Hollywood is coming: Thanks to new state incentives, 140 scripts are under consideration for filming in the state, up from two last year.
REGION – Location scout Tracy Kurtz remembers the first time she saw Hollywood in downtown Traverse City. It was wearing an Armani suit, dark sunglasses, and expensive-looking shoes.
"I was working for Tim Allen's show, Home Improvement, and had a meeting scheduled with the director, Frank McKemy. He arrived during Cherry Festival and I found him standing in front of Gibby's Fries, wearing an all black Armani suit. I said, "You must be Frank." He said, "How did you know?" It was just one of those non-sequiturs that happen all the time in this business."
That was several years ago when Kurtz worked for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau and was helping scout locations for the popular television show. If experts' predictions are correct, Hollywood is about to get a lot more comfortable with Traverse City, and vice versa.
Film, television, and commercial producers have long known the area looks just like something out of a movie, as the saying goes, but the recent passage of the Michigan Film & Digital Media Incentives Act makes the area an irresistible one for those who work in film. The Act gives filmmakers a 40 percent tax rebate, free use of state property, and other financial benefits for shooting on location in the state. According to Janet Lockwood, director of the Michigan Film Office, 140 scripts are currently under consideration for filming in the state, 49 of which are part of formal applications, and 24 of those applications have been completely approved. Last year at this time only two scripts were under consideration.
"Several of these scripts could be entirely filmed or partially filmed in Traverse City or up in your area," said Lockwood. "I'm really pushing for that. When we get the scripts in, we scan through them to see if there's anything that looks like Traverse City. If there is, we tell them, "You've got to get up there and look around." It's called location breakdown. Now, you just need to make sure you're perceived as a film-friendly city."
"Film-friendly" cities and towns will reap the financial benefits of Hollywood, says Lockwood. While shooting on location, film production companies frequent hardware stores, lumber yards, florists, caterers, hotels, restaurants, airports and car rental companies, just to name a few businesses that benefit financially from movie shoots.
Dimension Films, the company responsible for such movies as "The Mist," "Halloween," "School for Scoundrels," "Bad Santa" and "Scary Movie" was just in northern Michigan in June shooting the $11 million picture, "Youth in Revolt." Some of those dollars were spent in Frankfort and Leelanau County, where the scenes were filmed, and some in Traverse City, where the crew stayed.
Based on the self-published cult novel of the same name, "Youth in Revolt" stars Michael Cera (of "Juno" fame), Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, and Jean Smart. Part of the storyline takes place in the northern California town of Ukiah, and it was the filmmakers' plan to make Leelanau County look like Redwood country. That, says Kurtz, is what makes the area so perfect for movie-making.
"Traverse City and the surrounding area can be Colorado," Kurtz said. "It can be California. It can be Iowa. It can really be anywhere because we have so many looks in such a small geographic area."
Michael Moore, who is rumored to be producing (not filming) his next film from Traverse City, said in an email to Friends of the Film Festival:
"As we stated at the very first Film Festival, it is our hope that when we bring filmmakers and producers to northern Michigan for the TCFF, they will see what a great place this may be to make a movie. Movies create real-paying jobs (there are no minimum wage jobs on a movie set), they don't pollute, and they offer the hope that the arts can actually be one way to help turn our economy around."
Ensuring that Traverse City is considered a "film friendly" place to shoot a movie is top of mind for many people, including Brad Van Dommelen, president of the Traverse City Convention Visitors Bureau, and Debra Curtis, city clerk. The pair have discussed the necessity of getting a protocol in place before a major motion picture decides to descend on Traverse City, close off streets, explode buildings and crash cars. Lisa Green, spokesperson for the Traverse City Police Department, says the department is also willing to work with visiting production companies.
"No question about it, the incentives are working," said Van Dommelen. "The industry is certainly taking a serious look at Michigan now. These productions can be very lucrative for a community and we want to assist them in whatever ways we can. No matter what the economy is doing, Hollywood is still producing films. If Michigan can keep doing this and keep these incentives out there, it can produce a new industry for the state and for Traverse City."
