Against the grain: West Michigan's film culture

Low budgets plus high creativity equals a robust independent film, video, and television culture in West Michigan. John Wiegand hits the red carpet to report on how to keep blockbuster talent in the region.
2014 has been a busy year for West Michigan's film community, and it shows little sign of slowing down. With numerous film festivals, screenings, award-winning projects from local filmmakers and the recent wrap of the feature film, "The End of the Tour" (TBA), the local film scene is attracting quite a bit of attention. As eyes turn toward West Michigan, it's a good time to ask what the future of the film community has in store and what that means for the area in terms of dollars and talent.

Productions with multi-million dollar budgets often bring an influx of capital into the area where they are filming. Michigan attracts a sizeable number of large budget productions through its Film and Digital Media Incentive program, which subsidizes a portion of production costs in return for a percentage of direct expenditures and crewmembers hired in the state.
The film "Thirty Minutes or Less" (2011) boasted the largest budget of any film produced in West Michigan since the film incentive program was adopted at $28 million and spent a total of $17,896,071 million in state. "The End of the Tour" (TBA) has an estimated budget of $2 million. While these films helped bolster the local economy and garner significant media buzz, they are the largest productions benefiting West Michigan since the film incentives inception in 2008. The majority of big budget films are attracted to the large production studios near the Metro Detroit area.
"I don't think Grand Rapids can handle big budget attractions if we are talking $100 million dollar budgets, which you might see gravitate to the east side of the state," says Deb Havens, Chair of the West Michigan Film and Video Alliance. "Unless we get a major facility here that can handle that kind of budget, our sweet spot is typically [for film budgets] from five to 10 million dollars."
Despite its lack of big budget blockbusters, West Michigan offers up a vibrant film community, currently experiencing a surge of innovative and award-winning work from independent filmmakers. 
"We are seeing breakout artists winning major prizes across the country and world in film festivals and attracting investors," says Havens. "There are huge advantages all across the board for people to have the opportunities and means to put Grand Rapids and West Michigan on the map in a new, unique way."  
Joel PotrykusOne such breakout artist is local filmmaker Joel Potrykus, whose latest film, "Buzzard" (2014), debuted at the South by Southwest Festival, a combination of film, interactive and music festivals in Austin, Texas. Potrykus made a name for himself as a young, up-and-coming filmmaker with his breakout film, "Ape" (2012), which was screened at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland and earned Potrykus a Best Emerging Director Award. West Michigan's low cost of living translates into smaller production costs and allows independent filmmakers like Potrykus to stretch their dollars further. "Ape" was produced in West Michigan for under $10,000, whereas the same production would have been easily over $100,000 in film industry-heavy New York or Los Angeles.
"When we go to festivals, we are the odd ducks," says Potrykus. "Everybody there is from New York or Los Angeles. People have their minds blown when I tell them that I still live in Michigan and make movies there. People freak out. We are going against the grain here for sure. Our model is to make our off-kilter and what we see as important independent films, but do it from Michigan. It can be done and you don't have to be swallowed up whole by the mainstream industry."
For some, West Michigan's active film community forms an integral piece of Michigan's digital technology industry.
"The vision for the film industry here is based on the notion that digital tech is a 21st century industry," says Havens. "Computer-driven industries that are dependent on convergent technology, so that there are many ways to use this particular skill, I'm talking animation, graphic design and even music compilation in addition to filmmaking – all of those things are definitely the future."
West Michigan attracts numerous film and digital arts students to the area and provides them the opportunity to work in the same space as industry professionals, while the tight-knit community encourages collaboration. Notable programs like those from Grand Valley State University, Kendall College of Art and Design and Compass College of Cinematic Arts coupled with growing opportunities for graduates result in both economic and cultural gains for the area.
"Many students come to our universities because we have these [film and digital media] programs and we are becoming known for that nationally," says Havens. "We would be crazy not to keep those kids here and we have to develop opportunities for them to stay and work for local companies."
To help attract and retain talent in the film community, West Michigan's creative atmosphere hosts a variety of film festivals, events and collaborative projects throughout the year that encourage participation in the visual arts.
The area also boasts a regional award show, The Eclipse Awards, which celebrates high-quality film, television and video work from across West Michigan. The awards roll out the red carpet for local productions and bring top-tier film industry professionals from New York City, Los Angeles, London and Toronto to judge their work.
"One of the things we've noticed is that you never would have known there were that many filmmakers in the area until we started the Eclipse Awards," says Tom Norton, executive producer of The Eclipse Awards. "We had a record number of entries this year. You look at these entries and almost all of them are very, very good. Some of them are just beautiful."
Film festivals and events coupled with numerous film screenings throughout the year at venues like the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) and Wealthy Street Theatre inspire the film community with quality independent films from across the globe and give local filmmakers the opportunity to show their films to a captive audience. These events also help foster collaboration between a variety of individuals and organizations under the umbrella of the film community.
"The [Grand Rapids] Film Festival is a collaborative effort and it brings together film industry professionals, professors, students and the business community of Grand Rapids," says Jennifer Shaneberger, executive director of the Grand Rapids Film Festival. "We all work together to celebrate film in general, and working together builds [cultural] vibrancy."
West Michigan's active film culture and cooperation with other industries breed opportunities for the film community to work directly with other creatives across mediums and platforms. This type of unity fosters innovation on a level not seen in larger areas with inclusive industries that tend to stay inside their genres and networks.
In the end, the West Michigan film community is carving a cultural path for the area. With a combination of area pride, Midwestern grit and unique charm, the film community is showing the world the creativity and innovation that West Michigan is capable of.
"What it [West Michigan film culture] should bring is a sense that New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris are not the cultural capitals of the world," says Potrykus. "There are creative people everywhere and not all of them need to come to the allure of the big cities and cultural meccas. It shows that there are people who want to go against the grain and do what they want to do, where they want to do it."
West Michigan Film Event List:John Wiegand is an East Side kid who moved to Grand Rapids, dug the vibe and stuck around. You might find him running to slow songs, biking in the dirt or nursing a strong stout. Send him story tips at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @JNWiegand.
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