The film industry in metro Detroit, which is very much alive despite the end of sizeable state incentives that were designed to attract top-flight actors and directors, can draw big-budget production companies like Disney and Warner Bros. by building up a creative infrastructure.
During the heyday of the incentives that were intended to make the region a serious player in the movie industry, metro Detroit regularly attracted Hollywood-based producers to set up and film blockbusters like Gran Torino, the Transformer series, Red Dawn, and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The incentives meant lots of high-profile activity, and a good share of work for local talent and production crews. They put Detroit on the big screen for the entire world to see. The widespread presumption was that the end of the incentives would mean the end of any viable film industry in Detroit. But that comes as news to myriad actors, production crew members, talent managers, agents, directors, and producers who have continued to work here in the ensuing years.
While there are no longer A-list actors staying at four-star hotels or private estates during filming sessions, something else is springing up that’s considerably more home-grown.
“Today, the lack of incentives, after seeing them pass, is a blessing to our industry,” says local producer Harley Wallen, whose most recent film, United Colors of Bennett Song, won best romance at the Amsterdam Film Festival in May. “It’s not a full blessing, but the incentives were never targeted toward us to make films. (They were) targeted to Hollywood to come here and make the films. But all the talented people we have didn’t get the big jobs. They got to be personal assistants and extras, and maybe (got) one or two lines in a movie.”
The now-lapsed Michigan film incentives reimbursed filmmakers up to 42 percent of their costs if they showed proof of purchase for production expenses incurred in the state. There was no requirement for filmmakers to be based locally, or for them to maintain operations in the state. So while Michigan got high-profile projects, local film professionals say the incentive money was mostly gobbled up by outsiders who came in, filmed, and left, taking most of the reimbursed expenses with them.
“We started our tax incentive around the same time (Georgia) did,” says Jon Braue, co-founder and CEO of Woodward Original, a production company in downtown Detroit with Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., “and we set up our tax incentives so anyone could come in. All they had to do was show their proof of purchase and they got their money and they left. What Georgia did is they set up a transferrable tax credit, so if you set up in Atlanta, your business had to stay there.”
As a result, Atlanta’s film industry is thriving, with Disney and Marvel having established permanent operations there, and with high-profile projects like the Netflix phenomenon, “Stranger Things,” now shooting its third season there.
The upcoming film, Devil's Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge, was shot almost entirely in metro Detroit. Produced by Kyyba Films in Farmington Hills, the movie is scheduled for a fall release in the United States, followed by India and Latin America.
“‘Stranger Things’ could have happened anywhere,” Braue says. “Detroit would have been a great location for a show like ‘Stranger Things.’ It would have been amazing. Imagine if it was over at Boston-Edison or West Village (historic neighborhoods). Suddenly you could have done so much more with that show in Detroit.”
Local film veterans and investors say the industry is now growing, and with a decidedly local flavor, spurred by some very real advantages the region has over stalwarts like Los Angeles, New York, and even Atlanta. Chief among them is cost. The 42 percent maximum reimbursement may be gone, but the cost of just about everything is cheaper in Michigan, especially talent. A business-savvy producer who invests serious money in the right aspects of a production can complete a project for far less than the same project would cost in Chicago or on the coasts.
What’s more, the city’s ongoing revival has drawn global interest. “Detroit is a magnet for entrepreneurs,” says Gilbert. “There is more interest in Detroit than ever before as the world has begun to see all the progress being made here. New, ground-up construction is beginning at a rapid pace, the storefronts are filling up with a mixture of well-known, national brands, and local, homegrown entrepreneurial businesses and creative talent is increasingly attracted to Detroit to see all the action for themselves.
“Film is a great way to emulate the sights and feeling of Detroit without physically being here. Woodward Original has created a strong business and has hired some of the best talent in the field. From the Amazon bid video to the great work they did with the Hudson’s groundbreaking short film, the team is reshaping how people think of the city. Michigan overall is a great place for film production.”
