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Stop the brain drain: Keep the film tax credit

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared last September amid a public debate about whether the state’s film tax credit was indeed a catalyst for economic development. A year later, the debate continues. Regardless of position on the issue, there is a need for an in-depth and objective examination of the merits of the tax credit.

By Jim Burnstein

Originally published on, 9/12/09

Moments after signing legislation in April 2008 enacting Michigan’s best in the nation film incentive package, Governor Jennifer Granholm turned to me and said, “Jim, tell your students!”

Today, as legislators struggle with the budget in Lansing, these incentives—up to a 42 percent refundable tax credit on a production company’s expenditures—are a tempting target for cuts. We should resist that temptation. It sends the wrong message to Hollywood that we are not serious about building a film industry and to students, who represent the future the governor was thinking about when she signed this bill.

As one of the few working Hollywood screenwriters living in Michigan, I have been pushing for incentives since 2002, when former Governor John Engler appointed me as an original member of the Michigan Film Advisory Commission.

My mantra was simple. “If you build it, they will come.” My experience on sets all across America and Canada has shown me that film production, encouraged by tax credits and other incentives can create jobs, infrastructure, and a stimulus for small businesses in the service and retail sectors.  I have seen antique dealers, caterers, and limo drivers from Winnipeg to Shreveport celebrating like it was Christmas in July.

But as the head of the screenwriting program at the University of Michigan since 1995, I have also witnessed our best and brightest writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, and producers leave for Los Angeles as soon as they graduated. Before incentives, who could blame them? They were young and wanted to be where the action was.

I thought it would take years to reverse this brain drain. But almost overnight the annual exodus to Los Angeles seemed to stop in its tracks. The young graduates were actually giving this law a chance by staying home in droves.

Two years ago less than 10 percent of our graduates pursuing a career in film or television stayed in Michigan. Today, I am seeing about 50 percent remain, many of them with A-List Hollywood potential, the type who in the past were always the first to go.  What I had not anticipated—but now believe the governor knew all along—was how much these kids want to stay home. They love Michigan and want to be part of its rebirth.

Their faith has been rewarded as film production in Michigan jumped from $2 million in 2007 to more than $125 million in the first nine months of 2008. Despite the recession that has hit Hollywood like everywhere else, we will top $169 million in production in 2009. I now get calls from students, who had migrated to Los Angeles and New York, asking me if they should come home. And given all the auto jobs we have lost to the South, it’s especially sweet that one of our grads this year from Tennessee, Alexandria Tomkins, decided to stay in Michigan because of this exciting new business.

U-M is welcoming film production to campus and encouraging its graduates to help build the state’s film industry.  Ms. Tomkins received one of 10 paid film internships sponsored by Dean Terrence J. McDonald of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She just finished working on her first film, Trivial Pursuits, which hired 20 U-M grads and undergrads for its crew.

When legislators weigh the benefit of our film incentives amidst the current budget crunch, I hope they don’t discount the future our students represent as taxpayers and builders of a truly creative economy.

Remember this. Because we are building it, our young people have decided to stay.

Jim Burnstein, director of the U-M screenwriting program and vice chairman of the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council, is the writer of Renaissance Man, D3: The Mighty Ducks, and Ruffian. Contact him at

APPRECIATION: Special thanks to Lee Berry and Russ Collins at the Michigan Theater for allowing us to tape in the historic venue.