Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Michigan Kisses Off Its Creative Community: No More Film Incentives


A couple summers ago, a friend and myself had the opportunity to become film extras for a day: the fruits of that labor is posted above. We spent a sweltering summer day at Sparta Community Airport, of all places, as Secret Service agents for our big scene -- in which a band of Indian terrorists ambushes a U.S. Senator on his arrival. I ducked out of the machine guitar fire into a nearby office, while my friend had his throat cut. His scene stayed, mine got cut; such is life.

I had one other big moment, as an airport mechanic. I felt confident enough to make a suggestion -- "How about if I'm doing something? Maybe I can push this dolly across the concrete floor."  Unfortunately, the sound mixer said that the dolly rattled too much, and she couldn't get a decent level, so I had to do without it on take two. Such is life.

As you'll probably gather, The Spirit Of Mumbai is an old-school, bare-knuckled action picture, featuring a Bollywood actress (center poster shot) being hotly pursued by the bad guys in question. Along the way, you also meet a detective whose loyalties seem quite divided, to say the least -- I don't want to spoil the rest of it for you, so you'll have to find a copy for yourself. More importantly, though, The Spirit Of Mumbai was a true DIY independent effort. As I recall, the director said that he'd spent two or three years working to bring it to fruition.

Many of the actors were already battle-tested veterans of similar productions -- such as the gentleman playing the U.S. Senator, who came from Detroit, where shows like "187" were being filmed at the time. I came away impressed with the energy and commitment of the people who worked on the production. For a fleeting moment or two, I told myself on the way home: Maybe I could make a few extra bucks. Maybe...

However, it doesn't look like there will be too many more opportunities, now that Michigan's terminally tone deaf legislature has killed off its film incentives program. Public Act 117 of 2015 bars the Michigan Film Office from running such a program, or directly funding the costs of production and personnel. To top it all off, the law directs that whatever money is left from the Michigan Film Promotion Fund after the current fiscal ends (September 30, 2016) goes back into the general fund...where, presumably, the Republican-led legislature will happily redirect it to the big businesses who have gotten the lion's share of tax breaks under Governor Rick Snyder's "shift and shaft" approach...but I digress.

Not surprisingly, this action has taken the wind out of Michigan's film community, as small and passionate as it is. Some of my friends are making plans to leave the state, for places like Georgia and Louisiana, which apparently have the best film incentive programs -- who'd have thought, right? The Deep South, so often stereotyped as the land of Bible Belt bangers and bad teeth, apparently gets it: activity breeds activity. So does New Mexico, where two of my favorite all-time shows ("Breaking Bad," "Better Call Saul") were -- and are -- filmed.

Is this any way to spend an afternoon?
A key scene from "Better Call Saul"

According to the Albuquerque Journal, a long-awaited new study suggests that New Mexico's film incentive program pumped $1.5 billion in total economic activity into the state, created 15,848 full-time jobs -- I'll repeat, full-time, not the no-benefit, no-future McJobs that seem destined to dominate Michigan's economic landscape -- and generated roughly 43 cents in tax revenue for every incentive dollar spent between 2010-2014. Funnily enough, that's well below the 60 cents estimated by the Michigan Film Agency -- or, as a news release from State Senator John Proos's office puts it, "only 60 cents of private sector activity". We all should feel so unlucky, right?

Of course, Proos's release -- which a friend from Southwest Michigan forwarded to me -- is the usual blend of Republican half-truths and sophistry (we'll get to that momentarily). To be fair, Michigan has quite a ways to go in catching up with the likes of New Mexico, though a strong film scene is emerging in Traverse City -- where Michael Moore, like him or not, has staked out a presence -- and South Haven now hosts the Waterfront Film Festival, which is emerging as a notable showcase for all stripes of indie filmmakers. Detroit will likely continue to host productions, although on a low-key scale -- given its notoriously fearsome city bureaucracy -- and Grand Rapids has a strong cultural scene, as well.