The company is not alone. Tel Ganesan, CEO of the Farmington Hills-based tech firm Kyyba and an up-and-coming producer of locally based movies under the banner of Kyyba Films, says his first full-length feature, Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge, was shot primarily in Lake Orion and mainly used local talent. His decision to delve into the film realm stems from his belief that Detroit offers a sweet spot for producers who take the right approach to their projects.
“What I’m trying to do is use local talent, and for the post-production elements, I use Hollywood talent,” Ganesan says. “Something like sound, it matters so much to the movie. I don’t want anyone in Michigan who doesn’t have at least 100 movies under their belt touching my movie. Or for visual effects, I use the best of the best on them.”
Ganesan worked with local director Sam Logan Khaleghi on Devil’s Night, and took advantage of local opportunities like the willingness of Lake Orion police to work with him on the project, while other cities like Farmington Hills opened up their local facilities for a number of film-related activities.
Devil’s Night is a Detroit-centric fictional story that concerns an evil spirit called the Nain Rouge, who, legend has it, was upset when Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and the French founded Detroit in 1701. The film, in which the Nain Rouge continues to seek revenge over the arrival of European settlers and the subsequent growth of the region, takes strong advantage of the area’s history and environs.
— Joe Talbot, co-founder of Woodward Original
Of course, producing a film is one thing. Getting a sizeable audience to see it is an entirely different challenge, and that requires filmmakers to learn the complicated business of connecting and working with distributors. That’s second nature for the Hollywood-based producers who were turning up in Detroit a few years ago, but for filmmakers like Ganesan and Wallen, it’s been a challenging — yet fruitful — learning experience.
Ganesan says he connected with a Los Angeles-based consultant to help him find the right distributor. They’re working through the process now, and Ganesan realizes it’s an area where he couldn’t have made the best decisions or connections based on his own knowledge.
“They have a lot of strategies for when a movie should be released,” Ganesan says. “They have a lot of research going on. … Just because you’re creative isn’t the end of the story. You’ve got to have marketing and distribution — and if you have global distribution, you can go a long way. That’s where I want to be different.”
Wallen has sought well-connected help for the distribution of his work, including his previous efforts Moving Parts and Into a Dark Mind, both of which relied heavily on local talent and crews. An L.A.-based distributor called Vision Films agreed to distribute both movies after Wallen met with Vision’s CEO, Lise Romanoff. But even getting to Vision required help from a producer’s representative called Circus Road Films.
“When you hire a company like Circus Road Films, they take X amount of money up front and X percentage of the back end to essentially hook you up with the best distributors out there, and submit you to people you can’t reach,” Wallen says. “I can’t submit to Netflix directly. I have to be submitted to someone, because most of those bigger people don’t take cold calls. So unless you’ve gone through a producer’s rep, you can’t get to them unless you’ve dealt with them previously.”
Jon Braue and Joseph Talbot, co-founders of Woodward Original in Detroit, on location at a studio space in Capitol Park, have garnered work on films, shows, and documentaries, as well as the recent Amazon pitch video.
As Detroit filmmakers learn all the ropes, the potential exists to build a juggernaut from a creative infrastructure that’s already very much present. Sean O’Grady has learned how to harness that infrastructure as founder and CEO of Southfield-based Atlas Industries.
O’Grady, who grew up in Saginaw, left for Los Angeles in his early 20s and spent more than a decade there before returning to Michigan to explore what Detroit might be capable of in the realm of film. His efforts connected him to urban farm owner John Hantz, who worked with him on the production of the documentary Land Grab, which looks at Hantz’s challenges in transforming urban land to agriculture. The film debuted in 2016 at the Free Press Film Festival.
Hantz, chairman of Hantz Bank and CEO of Hantz Financial Services in Southfield, was so impressed by O’Grady’s work on Land Grab that he started asking questions, such as how many films O’Grady might be able to produce in a year. “Since then it’s turned into something I don’t think I could have foreseen at the time,” O’Grady says. “We’re now doing television (and have) worked with MTV, Lifetime, the Travel Channel, and Oxygen. So far it’s been things where we worked for hire, and they aired.”
