West Michigan film group reaches its five-year mark

February 14, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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The West Michigan Film and Video Alliance celebrated its fifth anniversary in January, which coincided with the announcement of its new collaboration with the Mid-Michigan Chapter of the Media Communications Association – International.

The new partnership will expand the West Michigan network of professionals in all phases of film/video production, including corporate, commercials, digital games and films.

"This seems like a perfect solution for both groups, to expand our networks and build an even stronger film and video industry in Michigan," said Michele Yamazaki, president of the MCA-I Mid-Michigan Chapter, based in Grand Rapids. The chapter has members in the western half of the Lower Peninsula and the UP.

MCA-I, a nonprofit organization, was founded as the National Industrial Television Association in New Jersey in 1970. It was established to recognize the efforts of people working in the non-broadcast and industrial communication sectors, and support new opportunities for them. The organization also developed uniform technical standards for manufacturers, suppliers and users of industrial television equipment and services, and forged alliances with professionals working in related fields. Its 8,000 members in North America represent small businesses, major corporations, colleges and universities, health care and financial institutions, government and military groups, various types of consultants, and independent contractors.

Deb Havens, one of the founders of the WMFVA and elected chair of the organization in four of the last five years, is a Grand Rapids native who was a producer and consultant for PM Magazine, a nationally syndicated television series that aired in over 100 markets during the 1980s. She has also worked as an educator, and as a producer in radio. In 2000, she chaired the Education Policy Committee on behalf of Governor Jennifer Granholm's successful primary campaign for office.

Havens said she considered seeking another job in television when she and her husband returned to the West Michigan area around 2003, so she spoke to a number of people she knew here in the television/video production industry. She learned that there wasn't much of a need for more producers here, because many in-house corporate video production units had just been eliminated by major area companies, such as Amway, Meijer and Steelcase.

"The market was flooded with freelancers," said Havens, many of whom were soon forced to relocate to other markets such as Chicago, or, if they remained in West Michigan, were forced to find employment in a completely different career.

Havens said that period saw the start of conversations about the need for an alliance of professionals who wanted to remain here in West Michigan and work in film and video production.

Havens said there is "a perception that there is no talent or is no (film/video) industry here — that it's all on the east side of the state."

The founders of the WMFVA, who got organized in 2004 and launched the WMFVA officially in January 2005, agreed that they needed to get the word out about who and what was available for film and video production in West Michigan.

One of the first goals was to create a community involving people inside and outside the film/video profession to promote the fact that "there were people here who can do a great job in film and related projects," said Havens.

"We needed a film office," she added — so WMFVA was "very instrumental" in working with Rick Hert of the West Michigan Tourist Association, who began promoting West Michigan locations and service providers to film makers when the state of Michigan began offering incentives for movie productions shot here. WMFVA paid "a hefty part" of the cost of Hert becoming certified by the Association of Film Commissioners International. The AFCI has 300 members worldwide, who help film, television and video producers working in their regions.

"He is the only certified film commissioner in the state of Michigan — and that includes our (Michigan) film office" in Lansing, said Havens.

Hert opened the West Michigan Film Office, based at the West Michigan Tourist Association, in summer 2008. It is a separate entity from the state government-run Michigan Film Office.

Havens said another major goal set by the WMFVA after it was founded five years ago was to help make Michigan "the Midwest mecca for film-making." She praised former State Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, who was instrumental in passage of the refundable business tax credit signed into law in April 2008. Since passage of the state incentives aimed at growing a movie industry in Michigan, about $200 million in movie production costs have been spent in Michigan, according to Havens.

The Michigan Film Office, a part of state government that promotes Michigan to the movie industry, lists 48 movies that were completed in 2009 in which the producers had applied for the refundable business tax credit. Those include "Up in the Air" and "Capitalism: A Love Story."

"Up in the Air" is the Paramount production that included scenes filmed at Detroit Metro Airport; it has been nominated for an Oscar. "Capitalism" is the latest offering from Michigan's noted documentary producer Michael Moore.

The incentives led to a few movies being shot in West Michigan, beginning with "The Chaos Experiment" (originally titled "The Steam Experiment") filmed in downtown Grand Rapids in 2008. It starred Val Kilmer, who stars in another film just completed in January in the Grand Rapids area, "Gun." Also in "Gun" is Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, who was making his second movie in Grand Rapids; he also starred in "Caught in the Crossfire," which wrapped up in 2009.

Part of "Gun" was filmed in the former factory now known as Hangar42 Studios.

Havens noted that there is "a Christian market" that has a lot of demand for short features. Last year, actor Ernest Borgnine worked in Grand Rapids, playing a role in"The Genesis Code," a Christian-genre film that involved American Epic Productions in Lowell.

Another home-grown film company is Brandella Films, formed by Jim Idema of Belmont. Brandella made a short film last year called "Respect for the Dead" and is working on another called "A Daughter's Hope."

Despite the presence of a feature film industry in West Michigan, Havens said corporate projects and television commercials still are at the core of the film/video industry here.

The feature film industry is "not going to revolutionize what happens here, unless we actually pick up the volume of productions that are coming here," she said.

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