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U's aim: Build arts sector

Rivals on the field, court, ice rink — and classroom. Competitors in the bragging-rights game for  the best-and-most-preferred university in the state. Yet now, staunch allies pushing to diversity the state’s economy and foster a fledgling film industry.

Michigan State, Wayne State University and University of Michigan are expanding their historic collaboration efforts, which began with becoming partners in the hallmark University Research Corridor. To complement their aim to attract research firms to the state, the universities are targeting the arts economy in a drive to further develop the state’s filmmaking talent.

Over the last few months, students from the three universities have been working together on “Appleville,” a 30-minute movie described as the early 1970s’s film, “Speed” with senior citizens. The plot: a man who needs money for child support highjacks a bus full of senior citizens on their way to a mall.

Post production work and finishing touches on the film are underway. Financing for the project comes from a Michigan Economic Development Corp grant.

In July, the state’s largest public universities announced a Creative Film Alliance Summer Film Institute, which brings together 21 students from the three schools as a way to develop filmmaking talent. The long-range impact is to develop a statewide community of film professionals. During the summer, two dozen students participated in an eight-week course held at KBS Conference Center on Gull Lake taught by faculty from the three schools.

The intent is to develop jobs and spin-off revenue from attracting productions to the state; and, create in-state film opportunities to keep graduates and film professional living and working in Michigan.

“We’ve put Michigan on course as a great filmmaking center, and the institute will train our students to work and succeed in this industry,” said Gov. Jennifer Granholm. “Just over two years into our film initiative, we’re creating an entirely new industry that offers good-paying jobs to those trained to do the vital work it requires.”

The key, according to Emery King, chair of Michigan Film Advisory Commission, is that Michigan is now considered a cost-effective, inspiring place to make films. “We have proven that we can attract big productions from Hollywood — productions that generate jobs and stimulate local economies,” said King. “Now, we are focusing on retaining our own talented young people and attracting others to our state who will use their creative skills and talent to sustain that growth and success.”

The venture officially kicked off July 7 at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station at Gull Lake where students and faculty met for a three-day retreat. The keynote speaker was Bill Mechanic, a respected film producer and MSU graduate. Mechanic has produced many films and oversees his own company, Pandemonium Films. While at the retreat, students from the three universities became familiar with each other and the faculty as they prepare to jointly produce a feature film.

The new film, “Appleville,” involves students and faculty from the URC partners, who are each playing a role in taking the new film from idea to story to finished project, serving as writers, directors, actors and other creative talent.

“Since the passage of the Michigan Film Incentive Law in 2008, dozens of alumni from the three major research universities have had an opportunity to apply what they have learned in the real world of filmmaking,” said Sharon Vasquez, dean of Wayne State’s College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, who helped provide organizational leadership for the partnership

“Reading the credits of the 80 films made in Michigan in the last two years shows that our students have not only taken what they have learned in our courses to help start their own careers – but to help revitalize the Michigan economy itself,” she said.

Jim Burnstein, screenwriting coordinator in U-M’s Department of Screen Arts & Cultures and a member of the commission who provided the vision behind starting a summer film institute as an initial project, noted the new alliance is already encouraging promising talent to focus on a future in Michigan, citing the film’s screen writer, U-M undergraduate Erin Whittemore.

“As this a Hopwood winner for screenwriting, Erin follows in the distinguished footsteps of dramatic writers Arthur Miller and Lawrence Kasdan,” he said. “Erin’s parents are both doctors in Ohio. She came to the University of Michigan as a pre-med student but quickly fell in love with film and especially screenwriting.”

“The Creative Film Alliance is a wonderful example of a true university partnership — with economic and educational benefits,” said Pamela Whitten, dean of MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. “The alliance demonstrates our college’s commitment to community outreach, and also to the growth of the film industry in Michigan. The alliance is unique in its partnering of three major public universities with film expertise, all which happen to be in Michigan.”

The URC was founded in 2006 by the presidents of the three research-intensive universities to leverage the power of Michigan’s research universities to transform, strengthen and diversify the state’s economy. While the URC’s early focus has involved growing industries such as life sciences and green energy, the Creative Film Alliance is the first effort to work collaboratively to assist the film industry, which has been growing rapidly since the state passed new film incentives in 2008.

Whitemore’s script was selected from a host of scripts submitted by students at the three universities this spring. Team members from the three universities gathered July 7-9 at Gull Lake near Battle Creek for a production retreat, and shot the film from Aug. 6-20 in locations around southeastern Michigan.

For information on the Michigan Creative Film Alliance, please visit:

For information on the University Research Corridor, please visit:

— By Joe Serwach, U-M News Service