Independent Filmmakers on Life after Michigan's Incentives

It's the last night of shooting on "New Money," an independent movie with the sorts of promising elements that make film festivals sit up and take notice.

The director waiting to wrap up a restaurant scene inside the Detroit Yacht Club is a former Fulbright scholar who's already screened an acclaimed short at the SXSW festival. The cast boasts an Emmy-nominated actress from HBO's "Deadwood" and the star of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. One producer's credits include "Buzzard," a cutting-edge character study that was a New York Times critics pick. Another producer has climbed the ladder from production assistant jobs with  action films like "Transformers: Age of Extinction" and "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."

What's perhaps most impressive is that this fictional story about a family's financial dispute, budgeted at under $1 million, is being made in Michigan at all. Director Jason B. Kohl, who grew up in Lansing and was determined to make his first feature here, saw the state's film incentives virtually disappear as he was making the trek from Los Angeles to his hometown in June 2015 to start his prep work.

"When I got on the plane from L.A. to Michigan, we had an incentive. And when I got off the plane, we didn't," says Kohl.

The bill to kill the film, TV and digital incentives was passed in June 2015 and signed into law the following month by Gov. Rick Snyder. Since then, two big projects have been confirmed as heading to Michigan. "Transformers 5" will film in metro Detroit this year and is getting $21 million of the remaining approved incentives on anticipated spending of $80 million. A hip TV project, Comedy Central's "Detroiters," also is shooting here this summer, in no small part because the city is essential to the plot.

Other than that, "New Money" seems to be what post-incentives life will look like. Several metro Detroit filmmakers are determined to keep working and creating here. But the projects that choose Michigan are likely to flow from the existing film community, not from Hollywood studios, who can get tax breaks and cash rebates elsewhere.

Money Talks

Kohl, whose short film "The Slaughter" was a Student Academy Awards finalist, lives in Berlin now, but hopes that "New Money" will be part of a Michigan-made trilogy of movies he has planned. He's kept strong ties to his home state, spending part of 2015 at Michigan State University as an artist-in-residence.

He wrote the "New Money" script, which attracted actors like Robin Weigert, who played Calamity Jane in "Deadwood"; Louisa Krause, known in the theater world for her leading role in Annie Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winner, "The Flick"; and Brendan Sexton III, whose credits include "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Black Hawk Down." He's also codirecting a documentary about a group of prisoners in Macomb County who are raising puppies to be seeing-eye dogs for blind people.

During the three-week shoot for "New Money" in Lansing and Detroit, he has been buoyed by the support of family and friends, like the parents of a producer who are waiting in the lobby to be extras in tonight's scene. But he thinks losing the incentives will make it harder to bring his next, hopefully larger, feature film back home again.

"I don't want to shoot in Ohio or Illinois. I want to keep shooting here," he says. "I just really love Michigan stories and telling them here. I don't know what's going to happen to the incentives. I doubt there's the political capital to bring it back."

The incentives were launched in 2008 with broad goals and one of the most generous rates around. The program lured dozens and dozens of films to Michigan, which soon became dotted with movie and TV projects. Supporters touted that, in just two years, the state went from $2 million in annual production to nearly $225 million.

With an original $50,000 minimum spending requirement that was raised later to $100,000, the plan wasn't designed for budding Michigan filmmakers on shoestring budgets. The idea was to have a mix of small, medium and huge projects that could create a year-round industry, give young people a reason not to relocate and help retrain underemployed or laid-off workers for new jobs. It was a complex, long-range set of goals that opponents tended to frame as handouts for Hollywood once Clint Eastwood and George Clooney started bringing projects here.

Then, in 2011, after Snyder took office, the incentives were revamped and capped at $25 million, which started a backing-away process by studios and investors that cooled the momentum. Even with former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, the GOP leader who split from his party in his support of the program's job-creating potential, able to raise the annual cap to $50 million, the incentives were on a slow path to elimination.

Although metro Detroit's film community is still hurting from the loss of the incentives, it is turning toward what's possible next, not how to revive what's gone. For some, one goal is trying to keep Michigan as a home base.

"I still live here. But since August, unfortunately, I haven't really done work here. I've been in Massachusetts. I've been in New York. I've been all over the place, still living here but having to travel for work," says Eddie Rubin, a University of Michigan alum and metro Detroit producer whose credits include "Mooz-Lum" and "Love and Honor."

Rubin still has his Deep Blue Pictures company in metro Detroit. He's formed a new company, Long Road Film, with two partners out of New York. He last worked here as an executive producer of an indie film "The Pickle Recipe" and a line producer of two cable TV movies "A Royal Family Christmas" and "A Royal Family Holiday" for the TV One network. This fall, he was busy with "The Last Poker Game," shot in Massachusetts and starring Martin Landau and Paul Sorvino, that's now in post-production.

Being able to travel for films has helped Rubin, but he knows it's not a realistic option for many members of the Michigan crew base that the incentives built through retraining and chances to advance while working. Like any contract workers, they relied on having four or five movies a year on their schedule, a tap that is now turning off post-incentives.

"There will be films (made here), but they will not be what  (it) used to be. And you're not going to have the type of bigger union jobs where people were sustaining their lives and able to make living wages because of the incentives and the films that came here," says Rubin. "Now it's going to be more passion projects and smaller budget stuff that will come once in a while. It will be fun to work on a movie, but if you're doing one independent film a year, you're most likely not going to make the money you need to survive for the year."

The future isn't easy to predict for people like Michael Manasseri, who directed "The Pickle Recipe," and recently released "A Mosquito-Man," which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in, on DVD and iTunes.

"I know that I don't know," says Manasseri of what happens next, speaking from Florida where "The Pickle Recipe" is part of the Palm Beach International Film Festival.

Manasseri, whose family is mostly based in Rochester Hills, isn't giving up on the concept of building a film industry here. But he says it's going to be tougher. He worked with Oscar-nominated actor David Paymer and "Sex and the City" veteran Lynn Cohen on "The Pickle Recipe" and says he had a great time. As Oakland University's professional film partner, he estimates he's had hundreds of students work as assistants on his sets.

"I want to raise a family in Michigan. So does my wife. I think I can continue making projects here, but I also foresee myself working in a number of places. I want to do everything I can to inform people from other areas that this is a great place to shoot. But when you're going up against 20 or 30% discounts at other places, it gets tougher."