Lights, Camera, Economy! Changing Gears Premieres

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Changing Gears, a new series looking at the revival of the industrial Midwest, is on the air! We kicked off on Monday with a look at The Film Factory — the race to attract movie crews to the region. Here is the inaugural report from Kate Davidson in Ann Arbor, Dan Bobkoff in Cleveland and Niala Boodhoo in Chicago.

[audio:http://audio2.ideastream.org/wcpn/2010/09/0920film.mp3]
Download the audio here

Towns and cities across the Midwest are trying to look like mini Hollywoods, thanks to generous tax incentives that have attracted dozens of film crews. Some think the silver screen is a silver bullet.

But California still dominates the $57 billion film industry – and some — including Michigan’s state Senate fiscal agency — are asking whether Great Lakes states are offering too much.

Michigan: Stumbling Over Stars

Michigan’s plan has attracted films such as Gran Torino, released in 2008, and starring Clint Eastwood. This summer, stars like Demi Moore, David Arquette and Allison Brie were all over the state, the result of an effort by the state to offset losses from industrial jobs. The Michigan Film Office says production companies are spending more than $300 million in the state this year.

The state’s 42% tax break can be used on most expenses, including actors’ salaries, and the state expected to dole out about $100 million in 2010, a fiscal agency report said on Friday.

One beneficiary was Jared Hopkins of Northville Township outside Detroit. “I arrived home one day and there was a business card on the front door,” said Hopkins, who lives with his wife Julie in a four bedroom Victorian farmhouse on a quiet road.
Jared and Julie Hopkins

Julie Hopkins called the number on the card. And over the next few months, location scouts filed in and out of their home. They were sizing it up for Hollywood.

“We knew they were getting serious when Wes Craven actually came to our house,” said Hopkins.

That’s Wes Craven the director of “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

The master of terror was actually standing in the kitchen where this suburban couple makes their babies oatmeal every morning.

Fast forward several months, when the Hopkins’ house starred in Craven’s latest shoot: Scream 4.

Said Hopkins: “The presence of 30 people in our kitchen walking through the scenes of a horror movie was a shock.”

Jared, Julie, their one year old and their toddler all moved in with Julie’s parents. They wouldn’t say just how much they are getting paid, but it may be enough for a nice guest bed. That is, if anyone ever visits them again.

Their enthusiasm for the incentives is not universally shared, however. On Friday, the state Senate Fiscal Agency released a report saying that the additional tax revenue generated by the massive program accounted to only $10.3 million in 2010.

Illinois’ Bragging Rights

The Film Factory has been up and running longer in Illinois, which has had some form of incentives since about 2003. Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, was so enthused about Transformers 3 shooting in the city this summer that he summoned reporters to an August press conference to tout the economic benefits and new jobs from the film.

The Illinois Film Office said in 2008 the industry brought $141 million into the state and hired more than 5,000 people.

Illinois offers an incentive of 30% to shoot, much less than Michigan, and the state requires that money be spent in the state in order to receive the assistance. But the mayor says Chicago has more to offer than its neighbor.

“You need a good quality workforce. You need the architecture, you need the beauty. You can’t duplicate this,” Daley said.

But Chicago could not lay sole claim to the film. Later in the summer, one Transformers crew took off for Michigan, in order to take advantage of its program.


Ohio: Playing Catch Up

Not a single movie shot in Cleveland in 2009. But this year, they’re expecting five.

One is an independent action movie called “Freerunner.” Cleveland has been the backdrop for nearly every scene as its
stars zipline across avenues and jump off fire escapes or exploding boats on Lake Erie.

Photos courtesy: Grant Fitch

Director Lawrence Silverstein says he wouldn’t be here if not for the state’s 25% tax break. “It’s good enough. It helps. Especially when you’re at a lower budget level like we are,” Silverstein said.

The film’s budget is $2 million, 1% of Transformers 3. And, no matter what happens to Freerunner–whether it makes it to theaters or not, whether it makes a dime of profit or not–officials in Cleveland say a good portion of that budget has already made its way into the region’s economy.

That’s what Ivan Schwarz of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission said this effort is all about. “It’s about training people. It’s about providing work for people who maybe used to work in an auto factory or were a Teamster driver for DHL–something like that–who can now apply their skills to a new industry,” Schwarz said.

But Hollywood is only beginning to think of Cleveland as a place to shoot movies. Freerunner writer Jeremy Sklar half-jokingly sees potential for certain genres — “bank heists, zombine movies, post-apocalyptic thrillers” — to shoot in Cleveland’s empty buildings and quiet downtown.

The Lasting Impact

Robert Tannenwald, of the Washington think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the return for taxpayers may not be so great.

“In some states it’s as low as low as seven cents on the dollar. In others, it’s as high as 28 cents on the dollar. They tend to cluster around 16 cents,” Tannenwald said.

In Michigan, the cost of creating one full time production job averages nearly $200,000, according to the fiscal agency.  The agency says that number falls to about $45,000 per job when looking at the cost of all employment created in the wider economy.  That’s the spill over effect, much like the business that Pie Guys Pizzeria in downtown Chicago picked up this summer.

The pizza shop is right next to the Trump Tower, which will be seen in Transformers 3 (stunt men parachuted off that building). Nearby, on Wacker Drive, there was huge gun battle between the alien robots.

From her cash register, Katrina Steele saw most of the filming close-up – and says she served tourists drawn by the filming who came in for a slice.

Said Steele: “We made a lot of tips. it was exciting. I hope if they film something else, they film it right here.”

More from Changing Gears:

How the Film Factory Looks From Outside The Theater

Movies Starring The Midwest

9 Replies to “Lights, Camera, Economy! Changing Gears Premieres”

  1. While I applaud the efforts made on behalf of the state of Illinois and IFO to attract film production work to the region, we must realize that most of the jobs created are temporary. Can a state as cash poor as Illinois subsidize these programs for long? How many full time, year round jobs does the program create?

  2. I live in St. Louis, which has had a few movies shot in the area. The most notable is probably “Up In The Air.” I recall reading about filming in the area, and a crew member was interviewed. She said that she would be happy working on 2 or 3 films a year, and that would be enough for her not to need another job. Unfortunately, it seems that the State of Missouri isn't doing a very good job attracting film an TV production compared to the other states mentioned.d

  3. These jobs are temporary, I can't believe the tax cuts are helping Michigan, and the film crews are rude to people trying to go about their business in downtown Detroit.

  4. You have a trailer embedded in this article. For Transformers 3? It's bogus, as it contains nothing but footage from the second film and even refers to the title of the second film at the end.

  5. all these “incentives” came about when the states realized that Canada had basically implemented a kickback scheme to film there back in the 1990's. Production companies would receive up to 10% BACK (on top of tax breaks and favorable exchange rates) direct from the Government. Rather than create temporary jobs it helped jump start an infrastructure that is highly competitive today with anywhere else in the world. These “tax breaks” still cannot compete with a direct kick back.

  6. The jobs created are worse than temporary, they are illusions. When movies are made in Chicago less than 10% of the workers are from the Chicagoland area. A ten week shoot does not leave enough time to train new personnel. The workers down to the PA's are almost exclusively LA citizens that sublease apartments come up for the shoot then leave once its over.

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