A common fantasy for children, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, is to be in the movies! Just like those imaginative kids, many local communities here in West Michigan have these very same dreams. And recently, several new initiatives have begun that could make these dreams come true.
Starting the momentum is the recent Motion Picture Tax Incentives Package which Governor Jennifer Granholm signed into law last January. This package intends to attract filmmakers to Michigan with cash rebates up to 20 percent of their production costs. With $7 million already in the incentive fund, this is a serious investment and an acknowledgement of the huge economic opportunities that film production represents.
But are incentives enough? What else can be done to put Michigan on the A-List with Hollywood’s storytellers?
Deb Havens, the founding chair of the West Michigan Film Video Alliance (WMFVA), said incentives are a great start. But she suggests much more needs to happen to build a viable film industry here.
“The incentives will bring in a few productions before the $7 million is used up," she said. "But after that, we need to provide filmmakers more in the way of amenities, service and cost savings, to pick up where the incentives end.”
When asked what was needed to meet Hollywood’s expectations, beyond saving money, Havens said, “We have to build up our production capabilities. We already have many experienced professionals who cut their teeth on in-house production for local corporations. When in-house departments were eliminated, many of those people formed their own production companies and kept going."
"Now we need to add to this talent pool and prepare them well," Havens added. "So the WMFVA provides training and workshops for lighting, shooting, writing, producing and more. We also support our local schools like Compass Academy, and Grand Valley State University, that have strong filmmaking programs.”
Tooling Up, and Honing the Pitch
Hopwood DePree, of Holland’s TicTock Studios, agrees now is the time to build up the film business. “We need experienced crews, equipment and a willingness to do whatever it takes to attract film projects to Michigan," he said. “Anything we can do to sweeten the pot will help.”
TicTock Studios has added some sweetener of its own by creating the Great Lake Michigan Film Fund to help filmmakers who choose to shoot in Michigan. “Everyone has to band together to give a great first impression. We have a strong work ethic, the talent and gorgeous landscapes. Now we must be united and show that Michigan is the state to shoot in!”
A co-founder of the successful Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, DePree has worked many years showcasing the industry. The popularity of film festivals shows that the general public is hungry for film work, a fact recognized more and more by the mainstream industry. That’s why film festivals have become a primary strategy for films seeking distribution.
This year, a new kind of festival makes its debut in Grand Rapids. The “True North” Festival challenges Michigan filmmakers to a friendly competition where the top 3 films will be awarded the money collected from the entry fees.
“Filmmakers must complete their film by August 15 to be ready for the September 15 festival," said Ben Wilke, an organizer of the event. “We’re not just showing the winners. We’re going to show all of the entries over time, to really promote the networking. The goal is to bring the film community together."
The WMFVA recently established the West Michigan Film Commission Task Force to help coordinate this flurry of activity and provide a structure for film industry growth. Sara Stelwagen, a program coordinator for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, will direct the task force.
“Having our own film commission will promote West Michigan as a film production center through a variety of programs," Stelwagen said. "This year, we’ll attend the Association of Film Commissioners International Cineposium. That alone will put us on the radar of producers and directors who prefer to work with established organizations.”
The commission will play several roles. They include encouraging local businesses to support filmmaking through incentives of their own; seeking assistance from established Hollywood professionals with Michigan roots to help promote the region among their movie-making buddies; and, perhaps most importantly, to visit directors and producers personally to deliver the region's “pitch.”
“We’ll be traveling a lot,” laughed Stelwagen. “We’re going to aggressively pursue the filmmakers where they live, traveling to LA and New York to promote our capabilities. We need to go to them and clearly show them why they should shoot in Michigan, incentives or not. And there are plenty of great reasons to shoot here on Michigan’s west side!”
Location Location Location
When asked what separated West Michigan as a unique shooting location, Deb Havens didn’t hesitate: “Well, the Lake is the major feature, of course. It’s funny, but a lot of filmmakers aren’t aware of Lake Michigan and how it can stand in for an ocean. And they can shoot here without salt water or sharks.”
Indeed, Michigan’s West Coast has an incredible range of locations. Victorian homes, small town Main Streets, covered bridges, gravel roads, lighthouses and marinas dot the landscape. Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city, has the diversity of downtown urban areas, factories, churches, museums, schools and highways.
Nearby, natural features include sand dunes, rivers, forests, beaches, inland lakes, cliffs, vineyards and rolling hills. “One major feature of Michigan is our four seasons,” Havens said. “I know some people gripe about the weather. But, from a locations perspective, our seasonal changes give us range and flexibility.”
Rich Brauer’s “Barn Red”, starring Ernest Borgnine, was shot in the Traverse City area in 2004. “That picture kind of got this whole ball rolling,” Havens said. “When we premiered the film in Grand Rapids, we made arrangements with hotels, got transportation for the director and threw a big reception. We signed up a majority of our WMFVA members that first night!”
Based on that experience, Havens and other Alliance members have established a program that will provide “community-based” incentives that add to the experience of shooting films locally. Similar to a program called “Made in New York,” film business organizers are working with local restaurants, hotels, transportation providers and other merchants to offer their own incentives to visiting filmmakers.
Sara Stelwagen adds that the program features special discount cards that will be given to visiting producers to provide cost savings on everything from meals and supplies to transportation and all kinds of equipment, including portable lavatories. One key sponsor is the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, which will provide reduced rates and amenities for visiting crews.
Another key aspect of the program is to build relationships with police and city officials to reduce or eliminate rental fees for public property, and to provide logistics for parking, location lock down and traffic control. This program will benefit any production, by managing the hundreds of little details that could waste time and money – money that goes back into the budget of a grateful producer.
"The new tax incentives were a good start. It was very important that it was approved, if only to get the attention of local businesses,” Stelwagen said. “The legislation has triggered a lot of activity recently, and local businesses have taken notice. They all understand that Michigan’s economy has to change. So they’re more willing to help out, realizing that film work will benefit them and the community.
The impact of even a small production can be staggering for a small community. When the Hollywood blockbuster Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, shot in the Douglas-Saugatuck community a few years ago, more than 100 hotel rooms were booked in the surrounding area. Local production lasted only three days. But, when you factor in meals and other purchases, the film activity represented a significant boost to the local economy.
So the dream is becoming reality. When asked what’s next for West Michigan, Sara Stelwagen smiled: “Lights, Cameras and Action!”
West Michigan Film and Video Alliance mugs at Celebration Cinema
Deb Havens of West Michigan Film and Video Alliance at Celebration Cinema
Hopwood DePree - founder of TicTock Studios (courtesy of TicTock)
Rendering of TicTock Studios (courtesy of TicTock)
Sara Stelwagen tosses popcorn at Rosa Parks Circle - Center City
Road to Perdition poster (courtesy of Dreamworks)
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved (except as noted)