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Prologue to a New Economy

Ben Foote is the supervising editor for “Thru Traffic”, a film created by U-M students for the Traverse City Film Festival.

In dramatic terms, the story of how the Michigan economy is diversifying to include a fledgling film industry resembles the end of act 1 of a 3-act play. The challenge now is whether there is public patience—and political will—to cultivate the state’s growing reputation as a “film friendly” place, and plant the seed for a new film industry in Michigan to compete with production centers around the world.

“We’re nearly at the end of the first act when the word is out about the great advantages and incentives for coming here,” said Janet Lockwood, executive director of the Michigan Film Office, which assists production companies filming in the state. Last year, 28 movies were filmed in Michigan, including Clint Eastwood’s highly acclaimed Gran Torino, and Drew Barrymore’s Whip It, shot in Ann Arbor.

“Act 2 is infrastructure, and act 3 is more high-level filming bringing jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Lockwood. “We need more crew, more equipment houses, studios, and production houses.” Currently, three studios are in the works in Pontiac, downtown Detroit, and Allen Park, all owned by Unity Studios, which began construction in late August. The three studios, said Lockwood, came to Michigan induced by the (studio) infrastructure film tax credit.

In the past year, since the enactment of the state film incentives program, filmmakers have been lining up to film in Michigan, including at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The incentives offer a 40-percent refundable tax credit to films spending at least $50,000 in the state.

In 2008–09, several films were shot on the U-M campus, including The Myth of the American Sleepover, Betty Anne Waters—directed by Tony Goldwyn and starring Hilary Swank—and Trivial Pursuits, written and directed by U-M alumnus Christopher Farah.

filming“The film office at U-M was created because we have always placed a high priority on being an invaluable research resource in the economic development of the state,” said Lee Doyle, the Film Office director. “By facilitating filmmaking in Michigan, we’re hoping to play a role in creating an exciting, new industry and jobs for state residents.”

Making inroads on a historically Hollywood-controlled film empire is merely one of many paths to economic reinvention along with developing the state’s high-tech corridor, medical research labs, and alternative energy industry.

For decades, U-M has played a vital role in analyzing economic trends and in illuminating key changes in the state’s industries. Among the university’s most recent innovative economic development tools is the University Research Corridor (URC), which includes Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and U-M.

Through focusing on the intersection of research, innovative marketplace solutions, and technology transfer, URC aims to cultivate and promote a 21st-century economy and workforce prepared to compete and succeed in the knowledge economy.

When it comes to the arts, the university’s aim is a bit more abstract, focused on fostering a qualitative public discussion about how the arts give deep meaning to personal experience, and on inspiring innovation in disciplines outside the traditional performing, literary, and visual arts areas.

In the past several years, U-M has elevated the role of the arts through the campus-wide initiative Arts on Earth, an unconventional, innovative approach to learning how the arts are integrated through the academic disciplines; and a course that explores the creative process in all fields.

“This is a watershed moment for arts in the state, and we believe the focus must be on thinking creatively,” said Doyle. “But we also understand the practical side: U-M has essential resources for filmmakers, including a film studies program, actors, costume designers, music composers, and a musical theatre department that’s a training ground for Broadway performers.”

In July, two original films by U-M students premiered at the Traverse City Film Festival. The short films represented the first quarter of full-length features. The works were selected from screenplays submitted in the Advanced Screenwriting course, taught by Jim Burstein and Robert Rayher.

“The goal of having their work in a film festival was a great incentive to the students,” said Burnstein. “We hope we are just at the beginning of giving students the education and practical experience to succeed in the film industry.” Burnstein, who wrote the screenplays for Renaissance Man and D3: The Mighty Ducks, is one of the few working Hollywood screenwriters living in Michigan.

“There’s a role for U-M to play in the development of the state’s film industry,” said Doug Stanton, cofounder of the Traverse City Film Festival, which showed more than 70 films over six days in late July, and attracted 96,000 people to northern Michigan. “Foremost, the university can continue to build a talent pool that may never have to leave Michigan to practice the art of filmmaking.”

Stanton considers an international film festival as a commercial for what’s possible for both filmmakers and film students, and possibly as an ideal partnership with a university that places a high priority on arts education.

“The Traverse City Film Festival is the perfect endpoint for students, who want their work to be seen and validated by an objective audience,” he said. “We hope the festival is just starting to take off.”