Film Business Comes To Detroit

Photo by Glenn Triest

Editor’s Note: Originally published in the November 2010 print edition of B.L.A.C., this article explores how the local film and TV industry, still in its infancy, was faring, sometimes leaving long-term benefits out of reach for local folks.

t was a typical Saturday morning at the gym as folks streamed into spinning class. Except that they had to walk through a movie set first.

Lights, cameras and action created a scene from the 1960s. “We’re shooting a trailer for my movie called ‘CP Time,’” says local independent producer Jean-Claude Lewis. “It’s a time travel story about a plot to prevent Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from being assassinated.”

Curious gym-goers stepped over cables and maneuvered around cameras inside the Boll Family YMCA in downtown Detroit. It’s a scene that has become increasingly common as independent producers, as well as Hollywood studios and networks, make movies and TV shows around metro Detroit.


Over the past several months, the a-list actors who have worked in The D include Hugh Jackman, Richard Gere, Demi Moore and Sean Penn. From their big budget projects, to the ABC television series “Detroit 1-8-7,” to low-budget shorts, it’s clear that the industry has expanded in an unprecedented way because of Michigan’s financial incentive program. But whether or not local independent filmmakers reap their fair share of benefit is an ongoing topic of debate.

“This is a huge injection of positivity and people are feeling good about this new activity,” says Ken Droz, former communications manager for the Michigan Film Office, which attracts production companies and connects them with local resources and services. “It’s been a rough decade for Michigan. Now we’re seeing exciting new ventures arriving in Detroit. That’s the most important aspect of what’s happening with the film industry here.”

This is happening, Droz says, because Michigan boasts one of the best rebate incentives in the country to attract big budget Hollywood studios. Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the tax-incentive package for filmmakers into law in April 2008, reimbursing filmmakers 42 cents for every dollar spent on film budgets.

According to Michigan Film Office spokesperson Michelle Begnoche, it is expected that the film industry will bring more than $300 million to the state in 2010. She says that in the incentive’s first year, 38 productions spent $125 million in Michigan. Last year, 43 productions spent $223.6 million. As of mid-October this year, 101 applications had been submitted for the incentive, 51 of which were approved.

Some state lawmakers oppose the incentive because of the cost to the state. But Gov. Granholm has explained that the incentive was designed to help build the film industry and create new jobs, not boost state income. “We argue that critics are looking solely at tax revenue. You have to look at the whole picture,” says Begnoche. “A lot of money is going directly to local business, hiring local workers. And you can’t ignore that when you’re looking at economic development.” The incentive could be in danger of elimination if enough candidates opposed to it get elected to positions in Lansing this month’s.

The incentive has sparked such fervor that many who would have pursued their film dreams in Los Angeles or New York are staying, or returning, to make movies here at home. Andrena Hale, a 41-year-old filmmaker who returned to her hometown of Southfield after 15 years in the entertainment industry in New York, says she’s building her director’s reel so she can excel as a filmmaker. Currently, she’s a segment producer for truTV’s reality show “Hardcore Pawn” about a local pawn shop.

In August, she shot her short film “Pop Rocks” in Rochester Hills and Royal Oak. The 10-minute movie is about four foul-mouthed college girls who hallucinate after a car accident.

“The incentive will definitely help my independent projects when I go to get funding. When you start presenting to investors, they want to know how they’ll get their money back. Now investors know they’ll get their money back relatively quickly,” says Hale.

“What we are really focused on at the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council is the growth of an indigenous film community in Michigan,” says Emery King, chair of the council, which advises state leaders on marketing and promoting the industry.

King is also the host of the new monthly radio program “Michigan on Film” which debuted on WDET last month. “The ultimate goal is to have studios, make movies and do post-production all here in Michigan,” he says.

Some independent filmmakers are aggressively pursuing a slice of the economic pie created by the incentive.

“Of course we’re taking advantage of the incentive,” says Rola Nashef, 37, who completed the shooting of her low-budget feature film “Detroit Unleaded” on Aug. 31. She shot the film-about the relationship between Arabs and Blacks at a gas station on Detroit’s east side-in 19 locations throughout Detroit. The writer, director and producer says she employed 180 people, including more than 100 actors. “Detroit Unleaded” is now being edited and Nashef expects to release it early next year.

