State braces for a blizzard of film production

Offering what it calls the most generous film incentives in the country, Michigan — land of “The Evil Dead,” “Blue Collar” and other last-generation films — looks to become the next-generation state of choice when Hollywood goes on location.

The difference between then and now? A packet of incentives — including an up-to-42% cash back — recently pushed through the state Legislature by a posse that included “Tuesdays With Morrie” scribe Mitch Albom, “Reign Over Me” director Mike Binder, and actor-writer (and Michigan theater exec director) Jeff Daniels.

The change came at the right time. Since the days of “Anatomy of a Murder” in the 1950s, film production has been the exception rather than the rule in the Wolverine state. For feature film revenue, 2006 was the lowest in 15 years, Michael Moore and “8 Mile” notwithstanding.

State Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga got the message. Since taking office in 2003, he has led a bipartisan effort to push for Hollywood money to be spent in his home state. But it took some time.

“We had to boil this bug slowly,” says Huizenga, who got his first incentive bill through the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate during his second term. The package — offering a 12%-20% rebate depending on budget — became available in 2006.

Projects, including the sci-fi actioner “Jumper,” trickled in, but the powers-that-be knew these incentives weren’t enough. “Other states hopscotched right over us,” says Michigan Film Office director Janet Lockwood.

“If it had been done three to four years earlier,” adds Huizenga, “it might have made an impact.”

So with the help of Albom, Binder and Daniels, Huizenga and the film commission went back to the table, pushing for new legislation that would truly set Michigan apart. This time, action was swift.

“Gov. Jennifer Granholm said to give her the best incentives in America,” Lockwood says. “And a group of legislators and her legal staff gave her the best. It went through the Legislature very quickly mainly because there had been education from the prior incentives.”

The centerpiece of the new legislation: A tax credit of 40% of direct production expenditures — upped to 42% if used in what the state defines as a “core community” (including Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint and just about any Michigan city that anyone outside the Great Lakes region has ever heard of). And those are for both above- and below-the-line costs, dropping only to 30% for a nonresident crew.

So if a film spends $4 million in the state, it can get a check back for as much as $1.6 million. And there aren’t too many strings. A $2┬ámillion salary cap per employee per production isn’t likely to scare anyone away. (There are no other caps and no sunset.)

The laws became effective in April, and, almost instantly, film crews were shooting pics including Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” the Drew Barrymore-helmed “Whip It!,” Lifetime’s “Prayers for Bobby,” the Weinsteins’ “Youth in Revolt,” and Disney’s Andie McDowell/Aidan Quinn “Prince of Motor City” pilot

And those are just the ones not scared off by the possible SAG strike.

Not just a lure for big-budgeters, the program also lowered the minimum investment from $250,000 to $50,000, which made it easier to attract smaller productions.

Starting small

Ginny Hart, VP of sales for Grace and Wild, home of the state’s largest soundstage and its only 16- and 35mm film lab, says when the program was announced, the calls started almost immediately. But a lot of that production business went away — including a Steven Spielberg project that had reserved her facilities.

“A lot of studio space went on hold, but the projects didn’t materialize until we went after the under-$10 million films. That’s when we picked up.”

“Miss January” with Kim Cattrall is slated to start lensing early next month, and “Demoted” with David Cross follows closely for a five-week stay.

“We’re hoping that once this SAG contract is settled, we’ll see more positive impact,” she adds.

Of course, there’s also the likelihood that other states will increase their incentives. To defend against the possibility of being left behind once again, the players know that Michigan will need some upgrades. Tim Magee, business rep for IATSE Local 38 and president and business rep for studio mechanics Local 812, wants to see the construction of more studio and editing space, and a modification of the incentives to include commercial/industrial production.

“Those should get the break,” he says. “At some point, I know another state is going to raise the ante, and that there is a good chance feature films could move down the road if we don’t get the infrastructure built in a timely fashion.”

For now, though, everyone’s happy. “I was hopeful that we would get total Michigan spending of $100 million,” says Lockwood. “I was certainly on the wrong train. It’s gone way over that. Double. Maybe triple. And it’s only August.”

Click here for the full report: Scout and About: Michigan

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