Northern Michigan’s Movie Moguls
It used to be that if you Googled the phrase "film industry in northern Michigan" you'd get back no more than a handful of responses. And most of those would bring up Rich Brauer's name.
Times have changed. While Brauer remains the constant, several other filmmakers now call the area home, with more promised on the horizon. The Traverse City Film
Festival and the state's Film Incentive program have helped spearhead the change.
Here, we focus on the people propelling northern
Michigan's burgeoning film industry forward.
For many years, Rich Brauer pretty much was the northern Michigan film industry. The Ann Arbor native moved to his wife's hometown of Traverse City after graduating from film school in California, and he started his production company. But while he grew up downstate, it was at a theater in Beulah that he set his life's goal – when he was a sixth-grader.
Here he gives his views on the film industry and his place in it.
BN: Why did you decide to become
When I was in sixth grade we had a cottage in Beulah, and I saw "The Blue Max" with Georg Peppard and Ursula Andress. Coming out of the theater, I said, "I would love to make a movie like that." That's when I started playing around with movie cameras. I got a 16 millimeter, an "8," a Super 8 – by the time I had gotten out of high school I had made tons of films.
It was very cool. I had a processor in my mom and dad's basement. When I was in seventh grade I had to write a paper on my intended vocation. My first choice was film producer; my second was forest ranger.
BN: Why Northern Michigan?
I went to Northwestern Michigan College before I went to California. The school in California did not have academics. I picked NMC because it had trees on the letterhead. Really.
In 1977 I came back to Ann Arbor and started thinking about Traverse City. I met with Les Biederman and asked him about moving here to start a film company. He smiled and said, "You're asking the wrong guy." I took that to mean anybody else's opinion doesn't mean anything. Next thing, I moved to Traverse City. It was a good and right thing to do. I love being here.
BN: How would you define the state of the industry in the region today?
The Detroit area and Grand Rapids are the two areas getting all the work. Sometimes they (film projects) go to northern Michigan, but that's rare. They want to stick to where the resources are. But what this area has to offer is so special. We're the only company that has been here this long. You live here long enough, you make a lot of friends.
BN: What impact have the Traverse
City Film Festival and the state's Film Incentive had on the industry and
There are so many companies that have started up. Michigan has an aggressive and generous incentive. It's a very green industry, artsy but technical. Manufacturing incentives have been going on for years.
As for the Film Festival, this town is nuts about film. Michael Moore propelled that. That man is in the Top 5 contributors to the community no matter your political bent.
BN: What is on the horizon for Brauer Productions?
Today I scored a distributor for my last movie, Fitful. I make a living doing corporate, commercials, educational films, documentaries – the History Channel, Animal Planet, the Subway Sandwich commercials with Jared. In the middle of all that I'll whip up a screenplay, get some support, and then I roll up my sleeves, gather a crew and make a movie.
HAROLD CRONK &
What do the studios in Los Angeles have that we don't have in Manistee?
According to Harold Cronk and Matthew Tailford: not much.
The two young film industry veterans had such belief in the city of Manistee and the northern Michigan region that they relocated from the film capital of the country to the countryside in west Michigan to build a massive studio lot with seven sound stages in what were formerly marina buildings.
Named 10 West, the studios boast more than 150,000 square feet and the capacity to accommodate the filming of almost any size production.
Though the pair still fly back and forth to Los Angeles several times each year, much of their work is done at the 10 West Studios, and they're encouraging their compatriots in Hollywood to shoot their films in northern Michigan.
"Manistee is such a beautiful area," said Tailford. "There's such diversity: the Victorian Port City, the countryside, Traverse City or Grand Rapids not far away, and the water. With the right lenses you can make Lake Michigan look like the ocean."
Right now, the duo has four films in various stages, from the completed What If starring Kevin Sorbo, to Jerusalem Countdown, which found the two back in California wrapping up production. The others are Johnny and A Return to the Hiding Place.
They believe their connections out west will pay off in the long run. "We've fielded a lot of calls" from Hollywood-based production companies interested in the Michigan incentives program," said Tailford.