Still, the 60 cent estimate cited in Proos's release seems like an ample return on Michigan's incentive experiment ($494 million), at least when you compare it to New Mexico, whose program is far more robust. But now that Michigan's pulled the plug, we'll never know. One flaw in Proos's reasoning is that, by nature, incentive programs aren't intended to exact a strict one-for-one return. The underlying rationale behind any incentive program is that activity breeds activity: once people see what's happening, they're more likely to spend time and energy in a state, city or town that puts out the welcome mat. When you create such programs, it's simply not possible to predict or foresee all the direct and indirect benefits that occur. (If you could, the debate would be irrelevant.)

Look at all the mileage that New Mexico got from "Breaking Bad," where its lead actors (Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul) ended up buying homes. Whether people liked the show or not, that type of investment is good for the state -- not to mention more bizarre tie-ins, like the "Breaking Bad Candy" (see links below). If you're an actor, director, or techie, where do you go?  Where the action is, not where it isn't. And right now, Michigan isn't it.

Incentive programs also make it possible for people who aren't established to bring their visions to life. That seems like a better model than the one constantly touted in the mainstream media, which you'll see when it chooses to highlight an area that it deems as "hip," or "happening." Unfortunately, in most cases, that activity involves hipsters with deep pockets, who spend most of their time perpetuating themselves, and keeping out the riffraff (read: anyone seen encroaching on their turf). Before long, most of the resources (read: grant money) flows in their direction, as well...hardly a rising tide that lifts all boats, right?

But the oddest part of Proos's release is the philosophical justification he expresses for ending the program: “We must come up with additional funds needed to fix our roads. In light of that important task, I cannot justify continuing the film credit program. Before we unnecessarily burden our citizens with new taxes in order to pave our roads, we must cut programs that do not produce results.”  This statement is truly bizarre, if we recall how long Michigan's roads -- long the butt of late night comedians' jokes -- have been neglected on the Republicans' watch.

Recall the example of Governor John Engler's "Build Michigan" program, whose Rube Goldberg-ian mixture of borrowing and bonding imposed a far steeper long-term obligation on the state's pocketbook than, say, a simple one-time tax increase would have done. But we all know how Republicans feel about that one. As I've said here before, Erich Honecker would have admired their pig-headedness.

Your future (if you want it): McJobs, McJobs, McJobs

Of course, one obvious takeaway from the demise of Michigan's film program is that anyone working in the creative arts should think twice about letting their futures ride on the whims of politicians. Still, when it works, the results are impressive, as New Mexico's example shows. We can go further back, if you like, to the 1960s -- to that famous photo of Britain's Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, posing with the Beatles. "Love Me Do" or "Ticket To Ride" may not have been part of Wilson's daily listening diet. But he was savvy enough to appreciate the benefits of an association, however fleeting, with the cuddly moptops whose music did so much to soundtrack Britons' lives. As for John Proos? Harold Wilson, he ain't.

Another takeaway, from my standpoint, is that creative people need to do a better job of telling their own story. All too often -- and I'm speaking from experience -- I've heard political hacks of all stripes dismiss the creative arts as a luxury or a frill that's not worth supporting...whether it's gutted from school budgets or state budgets makes no difference. However, the skills that you do acquire -- including the discipline of honing your craft, learning to work well with people from different backgrounds -- are transferable to other work environments. Even no-benefit, no-future McJobs.

But my feeling is, unless creatives get meaningfully involved in the political process, these types of decisions will happen over and over and over again. And I don't just mean, "Vote Tweedledee or Tweedledum," or, "Give 'X' amount of dollars to Tweeldee or Tweedledum's campaign." If you think that type of baseline activity is all it takes to change things, you're not getting the whole story, period.

We need to start marching and raising all types of holy hell to change things -- because, as the political and professional classes all too often demonstrate, they'll never do it on their own when you leave them to their own devices. Still, I can take one small upside from the demise of Michigan's film incentive program: my friends won't be available to work all those McJobs. Then again, we also won't have the benefits of their collective energy when we'll really need it most. But I digress. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Grab 'Em Before
The Hipster Tribes Shove You Aside):
Albuquerque Journal:
New Mexico Film Impact Estimated At $1.5 Billion:

Los Angeles Times:

Visit Albuquerque:
Breaking Bad In Albuquerque

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