From title to credits, and everything in between, film production in West Michigan is a complicated process. Outside of landing the funding to keep those creative dreams afloat, regional movie makers need to establish a name for themselves, find willing partners in the orthogonal business community, and keep the cast and crew fed.
With so much work going on behind the scenes, it’s ironic that some of the greatest works of film are able to speak to us on a personal level. Such is the challenge of modern digital storytelling: combine various creative efforts in a way that they set each other ablaze, stoking a fire that resonates within viewers for years to come, sometimes inside a crowded room, perhaps on a smartphone.
Those fires have been burning in West Michigan since well before a tax incentive was ever introduced to big name filmmakers. They’ve kept alight since its removal, and now they’re fanned by a new initiative that’s focused on breaking down barriers between creative and capitalistic pursuits.
Creative Chambers administers $250,000 in grants to various communities via the Michigan Film & Digital Media Office. Out of all the applications recieved, the Grand Rapids chamber was one of five chosen to receive the grant money.
"Even though it's coming from the Film & Digital Media Office, the focus is not specifically on filmmakers, it's on ccreativs in general," says Jennifer Shanenberger, member of the Board of Governors for the Eclipse Awards and Co-Chair of the Creative Chambers Council. "The purpose of the Creative Chambers is to help strengthen the community of creatives and create an initiative that will bring more sustainable employment, and even attract out of state creatives to come to Grand Rapids."
Shanenberger began her relationship with the Michigan film industry as a volunteer opening night production manager for the Waterfront Film Festival in 2006 and served in this capacity through 2010. In 2009, she founded the Michigan Film Festival, which blended with the Grand Rapids Film Festival (GRFF) in 2011. She served as Executive Director and then President and CEO of GRFF through April 2018. She currently serves on the Board of Governors for the Eclipse Awards and as the Co-Chair of the Creative Chambers Council. Shaneberger also co-owns Industry Standard Entertainment, LLC with husband musician Jim Shaneberger, and through this business she writes grants for artists and non-profit arts organizations.
Having so many ties to the filmmaking industry in Michigan, she has identified a few points of conflict she says the Creative Chambers Initiative is poised to address. Some of those challenges, brought up in focus groups and workshops, include the lack of a sturdy network of cross-creative communication, and relevance to the business community.
Most creative entrepreneurs are producing their work through traditional limited liability corporation (LLC) templates, Shanenberger says. They’re reducing themselves to a tiny part of the economic system. As such, they’re likely not attracting the investments larger arts endeavors do.
“And if they are, then it's going to some of the larger arts organizations and not directly to the artists themselves,” she says. “The Creative Chambers has a lot of potential for that advocacy and the public relations and business services these artists need. We can fill in some of those gaps for creatives and help them reach into the business community for support and make a case for them.”
West Michigan has a complicated relationship with the Oscars, and keeps Cannes at a comfortable distance. Access to talent and technical skill a few miles outside of Hollywood's sphere of influence may be to its credit, however.
One of the most well known exports may be the pair of actor and musician Joshua Burge and director and screenwriter Joel Potrykus. For his first two feature films, "Ape" and "Buzzard," both starring Burge and both filmed in Grand Rapids, Potrykus won the Best New Director prize at the 2012 Locarno Film Festival, and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2014 Ljubljana International Film Festival, respectively.
Joel Potrykus, left, and Joshua Burge, right.
“It's about Americans today, their discontent, and their grievances. It's my 99 percent vs. the 1 percent fable,” explains Potrykus explains about his "Animal Trilogy," which began with the short film "Coyote," to Rapid Growth Media in 2013.
Burge played "Stubby Bill" in "The Revenant," which won Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography three years later. Outside of Burge, however, "The Revenant" had little to do with the Mitten State, let alone Grand Rapids. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, from Mexico City, filmed the story of a North Dakotan frontiersman in parts of Canada, Montana, and even Argentina; the music was composed by Japanese and German talent; and the effects applied in Southern California.
Ending the film incentive program in 2011 may have further distanced Hollywood producers from considering the state as a potential location, but it hasn't slowed local filmmakers from producing their own works. If anything, they shine brighter.
"The tax incentive never really was very helpful to Michigan filmmakers, the tax incentive was a mechanism for tourism and bringing in outside dollars," Shanenberger says. "It was really looking to attract some of those LA productions that would take advantage of a huge 42 percent incentive."
