. N.Y., that built the Watermark condos in another part of the plant. ANM announced plans early last year to build a film studio in the defunct plant but no construction has taken place yet.

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