Reality Series Starts Shooting In GR

August 18, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Shooting is scheduled to begin this morning on the first production actually being filmed in the city of Grand Rapids as a result of the film industry incentives created this spring by the Michigan Legislature.

"Station House" is planned as a reality television series about firefighters on the job, with part of the one-hour pilot episode being filmed here with the cooperation of the Grand Rapids Fire Department. Additional shooting for the pilot will take place in Peoria, Ill.

According to an announcement from the production company, America Saga Productions of Los Angeles, "Station House" will be in the same genre as other reality TV shows that depict dangerous jobs, such as "Deadliest Catch."

Emmy Award-winning producer Barry Hennessy, whose credits include "The Amazing Race,” "Biggest Loser" and "America's Top Model," is on the production team.

Jerry Zandstra of Caledonia, vice president of strategic planning for America Saga Productions, said the budget for the pilot is "under $500,000." He said about half of that budget would be spent locally.

Under the new law intended to attract film productions to Michigan, up to 40 percent of productions costs in Michigan can qualify for a Michigan business tax credit, with the balance, beyond the tax liability, to be rebated to the production company from the state treasury. That increases to 42 percent for productions in Michigan core cities, which includes Grand Rapids. All the Michigan expenses are audited by the state, prior to issuing the rebate.

Zandstra, who also just formed Michigan Professional Film Service to work with film production companies shooting in Michigan, said America Saga Productions is planning to shoot up to five mini-series, including one based on "Nothing Like It in the World," a bestseller by Stephen Ambrose. Another miniseries ASP is doing is "The Line," about the Mexican border with the U.S., starring and directed by Robert Duvall.

Variety, the film industry publication, reported last week that ASP is a new, privately funded production company "set up to create patriotic projects."

While he could not confirm what other ASP productions might take place in West Michigan, Zandstra said they would "do as many as makes sense here."

Zandstra characterized ASP as "focused on family-friendly, Americana-themed projects for television."

Zandstra was a candidate for the U.S. Senate and a director at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is also a faculty member at Cornerstone University and holds masters degrees in divinity and historical theology, as well as doctorates in administration from Trinity University and in public administration and policy from Western Michigan University.

In addition to the "Station House" pilot, three feature films are reportedly now slated to be shot in Grand Rapids.

"The Fifth Mafia," a gangster movie starring Joe Mantegna, was one of the first productions to trigger an application for the Michigan film industry rebate. Shooting here by an independent studio based in Valencia, Calif., was supposed to have begun already but has been delayed, according to Janet Lockwood, director of the Michigan Film Office, which processes applications for the film industry incentive. Production companies seeking the state rebate must begin shooting within 90 days but can get that extended once for an additional 90 days, which is the case with "The Fifth Mafia," said Lockwood.

She said she does not know why the film has been delayed, but speculated that it could be either financing issues or the expiration of the Screen Actors Guild contract with the movie industry in late June. SAG is the largest Hollywood actors' union.

"The SAG contract is still not settled," Lockwood said last week. She added that feature film studios would not begin a production if SAG cast members were likely to go on strike, because those studios would then "be up a creek."

"Everything is kind of in limbo and has been for almost two months," said Lockwood. "So lots of people have just been sitting on their hands — or on their plane ticket, as the case may be — and not moving to any state or beginning production in L.A., because of this possible strike."

A SAG strike would not hinder the shooting of a reality show like "Station House" since it features real firefighters, not actors.

Another feature film came to light in early August when Grand Rapids Public Schools administrators said they were working on a deal to lease Iroquois Middle School as a location for "Unthinkable," a proposed film starring Samuel L. Jackson. The former school is vacant and for sale.

"There is a third feature film that is a 'go' and will begin filming soon in the Grand Rapids area," said Rick Hert, executive director of the West Michigan Tourist Association, which has opened the West Michigan Film Office to scout locations for film producers who want to take advantage of the state incentives. Hert said the production company of that film does not want to release any information yet about its film.

According to Lockwood, the state of Michigan has given the go-ahead to 47 applications for film production rebates, with those companies pledging to spend a total of $288,360,287 in Michigan before the end of 2008.

Once audited and approved, the tax credits and cash rebates would be worth a total of $107,225,038, according to Lockwood.

Lockwood is quick to note that those estimates depend on "if it all pans out" for the producers. "They won't all, I'll tell you that right now. They hope they will, but they don't always all turn out. They spend less, or sometimes they fall to pieces altogether."

A West Michigan feature film that has already "wrapped" its shooting is "Tug," being made by TicTock Studios in Holland, according to Lockwood.

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