"Being out here [in Los Angeles] for years, we know a lot of people," added Cronk. "They know we can deliver on time and on budget. That reputation has helped us. They know us as the Michigan guys."
The duo intends to create their own movies, and they see their growth as a three- to five-year process.
"Our business model is different than other production companies," said Cronk. "Our goal is to create our own content. We want to become a small mini-major."
And what are the prospects for that? "We're in year two right now," he said. "It just takes that one [successful] film."
Sometimes you can go home again.
After 30 years away from home, Bill Latka had had enough. He longed to return to his hometown of Traverse City.
Problem was, he had become a successful television and video producer in Los Angeles, helming literally thousands of projects, from commercials to television shows. He didn't see any way there would be enough opportunity in his field for him to realistically consider moving.
But passage of the film incentive in April 2008 changed his mind, and his company, Rivet Entertainment, soon opened its doors in Michigan.
"I moved my family back here a year and a half ago," Latka said from his office, located in the Warehouse District of downtown Traverse City.
That was just the first step. Becoming involved in the Traverse City Film Festival, he met some like-minded folks, who soon became the core of his operation. Now Latka and his five-person team (which expands as needed for production purposes) are producing viral videos, commercials, and an upcoming show for the Science Channel: The Science of Speed.
"The Science of Speed is about the science behind what makes a car go fast," said Latka. Shot in Florida and outside Chicago, all the post-production work was done in Traverse City.
But that incentive program? Right now Latka is fighting with the Michigan Film Office, which doesn't want to award Rivet the tax incentives since the program is not the intellectual property of a Michigan resident.
"They don't understand how television works," he said. "98 percent of the time, the network owns the idea. This program is exactly the kind of thing the incentive was done to attract. The Science Channel and Discovery (which owns the program) do $2 billion dollars – that's billion with a b – in productions each year, and if Michigan got 10 percent of that, it's $200 million. If not, that money goes somewhere else."
And not just that money, but the jobs too. He points to one of his employees working on animation, and asks, if he couldn't work here, where he would be. "New York or LA," the employee responds.
Meantime, Latka and company continue to work from their Michigan headquarters with national networks such as Discovery, the Science Channel and TLC, and for such local organizations as the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI), The Grand Vision, Co-opConversatons.org, and others.
"We want to do work that is meaningful to us, in social justice, environmental work," said Latka. "We're able to offer advertising and production services here and pursue national work too. We are thrilled to be here."
DAVID KENNETH &
David Kenneth promises the wait is almost over.
He and developer Ron Walters have been working on a plan to bring a production facility to Traverse City, and now the signs point toward it coming to fruition.
"We have properties and contracts that are set for this fall. We're obligated to clients," said Kenneth. "We plan on being on the ground the second half of summer and into fall."
Kenneth is the Executive Producer for I.E. Effects, a 3-D production facility in Culver City, Calif. that has done work on productions such as Bravo's Top Chef, Michael Jackson's This Is It, the thriller Drag Me To Hell, and theme park rides such as "Star Trek: Borg Invasion 4D."
Kenneth said audiences' continued fascination with 3-D has given his company a huge shot in the arm. As the head of new business, sales and marketing, he has long had his eye on Traverse City.
That's despite the fact that other areas in the state are jockeying for attention from Hollywood.
"Oakland County has a $28 million bond project (to re-do) a former GM plant," said Walters. "It's difficult to compete. We don't have the money or political power they do."
"We've been asked to locate in Detroit several times," agreed Kenneth. "But we really don't want to be there. It's easier to get talent to move to Traverse City. We are getting a lot of resistance to Detroit."
Not only does Kenneth say he plans to be in Traverse City, he believes the office there will eventually outstrip his Culver City location in size.
"Originally we thought just the opposite," he says, "that we'd have a small operation in Traverse City. But now I think the Los Angeles location will become just a storefront.
"A lot of people in the industry are families, and a lot of them aren't from this area originally. When you tell them they can be in an area where the schools are safe, and they can afford to actually buy a house, they're interested."