When he worked for the Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau, Van Dommelen thoroughly investigated the film industry, enrolled in a film symposium, wrote a business plan for a film commission, and even traveled to California with Lockwood to attend a location trade show. What he saw there proved to him the value of incentives, years before the Michigan legislature passed the new film law.
"As people walked down the aisles, they'd pass by our booth and ask if Michigan had any incentives," Van Dommelen explained. "We'd always have to say, "Not yet but we're working on it." They wouldn't even break stride, but just keep walking, and not say another word to us. One year, the Louisiana booth was next to us and that particular year they had just passed a film incentive package and their booth was just cranking. Incentives make a huge difference. Basically, they make all the difference."
This year when Lockwood attended that same trade show, she said she felt like the superstar; her booth was mobbed. Executives from both Warner Brothers and Disney tried to speak with her at the show, but couldn't get anywhere near her booth because of the lines of people waiting to hear about film incentives in Michigan.
"Imagine that! Warner Brothers and Disney unable to talk with us because we were too busy," she said. "Usually, it's the other way around." Lockwood was quick to note that she met privately with both companies after the trade show.
Location scout Tracy Kurtz recalled that a number of big-budget movies almost filmed here, then went elsewhere for financial reasons. Northern Michigan came in second for "The Road to Welville," starring Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick, "Milk Money," starring Ed Harris and Melanie Griffith, according to Kurtz, and Jason, of "Friday the 13th" fame, almost rampaged a local summer camp. Without any financial incentives, those productions ultimately went elsewhere.
Beginning this summer with "Youth in Revolt," the days of northern Michigan being passed over entirely, or coming in second on nationwide location searches, could well be over.
"Basically, the incentives have opened the floodgates," Van Dommelen said. "We need to be prepared, because Hollywood is coming." BN
Is Traverse City "film friendly"? Here's a checklist:
Incentives have already proven that they can bring Hollywood to Michigan and north to Traverse City. In order for production companies to keep coming back with future projects, they need to have a positive experience filming here and tell their colleagues about it. Here are some examples of what experts say Traverse City needs to do to be perceived as "film friendly":
One "go-to" person in a city or a short list of "go-to" people.
When a film production company comes to town, they want to be able to get all their questions answered from one person, if possible. In Traverse City, that person may end up being CVB President Brad Van Dommelen and his staff. "The needs of a film project are very different than the needs of a typical conference or convention that we normally work with, but we want to assist them in whatever ways we can," said Van Dommelen.
An easy and inexpensive process to apply for permits.
Film production companies expect to be required to secure permits for shooting on location, closing city streets, and using city services, said Janet Lockwood, director of the State Film Office. What they don't expect are high fees. In Detroit, for example, a location permit is free. In Grand Rapids, it's $20, which Lockwood said is reasonable. Some cities are charging $100 just for film production companies to cross their city line, in which case many will look elsewhere, she said.
Hotels with conference rooms, multiple phone lines, and wi-fi.
The first thing a film production company does when they come to town and check into their hotel is set up a production office, says Mark Adler, director of the Michigan Production Alliance, an educational and networking trade organization. That means a conference room or suite with several phone lines and access to business machines like faxes and copiers. In addition, wireless Internet capability is a necessity, and not a perk. The film crew will also expect great service. "Film crews keep odd hours and they may have unusual requests and they need someone who can help them out anytime of the day or night," said Adler.
A mindset of flexibility.
Every production is different, and not all will need to close streets and blow up buildings or crash cars, but some will. Filming schedules change at the last minute and, sometimes, so do the scripts. Directors can rarely wait until the next city council meeting for permission to film, and so the city needs to find a way to respond quickly, and at odd hours, said Adler. "A community has to be able to say 'Yes.' Not 'Maybe,' or 'I don't know,' but 'Yes.'"
Other important elements are a police force willing to work with the production company, an accessible commercial airport, a supportive business community, and available local talent for administrative tasks and even to use as extras. BN