“I’d like to stay in Michigan as a filmmaker,” Nashef says. “The incentive is not a difficult process. We whizzed right through it.” Begnoche says filmmakers with budgets of at least $50,000 can apply by completing a 33-page application and paying a $100 filing fee.

Another homegrown talent who took advantage of the incentive is 20-something Qasim Basir, who moved to New York in 2006, but returned to metro Detroit last year to film “Mooz-lum” with Danny Glover and Nia Long. It’s about a Black Muslim family struggling to practice Islam in the United States. Basir premiered the film, his first feature-length project, in New York in September.

“I know a lot of the crews and people I’ve always worked with in Detroit,” says the former Wayne State University pre-law student. “The incentive is one of the best in the country, so between those two elements, it was a no-brainer for me.”

Lewis, however, says the incentive is not always user-friendly for local filmmakers. The big studios “parachute” into town with their own producers, he says. And while they do hire lower-level help-required to qualify for the incentive-they offer few opportunities for local producers and directors.

“The film incentives were made to help Hollywood and to help Michigan,” says Lewis, 50, who founded beneath the underdog Films after a Navy career as a nuclear engineer. This month, he plans to begin filming “Casino Blues,” a low-budget feature about a rich man who decides to live in an alley behind a casino.

“If you don’t have the funding, then you can’t use the incentives. There’s a Catch-22. The state policy is that you need [approximately] 80 percent of your finances for approval to use the incentive,” he says. “But it’s so difficult for Joe the producer or Josephine the producer to get funding from investors, friends and family that the incentive has been out of our reach.” He adds that innovative approaches-such as a “film bank” to loan money to independent filmmakers-could help them utilize the incentive.

Detroit native Sultan Sharrief, 26, served as associate producer for “Mooz-lum.” But he’s in the midst of a whirlwind of success as an independent filmmaker himself.

“We’re hustling,” says the founder of Beyond Blue Productions. Sharrief’s film, “Bilal’s Stand,” about a Detroit teen trying to get into college, debuted at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January. It’s been screened at festivals in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Windsor and New York. In Indianapolis last month, “Bilal’s Stand” tied for a second place Crystal Heart Award-out of 832 submissions-at the Heartland Film Festival, for excellence in filmmaking.

He says transforming Detroit into a movie mecca hasn’t helped him, even though his production company has three full-time and three part-time employees. “For me as a film producer, unless you want to take a job as a production assistant, getting coffee for people, there’s no job for me,” says Sharrief, whose first movie was “The Spiral Project,” about a teen writing prodigy who gets writer’s block. The film was nominated for an MTV Movie Award in 2006 for best student film.

“I’ve produced two feature films, but there’s no infrastructure in place to help local filmmakers and film professionals if you’re outside the union,” he says. “I even started a company to be a liaison between incoming films and local people.

“All the business still takes place in L.A. and New York,” says Sharrief. “They’re just coming here to do the shooting portion.”

Detroiter Martina Guzmán says she loves telling real-life stories through film. She got her start before the incentive existed, filming overseas. In 2000, Bishop Tom Gumbleton sent her to Haiti to document doctors building an orphanage and hospital. “Going to Haiti allowed me to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and that was to tell stories,” she says.

Her 2006 film “Milagros: Made in Mexico”-created by her team called Four Women in Film-illuminated the “manless villages” of women and children after men migrated to the U.S. for better financial opportunities. The documentary has been shown at more than 50 universities across the U.S.

Guzmán has been named the 2010 “artist/performer of the year” by the Wayne County Council for Arts and Humanities.

She loves working in Detroit, irrespective of the incentive, especially after she and her film crew met with producers in Los Angeles about “Milagros.”

“They laughed at us,” Guzmán says. “They made us feel like we’d made a wedding video. That was the taste of Hollywood to me. In Detroit, I don’t feel that. If your dream is to get into filmmaking, Detroit is a great place to be.”


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