Credits Rolling on Michigan Film Industry?

I’ve been meaning for a while now to post about Detroit 1-8-7, how awesome it is, and how it’s shot locally, and how it features the people mover actually moving people, but with today’s state budget proposal I figured to go with this since it’s a bit more timely (while also relevant). It’s a surprisingly big deal in the state, and apparently with the Hollywood side of things.

The Michigan Film Industry incentives have been fascinating to observe. On the one hand, they’re just starting to take off. Detroit 1-8-7 is the main TV hit, and it’s struggling; HBO’s Hung is the other big TV show. For films, there are a small number of big-name successes out of the 135 productions: the biggest name is the upcoming remake of Red Dawn, a bit odd considering our latest fears usually revolve around terrorists and not Cold War fantasy relapses, but also include’s Eastwood’s awesome Gran Torino, the Micheal Cera comedy Youth In RevoltTransformers 3, Cedar Rapids (which I keep seeing ads for and thought it looked awfully local), George Cloony’s upcoming Up In The Air, a frightening number of Lifetime movies, and a mix of local films and direct-to-DVD flicks I’ve never heard of before and will probably never hear of again.

On the other hand, it’s pretty cool to have this as a local thing; it promotes an air of creativity compared to the previous “Rust Belt Despondancy” with all those industrial jobs leaving even though we don’t want to work at them any way. It may be a little presumptuous, and the amount of interest some people (and the local news companies) give the films industry is probably way too optimistic, unreasonably so. It’s not quite a Music Man story yet, compared to the people mover (that shitty monorail you see in the background of Detroit 1-8-7, which approximately ten people ride per day, if it happens to be operating) or Autoworld (the Flint equivalent of Disneyland, which is, of course, abandoned).

But it’s had an interesting start. There’s been a lot of growth in the past three years; Michigan creative-type students (film and video, comm, writing, et al) get a morale boost thinking they can won’t necessarily have to leave the state/can get easy; it could indeed surpass the fading auto industry to become Michigan’s second largest industry in terms of employment and economics (last time I checked, it was Michigan’s wineries and microbreweries at the top). And there’s this dorky glee when I watch locally-filmed stuff: I saw Gran Torino when at college, and it was like being home. (Well, close to being at my current home, because it was like seeing my great aunt’s old home, but close enough.)

So, in sum. It’s fascinating to locals who develop a bit of a pipe-dream complex, but it’s also turning around a lot of niche markets in the state (hospitality and tourism management majors have a job in a hotel/catering outfit near you), and is a much better way to promote the state than the auto industry (bailouts), tourism (sadly dying), and the produce/wineries segment (which only works for half the state). Now, the Michigan Film Industry’s on the rocks, and not in the good way.

To put it quite simply, Gov. Snyder is retaining the current round of credits and incentives, but capping future productions to something more “reasonable” (e.g., lower): $25 million. That’s still a ridiculous amount, but a far cry from the 42% the state was previously offering; it’ll put things back on a footing closer to the pre-2008 days, where 3-6 productions will take place. (A good source for comparison.) For reasons, to quote the Wall Street Journal:

“We are eliminating all those credits,” Mr. Snyder told the legislature Thursday. “Let’s stop picking winners and losers. Let’s stop picking complexity and let free enterprise work.”

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said the old system reflected a mind-set that Michigan is inherently uncompetitive. The new tax structure aims to help Michigan-based companies, he said, “as opposed to trying to bribe companies to come here.”

If you can’t tell from the free enterprise part, Snyder is the new Republican governor. What fascinates me most is the insistence to support Michigan companies rather than “bribing more to come here.” Michigan companies, with the recent bankruptcy of Borders Books and the perpetual dire straits Kmart seems to be in, are predominantly the Detroit “formerly Big” Three. Here’s where I start to bang my head against the wall, for a few reasons.

In this state, most people have a fair to bad view of the automakers, and while Unions aren’t viewed much more highly, at least they’re not the ones moving all the jobs to Mexico or Tennessee. That’s where the headache comes in. We can support the Detroit Three all we want, I won’t complain, but doing so won’t exactly bring back all the jobs that were cut.

Even if they did bring all the jobs back, they’d need to find people willing to work the 8-to-5 industrial line jobs. From my experiences as a student, this’ll be harder than it looks: this isn’t our grandparents’ generation, when, fifty years ago, bootstrapping it for thirty years on the line to pay for the kids’ college education isn’t a viable option. Part of it is because us college kids have our eyes on white collars; part of it is because that way of life is dying (hence, Rust Belt). To be fair, most of the unemployed people aren’t line workers—many already left, hence the abandoned parts of Detroit and Hamtramck—but are highly educated engineers, techies, and whatnot. Michigan does, after all, have one of the most well-educated unemployed workforces.

Anyways, back to the point. Supporting the existing companies won’t necessarily encourage job growth because many of them employ more people out of state than in-state; even Borders had relatively few Michigan jobs compared to its national total. If we don’t lure jobs here to Michigan, how the hell are people going to find employment, considering the state has been leading the nation in unemployment for most of my life? Won’t they just, say, leave, which will further cut down on employment, taxes, and everything else? (“Will the last person out of Michigan please turn out the lights?”) To add insult to injury, another big chunk of Snyder’s budget cut includes funding to public schools and universities—those things that teach us the skills we Michiganders need to make us competitive in Chicago or Cleveland—as well as setting new limits on welfare—essentially a crackdown on the large lower-class populations of Detroit, Flint, Muskegon, Lansing, and most other populated areas that aren’t Grand Rapids and the Health Care Boomwagon.

In the end, the Michigan Film Industry might not being terribly sustainable. And it’s only really benefited a few select industries—hotels, catering, taxis/transit/truck rentals, travel agencies, Detroit Metro Airport, background extras casting—in a few select areas—Metro Detroit/Ann Arbor, parts of Grand Rapids and Lansing (Grand Ledge, which is scenic as hell), and a few other spots. Cutting it down isn’t going to ruin many lives directly, though it’s sad that the state’s 15 minutes of fame for something other than locally-owned, foreign-made cars could be over. What the state is really losing is morale: the pipe dream that something can come to the state, something creative and nationally reknown, that can redeem the state’s crippling unemployment and Detroit’s unsavory reputation. There’s a reason a lot of Michiganians, particularly the young ones, look at the Michigan Film Industry with a combination hope and fascination.

I can easily see a grassroots campaign, or the senate, or whatever pushing the film incentives back on the budget table. I could also easily see the thing collapse after three years, before it’s had time to move from local news sideshow/that thing that makes you late for work to become something sustainable and nationally well-received.

One last dose of irony. The companies which are headquartered closest to me include Kelly Services, Delphi, a GM spin-off which creates most of the parts GM uses, two other auto parts companies, Flagstaff Bank, and Anchor Bay Entertainment, a division of Starz media. (This doesn’t include the closed offices of Kmart.) These are all 5-10 minutes away in Troy. A temp agency, auto parts suppliers, a bank, and a movie distributor… a fascinating cross-section of where modern Metro-Detroit has come from, what it is, and what it wants to be.


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