Amid uncertainty, Michigan film industry pitches in Texas -Lansing State Journal
by Eric Lacy
LANSING – Michigan Film Office Director Jenell Leonard has been on the job a little over a month and tries not to think of the worst-case scenario.
She’s pitching the state this week in Austin, Texas at SXSW (South By Southwest) — an all-encompassing 10-day entertainment festival — to movie producers, screenwriters, TV networks, video game creators and anyone else who will listen.
This push comes at an uncertain time back in Lansing as politicians debate the film office’s $50 million in annual incentives to support the entertainment industry.
“We will have a program unless the legislature tells us otherwise,” said Leonard, the wife of state Rep. Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt Township. “Regardless of what happens, it’s our job to live within our parameters.”
How much money Leonard will have to work with after this year and the impact it could have on mid-Michigan remains unclear just five months after filming for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” created unprecedented buzz on Michigan State University’s campus in East Lansing.
The Michigan House of Representatives voted 58-51 last week on a bill — HB 4122 — to end incentives on Oct. 1. Now the bill is in the Senate’s hands for consideration.
As the bill sits in committee, Leonard said she’s had “very good conversations” this week at SXSW with creative types from across the country who still think Michigan is an attractive place to do business.
“People still think Michigan is very attractive, and they love a comeback story,” Leonard said. “We make sure to tell the story any chance we get — whether they ask for it or not.”
She anticipates making several announcements for TV, film and digital media projects “soon” since the film office has incentives funding available this year which could be used for up to three years.
The first three projects approved by the film office for 2015 — three films awarded $1,317,977 in incentives on $3,765,647 of approved production expenditures — are expected to create “99 hires with a full-time equivalent of 20 jobs” primarily in Metro Detroit, according to a film office press release.
Leonard is representing the film office this week at the Creative Many Michigan House in Austin aimed to tell SXSW attendees the state’s story.
The Creative Many Michigan House’s website describes the collection of businesses, organizations, artists and musicians as “a beacon to our hard-earned style and legacy of creativity.”
“Most of all, the Creative Many Michigan House will be a statement that our reputation isn’t going anywhere,” the website reads.
Retired model Nadia Sellers, CEO for Okemos Modeling & Entertainment Group in East Lansing, believes Michigan has a long way to go if it wants to be taken seriously in the entertainment business.
Whether the state’s $50 million annual incentive stays or goes, it won’t mean much to the average person in an area like mid-Michigan who is unable to get steady work in the industry, Sellers said.
Sellers’ said her biggest problem with the film office and Michigan Legislature is that both haven’t stopped Hollywood film production companies from paying Michigan extras little to no money for their work on high-profile films like “Oz The Great and Powerful” (2013 release) and “Real Steel” (2011).
“What you pay someone in California is not what’s paid here,” said Sellers, who grew up in Los Angeles. “It’s like California is an A market and we’re on the D end.”
Sellers works with about 100 models, actors and actresses with ties to mid-Michigan, and she claims many can’t afford to leave the state because they haven’t found consistent work to prepare them for bigger markets like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago.
She’s been working in the East Lansing/Okemos area since 1991 and said she probably hasn’t had more than five models, actors or actresses make over $500 each in the area over the last five years.
Sellers claims Los Angeles extras get paid $12 to $15 an hour and overtime after eight hours. But based on her experience with production companies in Michigan, extras are lucky to get up to $15 a day.
“I see small town people here, and they are so removed from Hollywood and googly-eyed about being in a movie that they are being taken advantage of,” said Sellers, who opposes Michigan’s right-to-work law. “A union film in Los Angeles can’t hire extras for free, but you can find thousands here.”
27 projects got incentives last year
The film office approved 27 projects in 2014 for $62,761,132 in incentives. It’s website claims the industry boost helped generate $245,498,437 in statewide spending and was expected to create that year 2,181 hires for a full-time equivalent of 1,298 jobs.
While the film office’s incentives program doesn’t require production companies to set aside money to pay extras, Leonard said it does take a hard look at how each project will benefit Michigan workers.
Leonard points to the film office’s production directory with over 2,700 local contractors, 2,200 crew members and 1,600 vendors as proof it does its best to support a film industry across the state.
It also has database of over 82,000 Michigan locations that companies can view to determine if they’re worth using for a project.
“We have a foundation of talent in this state,” Leonard said. “Once people here have experience with larger companies (outside the state), it only enhances their skills, their trades and their industries.”
East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett appreciates the impact filming for “Batman v Superman” made in his city and hopes the Michigan Legislature can create some consistency with the film office’s incentives program so it doesn’t drive business away.
The Lansing State Journal reported last fall Michigan State University received an estimated $228,335 from South Pasadena, Calif.-based Crown City Pictures for rent and other expenses for the use of the Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum for scenes.
Triplett noticed full hotels and restaurants while the filming was going on and spent time on set talking to carpenters, electricians and hair stylists — all with local ties.
“The Broad Art Museum is already an architectural icon, and ‘Batman v Superman’ just made it a draw in a whole new way,” Triplett said. “It was an opportunity for us to not only highlight the community, but show that we can accommodate them in our downtown.”
This film, starring Henry Cavill as Superman and Ben Affleck as Batman, was the only project that filmed in mid-Michigan last year and is set to be released on March 25, 2016. It’s $131,419,947 budget in Michigan was the largest for a film that’s ever done work in the state.
Considering the kind of money involved in such a movie, Triplett is concerned about the treatment and pay of extras.
But Triplett believes it’s difficult for Michigan to make changes and demand wages for extras that are competitive with states like California when the Michigan Legislature hasn’t made it consistently clear whether or not it’s still interested in saving the film industry.
Since Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget for the state is $54 billion and includes incentives that are much more expensive than those for the film industry, it doesn’t make sense to squabble over a program that has put people to work and generated invaluable exposure statewide, Triplett said.
“This seems to me to have far more to do with politics and political theater than public policy,” Triplett said.