The incentive created a disconnect between local filmmakers and the state government they were represented by, Shanenberger says. The Michigan Film & Digital Media Office, spared by Snyder, has since shifted its focus, and with the Creative Chambers initiative, hopes to reestablish that local support.
Acquiring funding is a challenge for every creative professional, Shanenberger says, but communication barriers between disciplines can be just as frustrating.
"Graphic designers know graphic designers, filmmakers know filmmakers, but you look cross-creatively, and we don't really know each other," Shanenberger says. "A filmmaker might not know who the sculptors are, or the fashion people are."
Creative Chambers intends to connect those networks online, beginning with a web directory of member portfolios, and building other features out from there.
Improving advocacy is another goal of the organization. Local corporations like Meijer have been asked to rely on Michigan talent for their advertising campaigns. Creative Chambers is also pushing for a standardized pay rate, putting the work of creative communities anywhere in the state on the same scale.
Through these efforts, Shanenberger and Creative Chambers hope to help more projects bridge the gap between passion project and sustainable business model, putting creative professionals in touch with the right distribution channels, as well.
Stories are being written, sets are being built, scenes are being filmed, and movies are being made in West Michigan by people who know how to get things done on a shoestring budget. Even the tightest budgets won't prove much more than a liability without a viable business plan, however, and skills which have traditionally been absent from creative curriculums.
West Michigan has no less than eight different filmmaking schools, many which offer classes in creative-aligned business management, but those aren't always the classes aspiring creatives enroll in, Shanenberger says.
"Sometimes filmmakers get into documentary work, or some work that's got some deeper purpose to it," she says. "If they were to be a nonprofit, then they might be able to access some of the foundations or some of the government grants that are available to arts and culture nonprofits. But most filmmakers, most creatives don't even think that way. They think a nonprofit means 'I'm not going to make any money.'"
Grand Rapids has often been ranked as one of the most philanthropic communities in the nation, and tapping into that philanthropy isn't too much trouble for names like Spectrum Health and Frederik Meijer Gardens. For small-time filmmakers, though, the story is a little different.
That's what the Creative Chambers aims to help with: teaching creatives how to land grant funding, how to write press releases, how to set up a nonprofit, how to land media interviews, nearly everything but how to win an Oscar.
With a number of schools teaching filmmaking and related subjects, West Michigan holds one of the biggest populations of creative talent outside of California and New York. Added to that, the benefit of not being either. Standards of living are on the rise nearly everywhere in the country, and though Grand Rapids is not immune to the same trends, it's still more affordable than the prevailing options.
Filmmaker and instructor Joshua Courtade graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in creative writing in 2003, and attended Compass, now Compass College of Cinematic Arts, before it was a college. That was the extent of his formal education in filmmaking before moving out to LA for the Act One program.
He moved back to Grand Rapids in 2007, soon after becoming a teaching assistant for his mentor at Compass.
"Part of reason that I came back to Michigan was the attitude," Courtade says. "The mindset in LA is very different than the mindset in West Michigan. The work ethic is different. In Los Angeles, there's a lot of emphasis on appearances and that sort of thing. And I think around here, people just want to make movies."
That's what Courtade wants to do, at least. He's completed a number of short films and commercial work, and he's now on his fourth micro budget feature. As well, Courtade has run the film festival for Grand Rapids Comic Con ever since it started in 2013.
He says, most of his projects have been self-financed, and others have been financed by clients, but a few have been crowdfunded. While there's great potential to that model, through Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, or other platforms, it comes with no lack of potential pitfalls.
"You can also put your film on Amazon and stream it, and it's not that difficult to do," Courtade says. "But getting people to watch it is still the challenge, and once you've made the film, how do you monetize that? Trying to make back even a small budget is challenging."
If an opportunity for work elsewhere was compelling enough, Courtade says he might consider it, but for now, Grand Rapids is the best place to keep making films.
"I have a writing partner that's still in LA and we use phone or email or to work on projects together. We've done a lot of script writing but most of my filmmaking is based here in West Michigan, most of the resources that I have access to are here," he says. "It just makes sense to keep doing stuff here, to stay here, and to work here."
Shanenberger agrees with the sentiment, adding that midwesterners may be hardier of heart than their coastal counterparts.
"Our work ethic and our ability to persevere, I think that that's very unique," she says. "We live through a hard winter and we're really blessed with Lake Michigan on the west side of the state. But that shows that we work hard and we play hard. And we can make it through all different kinds of changes, weather or otherwise. We adapt."
