Exploring the local filmmaking and digital media scene: The reel deal

Grand Rapids has a creative identity, with an underlying focus on the arts. Within that identity, digital media and filmmaking live. Many up-and-coming as well as nationally-acclaimed filmmakers call Grand Rapids home, with the West Michigan region serving as the backdrop to their creative and commercial work. 

Joel Potrykus is a writer and director, making feature films and shorts for the past 25 years. He also writes for various filmmaking publications and develops screenplay notes and festival strategies for production companies. Potrykus works closely with the next generation of local and regional filmmakers as an assistant professor at the film & video department at Grand Valley State University (GVSU).

“GVSU has the best filmmaking program in the state,” he says. “It's the reason I originally attended as an undergrad. They've preserved their 16 mm film production equipment, so they're able to educate younger generations on the exact process that filmmakers went through 100 years ago, which the overwhelming majority of film programs can't claim.”

Although many students still choose to study film and media, the local and regional scene these days looks a little different from when the Michigan film incentives existed. Deb Havens was a founding chair of the board of directors of the West Michigan Film Video Alliance (WMFVA), created in 2005, in response to layoffs from major production houses. “The West Michigan media market was suddenly flooded with highly-skilled creatives, many who left the state to pursue work, but many who decided to stay and start their own companies,” Havens says. 

Havens talks about the film incentives, designed to keep businesses and residents financially afloat. “In 2007, two movies were shot in Michigan. In 2008, that number jumped to 71 film projects, generating $125 million and creating over 2,700 jobs,” she says. “Ironically, once [former Gov. Rick] Snyder made the film incentives a campaign issue, Republicans largely withdrew their support.”
Havens says the new proposed legislation would incentivize film, commercials and industrials. The 2008 legislation was more generous, providing a 40-42% tax rebate, but excluded commercials and industrial projects. The currently proposed legislation is based on a tax credit that is not paid out from the state Treasury. Revenue to eligible projects —  film, commercial and industrial — comes from selling the tax credit for up to 90 cents on the dollar and only to businesses in Michigan with a tax liability the company would like to reduce. That keeps the money within the state.

The WMFVA made it their mission to connect film program students with professionals as well as workshops and worked to keep graduates local — rather than leaving for work in other states. When Gov. Snyder ended the Michigan film incentives program in 2015, Havens and her fellow filmmakers were left in the dark. Calls to the Michigan Film and Digital Office became routed to the Michigan Tax Tribunal Office, she says. 

Although Potrykus says many film crew members fled town for a more active filmmaking community somewhere across the country when filmmaking incentives left Michigan, he still sees a kind of determination and drive in those who have remained local. “Mostly, directors have stuck around, determined to continue making movies in their hometown without the interference of the regulations that come with a large-scale production,” he says. 
Locally, there are various resources available to both college students and professionals in the industry, in terms of equipment, workshops, networking and guidance. “GRTV and WKTV are the best resources for training and free equipment to those unsure of where to start or perhaps feel too old to return to college and start over,” says Potrykus. “They lend their gear to anyone, as long as they take a certification course on site. Otherwise, there are occasionally meetups and screenings where aspiring storytellers can meet like-minded filmmakers, also looking to break into the industry.”
Chair and Associate Professor of Digital Art and Design at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD), Susan Bonner, is a producer and director of award-winning digital products. She has helped many artists and designers start their careers in entertainment arts and multimedia design, including 2D character animation, motion graphics and storyboard artists. 
She describes the regional filmmaking scene as more of an indie one, mostly underground, with celebrations and film festivals being the primary way to show works. Bonner believes keeping local talent in the pipeline is important. “KCAD students and alum are versatile,” she says. “Students graduate with 21st century skills, industry connections and a strong creative portfolio that will propel them forward. We are committed to creating a lasting impact in West Michigan and beyond through collaborative partnerships and cultural innovation.”
One local project students designed and developed is the Old Streets Adventure, a live-action, role-playing game in collaboration with Grand Rapids Public Museum. 
Although Bonner says local resources like The Community Media Center — a multimedia assistance organization — exist, she would love to see more employers offering internships for animation, storyboarding, video and motion design students and emerging professionals. 

Founder of Taproot Pictures, Karl Koelling, agrees that students could benefit from more hands-on industry experience. Koelling attended film school at Compass College of Film & Media in his thirties, calling it his ‘second career.’ Taproot was founded in 2004, as a part-time business which focused on documentary-style projects. The company grew into full-time in 2006, with the addition of commercial-style projects. Today, they focus on commercial work, marketing-related videos for agencies and clients, as well as storytelling pieces. Taproot has produced work for Spectrum Health, Chevrolet and even a 30-second Super Bowl ad for the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. 
“I understand, as a student, it’s hard to get that real-world experience, but I think the more those programs can focus on getting kids that hands-on experience, the better they’ll be when they come to us,” he says.
Just as Koelling’s career path led him to the commercial side of film, so too are some local college programs embracing this aspect. While schools like Compass College of Film & Media do require internships as part of their programs, Koelling says there is a shift happening within the curriculum. “[Compass is] trying to build the commercial side of that program, too. It’s always been more about films and movies, but they recognize that the commercial filmmaking scene is another option that is viable, so they’re trying to build that.”

Since the demand for video is at an all-time high, Koelling considers the present a great time to get into video production. “It doesn’t seem like there’s any sign of it slowing down,” he says. “People love to consume video, in all of its various formats. Whether it’s a six-second reel, a 30-second spot or a movie, I’m just amazed at the appetite for it.”
With the technological advancements and distribution platforms increasing at a rapid pace, there’s also a need for those in the field to increase their skill set more frequently. Locally, places like Braincell Camera in Wyoming, lend out gear to the community. The cinema camera rental house has cinema cameras, popular modern and vintage lenses and accessories for films, TV, commercial and corporate productions available.
Koelling says camera houses are very popular in larger markets and bigger cities. They’re especially helpful in Grand Rapids, where not everyone owns lenses worth $150,000. “That’s not something you can afford to buy at a small business. It’s a pretty cool resource. You can get access to gear that’s remarkably good at a remarkably good price. If you’re really trying to up your game, there are tools that just do things that the cheap stuff doesn’t. To be able to move into those markets and be competitive, having those kinds of resources in town is really nice.”
Looking ahead at the future of the West Michigan film scene, many in the industry are hopeful for a sequel of film incentives and legislation. Bipartisan Michigan Film Incentive bills are now in House and Senate committees, with more information available at the Michigan Film Industry Association website
Despite Koelling and many others in the industry witnessing plenty of their filmmaker friends leave the region for jobs and work in New Orleans and Atlanta, he describes the current production company community as tight-knit. “I wouldn’t say it’s huge, but the people that are in it are great, very talented and very capable.”

Photos courtesy of Tommy Allen and Taproot Facebook Page

Correction: This article has been updated to provide additional detail related to the 2008 legislation as well as the currently proposed legislation.

Our three-part series on West Michigan’s creative sectors is made possible through the Grand Rapids Chamber and the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office’s Creative Industries Rebound Grant.

Through our solutions journalism’s storytelling platform, we seek to illustrate how the West Michigan creative community is responding to their present challenges as our creative sector builds bridges so that future opportunities can flourish here.

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
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