Next up for O’Grady is a documentary about America’s immigration system. “People are excited about the film industry here,” O’Grady says. “People want to help us. When we reach out to find locations to shoot, people open their doors and are happy to do so.”
O’Grady echoes the sentiment that production costs are inherently lower here, which provides a solid advantage for filmmakers who want to work here. But there are challenges, as well.
“The con we’re struggling with is that we can sell more shows and we can bring more production here than we can staff up,” O’Grady says. “If I were to say there’s one thing this area needs to build on to have an even stronger film and television base, it’s training for crew. It can be done. I think a lot of crews can be trained for the unique differences between commercial production, film production, and television production.”
Mindfield in Detroit works with GTB, a creative agency in Farmington Hills, on a project for Ford Motor Co.
Tom Carleton, a partner and director at Detroit-based Mindfield, a multifaceted film production company, agrees the region has plenty of talent for both sides of the camera, adding that it’s easier for smaller production companies to make use of them in the post-incentive era.
“Detroit always had a really strong film production market because of the automobile industry, and also wartime films and that sort of thing,” says Carleton, whose partners include his brother, David, and Sean Emery. “There’s been that active market and those artists and tradesmen to support that market forever. The film incentive was a solid blip for the industry, and those tradesmen — wardrobe people, gaffers, grips — all of a sudden they were doing three-month gigs instead of three-day gigs.”
All of this underlies the vision of Woodward Original to serve as a catalyst for a new, sustainable, locally based Detroit film industry.
“Quicken Loans gave us the opportunity to start an internal digital media company,” Braue says. “Dan (Gilbert) gave us the opportunity to start a co-op, if you will, to take care of his businesses. Then that graduated into, hey, we get to create the very business that we would want to work for here in Detroit — the very thing that, if I were a director or a producer outside Detroit, I would want to work for.”
Joseph Talbot, co-founder and president of Woodward Original, believes the culture of metro Detroit is ready to support a locally based film industry. “Detroit is on the rise,” Talbot says. “It’s still relatively cheap to get things done here, and there’s a lot of camaraderie. A lot of businesses in Detroit are leaning on one another, so if I want to get into a restaurant (to film a scene), I can go to the owner and say, ‘Hey we’ve got this great thing, it’s going to promote you.’ In L.A. or New York, it’s, ‘What’s in it for me?’”
Woodward Original recently saw how wide open the opportunity is when Braue and Talbot attended a recruiting event put on by the College for Creative Studies. Industrial Light & Magic was in attendance, as was Pixar — and Woodward Original. It was a real indication that a viable film industry can happen in Detroit if only the right people decide to make it happen.
— Jon Braue, co-founder of Woodward Original
Braue believes some sort of tax incentive will be necessary to make a viable film industry. “For entertainment specifically, talent goes where the work is, and the work is in the place that has the best tax incentive,” he says. “That’s why Disney and Marvel are in Atlanta right now. There’s such a thing as creative infrastructure that you’ve got to invest in.”
Still, Woodward Original is getting its share of work on commercial accounts and films in metro Detroit. Most recently, the crew worked on a documentary called White Boy Rick, which centers on the life story of former Detroit drug dealer Richard Wersche Jr., who was sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile, and America Dream: Detroit by Grammy-winning singer Michael Bolton.
Still, according to Olga Denysenko, theatrical group director at the Bingham Farms-based talent agency Productions Plus, the end of the incentives has left the Detroit market with lower budget films that don’t offer serious compensation for actors. The cost savings may benefit producers on the front end, but Denysenko says it’s making it harder for Detroit to keep the best homegrown talent in town, especially those who have achieved membership in the Screen Actors Guild.
“We’re not experiencing the film industry as we did before,” Denysenko says. “Every now and then, they will come to me when they get desperate and say they need to cast three or four roles, and these are projects that pay like $100 a day. So those are very low-budget films, and they’re not even under the SAG contract. So, unfortunately, our SAG actors are not working, and we’re trying to keep them working by sending them to projects out of state.”