Adaptivity plays to our advantage, Shanenberger says. It's a natural means of project development scheduling.
"Having those winter months is really great for creativity, when there's a rhythm of life," she says. "We think, OK, it's wintertime, so I'm going to get in my mood, and my feeling, and write that script. And then in the summertime, that's when we show off our work."
As to the question of opportunities for new and established filmmakers to show off their work, film festivals provide a variety of answers. Alongside the Grand Rapids Film Festival in the spring and the GR Comic Con Film Fest in the fall, there's the Grand Rapids Latin American Film Festival, the Waterfront Film Festival in Holland, UICA’s Local Director Series, the Grand Rapids Feminist Film Festival, and others.
“I feel that to be a filmmaker in West Michigan, I have to create the opportunities I want to have,” says GRFFF Programmer Kathryn Postema.
Feminist Film often involves the work of women on screen and off, in the protagonist roll as well as behind the camera. Postema not only works with other feminist filmmakers, she’s creating works of her own. Postema says she’s in pre-production for a web series co-created with Jacob de la Rosa for Perelanda Pictures. They wanted to make a sci-fi show featuring a female Latinx protagonist, and understand the experience of working in a writers room, so they brought on two additional writers and an assistant to help create episodes for "Real American."
“Shonda Rhimes' masterclass informed our process and it was well worth it,” Postema says. “So, what I'm expressing here—what I've learned—is that filmmakers and artists have to take control of their own development, and also not be afraid of doing something they haven't seen before.”
Postema says she’s been fortunate to find herself in collaborative creative roles through the years, whether as a student in the GVSU Film and Video program, or as a freelancer working in film and television, or at the Grand Rapids Community Media Center. Her current role at the GRFFF involves coordinating the film selection process among volunteer screeners and organizing group screenings where the selections are finalized.
“Our main goal is to show films from a variety of perspectives, especially from people underrepresented in mainstream media,” she says. “We try to have a good mix of locally produced and Michigan films, while also bringing in films from around the world. We strive to stay active in our community building relationships and listening to voices outside the mainstream culture here.
Feminist films can be made by people of all gender identities -- not just women," she adds. "For GRFFF, our mission is to elevate and empower the voices of media creators from underrepresented and marginalized groups to examine issues through the intersecting lenses of gender, sexuality, race, ability, class, age, income, etc. We see that in itself as a feminist act."
GRFFF is a free festival, run entirely by volunteers, and funded by donations and sponsors. While there are many talented and hardworking artists creating films, videos, and shows in West Michigan, Postema says, “in other cities, larger markets, you might get more 'regular' work, or have access to mentors. But the small, independent projects can be more rewarding and allow more creative control.”
The GR Feminist Film festival takes place October 12-13, and submission deadline is July 15.
Tickets don't have to be sold to gain an audience around here, either. Chris Randall's science fiction television anthology series "Local" focuses on stories of alternate realities of Grand Rapids, as told in the work of six different West Michigan filmmakers.
The series premieres this summer, and has already attracted several hundred fans. Among them, Burge, whose film "Relaxer," written and directed by Potrykus, was released earlier this year.
West Michigan filmmakers have the advantage of a bootstrapping attitude and a film office that’s working to get them exposure, but at the end of the day, they are not without great hurdles, some of those in finding willing partners in other industries.
“I think the creative community here struggles a lot, probably more more than it needs to, or more than it should.” Shanenberger says. “I feel like if the business community would just let us shoot in some of their locations, or give us a discount on screening, where it would help if we could all work together more. I think that's a missed opportunity. That's not really happening.
Year after year, Shanenberger has watched filmmakers struggle with finding sponsorships, though the business community in Grand Rapids remained vibrant. Distance between the two cultures has fostered a sense of competition where there should be collaboration, she says.
“Could Grand Rapids be the new creative city, and a great place to create? Could we be recognized nationally, and people start looking at us for art that's coming out of Grand Rapids and not just for Art Prize?” she asks.
Well, sure. But it will take some work.
“We're bringing a national artists to display their work for a week. And everybody is in that competitive mindset, 'I'm going to win all that money.' And sure that's great for tourism, but we want something that's not really competitive,” she says. “We want something that's collaborative. We want to build something here that's going to encourage us to work together and not against each other.”
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.