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2 people shot in JC December 22, 2014

Michigan film industry refocuses on big picture

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) — With a majority of filming done for their upcoming mockumentary, students in Dearborn High School's advanced film class recently gathered in the studio for a "Prom-iscuous" status report.

Concerns about the upcoming student film included spring break absences and a lack of help on props during a recent scene shot. But one of director Taylor Stanislawski's biggest worries was one often faced by Michigan moviemakers many times their size: money.

"We don't necessarily have more funding and everything that we do, we have to fundraise in order to pay (it)," she said.

Dearborn students, no strangers to scavenging casting couch cushions to secure enough funding to produce an annual film, could represent the humble remains of a filmmaking industry. Or perhaps their scrappy, guerrilla-warrior approach could be used to recast Michigan's role in this ultra-competitive industry.

Amateur status aside, the student auteurs are scarcely different from professional filmmakers across Michigan, a state that severely slashed some of the nation's most generous movie-making tax credits. The suburban Detroit school was never a beneficiary of those bountiful breaks, but students were seduced by promised career opportunities at a nearby movie studio that went bust and pronouncements of major productions.

"It was all big talk," said Kurt Doelle, the school's film teacher and chief adviser on the film. "Everything got shot down."

The state on Dec. 31 ended a program that offered a credit of up to 42 percent to filmmakers whose projects were approved for production in Michigan. The 25 projects in production in 2011 were awarded a total of more than $75.6 million in incentives, compared with about $115 million in 2010 — the biggest year. The previously uncapped program is now limited to a total of $25 million for all state film, movie and video incentives, though that amount could change in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

The drop in interest started to appear as changes to the program were debated and passed: A Michigan Film Office report released earlier this year found 16 productions applied for the breaks in the last six months of 2011, down from 42 in the same period of 2010.

"The landscape has changed — we don't deny that," said film office spokeswoman Michelle Begnoche. "Because we had so many applications coming in under the old program, in a lot of ways we had become an incentives office only. We're really trying to refocus on being a film office."

"The thing that is really important now: We've got $25 million. How do we make the most of that money?" she said. "We're looking to support the infrastructure we have. It doesn't make sense to be building more studios and growing that infrastructure. We've got a solid infrastructure in the state."

That infrastructure includes Raleigh Michigan Studios, the state's biggest film production facility, built on the site of a former General Motors office complex in Pontiac north of Detroit. Raleigh broke ground in 2009 during the heyday of Michigan's generous film breaks but opened in 2011 amid industry uncertainty after Gov. Rick Snyder proposed capping the incentives at $25 million as part of a budget-savings plan.

The studio is searching for a new project after production wrapped earlier this year on Walt Disney's prequel "Oz: The Great and Powerful." The state said Raleigh failed to make a $630,000 payment to bondholders in February as required. The State of Michigan Retirement System paid $420,000 of the payment under an agreement that guaranteed the bonds.

Begnoche said Raleigh is "very important" to the film office, and it's finding ways to support it. Despite its struggles, she said, it has seven sound studios and other attractive assets to film projects.

"Last year it was full the entire year with "Oz," she said. "It really only takes one production sometimes."

One film production startup isn't looking for the next Hollywood production to come knocking on Michigan's door. Detroit-based Exxodus Pictures is staking its future on creating and owning its intellectual property, which its leaders say keeps profits in the state and ultimately is a better approach to building an industry in Michigan.

"What they've been talking about is a fake studio system — really it's just four walls," said Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad, Exxodus' co-founder. "You want the stuff that goes inside of that. The thing about incentives — just as fast as they come in ... they leave."

Many have fought to get the generous film credits restored. While Ahmad has no problem with the idea of incentives — Exxodus has been approved to receive state credits for "Jinn," a supernatural thriller that's in post-production — he said such programs should be geared toward companies that are based in Michigan or are willing to locate in the state.

"The only way you can build a Hollywood is building ideas, rather than building buildings," Ahmad said, adding his company's vision is to create a Michigan-based studio that will create, produce, film, advertise and distribute movies, TV shows, video games and other work.

For Dearborn High film student Stanislawski, the vibe around Michigan's film industry was decidedly different a few years ago when she started taking film classes. Now as a senior and director of "Prom-iscuous," which debuts later this month, she said promises of internships or future job prospects are gone but that's not necessarily dispiriting.

"If anything, I feel like we're more independent now — everyone kind of relies solely on this classroom," said Stanislawski, who eyes a career in acting and writing. "The fact that we got let down pushed us to be stronger. I almost appreciate that."

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