February 4, 2009 at 1:00 am

New role: Old MGM casino to be film studio

Detroit Center Studios will occupy the building that has been vacant since Detroit's MGM Grand moved into a new facility. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

PONTIAC -- A former Pontiac auto plant and the defunct MGM Grand Casino will be converted into film production studios that will create 4,000 new direct jobs in Metro Detroit, boosting one of the state's few fast-growing industries.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced plans for the new studios Tuesday during her State of the State address.

An $86 million digital animation and visual effects studio to be called the Detroit Center Studios will set up shop in the former MGM Grand Casino downtown and is set to open by year-end. In Pontiac, a $70.7 million film production studio called Motown Motion Picture Studios will be built at General Motors Corp.'s former Centerpoint plant, said Granholm's spokeswoman, Liz Boyd. Granholm also announced a $900,000 expansion of video and computer gaming company called Stardock Systems Inc. in Plymouth.

"This is an aggressive approach to develop the basis for a film industry in Michigan and diversify the economy with good paying jobs," said Mike Shore, communication manager with the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

All three companies plan to move "quickly" to get facilities up and running, he said.

Local business owners and residents say news of the movie studios is the shot in the arm Metro Detroit needs.

"It's going to bring much needed jobs and dollars to businesses, which is definitely needed. I'm glad we are diversifying the economy, because we can no longer afford to put all our eggs in one basket with the shaky automotive industry," said Dave Konja, manager of the Bloomfield Coney Island on Woodward near the future Motown studio. Konja said he plans to go after delivery and catering business at the studio.

Motown Motion Picture Studios is expected to create 5,139 new jobs, including 3,600 directly by the company. The studio will be operated by Raleigh Studios, a Hollywood production firm, and has the backing of billionaire developer Al Taubman and local developer Linden Nelson, who will be chairman and CEO of the new studio.

"The idea started in June in my kitchen," said Nelson, who is also CEO of Nelson Ventures. "I'm just trying to bring jobs to Michigan, man."

The Detroit Center Studios is a partnership between Wonderstruck Studios LLC and SHM Partners of Los Angeles, and expects to create 700 new jobs, including 413 direct jobs. The studio should begin operating this year, Boyd said. Terms and financing were not released.

The Stardock expansion will create 53 new direct jobs of the 154 jobs the company expects to generate, state officials said.

The state film agency has been working on the three deals for months, and contends they would create the infrastructure to support what has become a $100 million industry since April 2008, when Michigan passed the most aggressive film industry tax incentives in the nation.

"It's a game-changer," said Anthony Wenson, CEO of the Michigan Film Office, the agency that promotes Michigan's film industry, during an earlier interview with The Detroit News. "We truly (will) have a year-round industry." Since the passage of the tax incentives, 32 films have been produced in Michigan with 40 in the works -- compared to the six produced in the year before the incentives. One of them is in theaters now -- Clint Eastwood's well-received "Gran Torino." A total of 73 projects have been approved by the state. Since the incentives went into effect, the film industry has created $100 million in revenue. In 2007, before incentives, the film industry generated $4 million.