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Opinion: Film incentives are good business for Detroit and Michigan

Geoff George

 
The Michigan House recently passed HR4122, a proposal to end the film incentive program in Michigan. As the bill heads to the Senate, I'm awash with a feeling of déjà-vu. Here we are, once again debating the merits of a simple program proven to create jobs, foster an emerging industry in multimedia and film, and reverse the brain drain by retaining young people in our communities.
 
But instead of nurturing and shaping a program that helps our home-grown film industry prosper, some of our lawmakers are trying to kill it outright.
 
I have been writing letters to senators – Democrats and Republicans alike – imploring them to vote to keep the incentive and hoping that some will at least appreciate my effort. But when you get a response like the one Sen. Patrick Colbeck sent me, whose office said he "support (sic) the elimination of the movie industry since he believe (sic) that subsides help prop up industries that are not viable successful (sic) in the area," I've realized that our lawmakers require a lot of educating when it comes to the film incentive and its effects on Michigan citizens and workers.
 
Forget for a moment that the $50 million-a-year program accounts for less than one tenth of one percent of the state budget. Forget for a moment that state tax incentives for the auto industry total over $2 billion dollars. This incentive is about employing people and fostering a new industry in the state -- simply that.
 
Does the money go to Michigan workers? Does the program create new jobs? Are those jobs permanent?
 
Unfortunately, the MEDC uses a flawed logic to measure the impact of the film incentive. The average film worker makes $64,000 each year, but because each project only lasts a few weeks to months and because a different company runs each project, these jobs are considered 'part-time.' Film workers are not considered full time employees in the MEDC numbers game.
 
I'll let you in on a little insider secret: working in the film industry is never a part-time job. From one project to the next, you are always working. You work a string of jobs for many different companies. Combined, they constitute an average yearly salary for a film worker. But taken individually, the earnings from each project are only a piece of the pie. The film incentives ensure that film employees are consistently working.
 
But that's just the people on the film set and in the production office. Each film production utilizes an average of 60 different independent – and local – vendors for a shoot over the course of many weeks or months. Out-of-state talent spends money on food, clothes, entertainment, and other living expenses that are not factored in by the state. The impact is akin to having a major sporting event or convention in town, except for four to ten weeks instead of days.
 
Many folks think the money goes straight into the pockets of Hollywood producers and studios. Is this true?
 
You need look no further than my hometown of Detroit to see how the film incentive has affected everyday, local folks. I'm not just talking about film professionals, but bakers, drivers, hotel workers, and caterers, as well as Detroit-based small businesses like event rental companies, hardware stores, furniture stores, laundromats, and more. These are folks that live in the metro area and contribute to our quality of life by paying their taxes and earning a decent living. These folks are not the ones working on films as grips, wardrobe assistants, location managers, and camera operators – they are your neighbors, your friends, and maybe even members of your family.
 
Take a look at Franklin Furniture over on Loraine Street, recently profiled in this publication. Several film and television productions have rented hundreds (if not thousands) of items from this local business. Take a look at Harmonie Park Music, which expanded and hired five more employees thanks to film projects. Hop over to Detroit Manufacturing, which hired six new employees. Beyond Blue Productions made major investments in the city and hired six new employees. Look at the tremendous impact on restaurants and hotels, which have benefited from thousands of room nights booked.
 
Similar stories can be found in communities throughout the metro area. S & R Event Rental of Harrison Township hired twenty employees. Scenic Prop & Design in Madison Heights hired 35 new employees. The list, compiled by the Michigan Production Alliance, is long and impressive.
 
Sure, these local companies are not hiring thousands, but the cumulative effect makes an impact. Not everyone is capable of being a Ford or a Penske in this state, but small businesses will drive the future of Michigan's economy.
 
The most important effects of the film incentive, however, cannot be measured. There's the excitement and pride that the city and state feel when hosting a film. There's the look of awe on a child's face as he watches his hometown showcased as a new Gotham in the upcoming "Batman v Superman" film. There's the thrill of having our town promoted and frequented by celebrities, who find that Michigan and Detroit are full of surprises.
 
Do the locals enjoy films being shot in their community? Ask any of the property and business owners who were generously compensated for the use of their building or event space. Ask the neighborhood kids who were invited to be background extras on a big movie set, an experience they'll tell their grandkids about one day.
 
When I was working on the Ryan Gosling film "Lost River," we were shooting late on a summer night outside of the Masonic Temple. With the apartment tenants sleeping and the streets closed off, it was eerily quiet in the Cass Corridor. Suddenly, as we were setting a scene, a group of bicyclists, donned with blinking lights and boom boxes, rolled up to the barricade. I knew them as the GMOB (Grown Men on Bikes), a group of low-riding bicycle enthusiasts that roll down the streets of Detroit to take in the city, often seen at Slow Roll. Ryan was immediately enamored with the scene and invited the group to make a small cameo in the film. The GMOB were overcome with excitement. I had so many similar experiences on this and other film sets, where locals were embraced and the local community was supported by the film production.
 
If the incentives leave town, a lot of wind will leave our sails. With manufacturing jobs not nearly as plentiful as they once were, our state must find new avenues to enrich its citizens. Suffocating a new industry before it can barely spread its wings would just be foolish. I'm hoping our legislators will open their eyes to the true impact this program has on Michigan.

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Geoff George is a Detroit-based cinematographer, photographer, and camera professional. Learn more about his work at gsgfilms.com.
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