Even when people come into the area from out of state to shoot, Denysenko says they often bypass talent agencies and casting agents because it’s cheaper to try to cast a film themselves, often by posting casting notices on social media.
Yet Detroit is talent-rich, according to Bennie Taylor, a Grosse Pointe-based talent manager who operates Jon Tomus Talent. He urges his clients in metro Detroit not to be so quick to run off for what looks like greener pastures.
“I would say you’ve got to conquer your own hometown first,” Taylor says. “To me, acting suicide is you just get up and go to L.A. There are so many great opportunities here to hone your skills. It’s a stepping stone. If you’re from Michigan and you want to have an acting career, try to do as many student films and paid films (as you can), so you become the big fish in the pond here in Michigan. Then start to move yourself up to Atlanta, and then you can go to the mecca in L.A.”
The relatively low cost of talent in the Detroit area is also becoming a conundrum for Wallen, who is getting some interest from people who are considering supporting bigger-budget productions. But anything that costs more than $250,000 to shoot no longer qualifies as “Ultra Low Budget,” and that’s essential because the SAG contract allows for ULB films to use SAG talent at SAG rates, but to pay everyone else whatever can be negotiated. Without the ULB designation, producers can’t use SAG talent unless everyone gets paid SAG rates.
Wallen’s films have featured Hollywood-level names such as Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haskins, Tara Reid, and T.J. Storm. The Hollywood stars always get top billing, even if they don’t really play the leads, although their involvement is often crucial to attracting the interest of distributors. That gets harder to do if you have to pay SAG rates to everyone else who’s involved with a film. “They won’t let us have bigger budgets unless we do it in a state with incentives,” Wallen says.
Whether incentives come back or not, local filmmakers are convinced the region is hungry for a way to make film viable in Detroit. Bloomfield Hills-based John P. Lauri recently completed work on the film Sirens of Chrome, based on a book written by Productions Plus CEO Margery Krevsky Dosey about the role of women in the rise of the Detroit automobile industry.
Braue and Talbot on a recent set joined on location during a commercial for Xenith in Detroit by team members Anthony Bommarito and Benoit Deka. Xenith produces football helmets for youth, high school, college, and professional athletes at a 66,000-square-foot facility at Fort and Clark Streets in southwest Detroit.
Lauri shot 85 percent of the film in the Detroit area, and found a very receptive community when he needed things. “The city of Detroit has been very easy to work with, and if I need a restaurant to shoot in, or I need an office building where I want to shoot a critical part of a film where these gentlemen are talking, they’re interested in getting exposure,” Lauri says. “So it was very easy for me to do that.”
Ironically, Lauri found the hardest sell was the auto companies themselves.
“I’m dealing with the biggest corporations in the world,” Lauri says. “Do they really need to be part of a motion picture? No, they want to sell cars. So when I show up at auto shows in Geneva or anywhere in Europe or the United States, they say, ‘Why do we need to be part of a movie?’ I was able to sell it because the movie’s really all about celebrating how women contributed to automotive around the world.”
Still, for a serious filmmaker, the question becomes why take on local challenges when markets like L.A., Atlanta, or New York are more mature in their readiness to host film work? “In metro Detroit, we have hung our hats on creativity and sustainability, and eventually the world takes notice,” says Keith Famie, owner of Visionalist Entertainment Productions in Wixom, a film and production company that specializes in documentaries. Famie has received 11 Emmy Awards since he started Visionalist in 2004.
“As a chef in my early years, we were overlooked by the West Coast and the East Coast, but now you talk to people and there’s all this attention on the Detroit restaurant scene,” he adds. “You’re seeing the same thing in the film industry. Our company is a little different in that we have done documentaries around certain themes like extending life, but we’re in theaters and on television, and we’re making a difference.”
To make more of an impact in the film world, O’Grady is convinced there is little infrastructure-building necessary. Detroit’s film production sector, he says, just needs a little refinement.
“You could turn that on like a light switch,” he says. “If enough people decided they wanted to make a push to make this a film and television hub, it would be possible. The infrastructure is here. It would just take training the crews, who already know the basics, to learn the nuances.”