Still Reeling?

Michigan’s film industry is uncertain after the end of the state’s financial incentives

In 2008, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the Film and Digital Media Incentive bill into law. At the time, it was the nation’s most generous film subsidy program, designed to promote Michigan’s film industry by attracting out of state filmmakers and retaining those from here. According to the Michigan Film Office, more than 150 films were awarded tax incentives to film in the state, including blockbusters like Batman v. Superman, Transformers, and The End of the Tour.

On July 10, 2015, taxpayer-funded cash rebates were eliminated under Gov. Rick Snyder in an effort to curb the state’s budget troubles. But for critics of Snyder’s bill, the economic impact was about more than just the films.

In order to receive incentives, film projects had to go through an audit process that provided the Michigan Film Office (now known as the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office) with information that would be used to assess its economic impact in the state. But MFO Commissioner Jenell Leonard says that many of the requirements of the audit don’t necessarily reflect the film projects’ true economic impact. “That was always kind of a barrier to trying to convey the positive impact the industry was having based off of different measures of metrics that may or may not be easy to understand,” she says.

After the incentives were taken away, many auxiliary businesses that had been set up to accommodate for the film industry began to suffer, such as production and post-production facility Grace and Wild in Farmington Hills, which has since significantly scaled down its operations.

Juanita Anderson, the area head of media arts and studies at Wayne State University, says the impact goes beyond the film industry.

“If the goal was to get people to spend money here, removal of the program is defeating the purpose,” she says. “Hotels were getting booked where they weren’t getting booked before. There was ancillary support in terms of restaurants, bakeries, dry cleaners, and that kind of thing.”

Another possibly unconsidered consequence of eliminating incentives, in turn pushing potential filmmakers away from Michigan, is the loss of future tourism dollars. According to the Association of Film Commissioners International, one in five people travel because of inspiration from a movie or television show. Ken Droz, a publicist, screenwriter, and former communication consultant for the former MFO, points to success elsewhere. “Breaking Bad in New Mexico was a huge tourist attraction,” he says. “That wasn’t even supposed to take place there. They went to New Mexico because of the film incentives.”

Droz believes the reduced return on investment will negatively affect Michigan. “There’s more to consider than what you can see on a spreadsheet,” he says.

But although Michigan’s film industry is no longer growing as it was when the incentives were offered, there are still signs of activity. The creators of Comedy Central’s new series The Detroiters asked the MFDMO if the state had incentives. The office said no, but promised to get public and private partners in and around the city to help make the business case that they needed to film in Detroit.

And there are other factors that could keep filmmakers in Michigan. Jerry White Jr. is a filmmaker from Sterling Heights. Now living in Los Angeles, White still has a fondness for his home state. His feature documentary 20 Years of Madness was shown at the 2014 Detroit Free Press Film Festival, following White’s journey home to reunite with his friends and co-producers of the public access show 30 Minutes of Madness to create one more episode.

White says there are other reasons to choose Michigan, and that he plans to shoot his next film here. “There are so many movies shot in Los Angeles or New York that have the same establishing shots,” he says. “I get excited about shooting in locations that you can’t replicate.”