October 1, 2010 at 1:00 am

Unity Studios opts out of Allen Park, taps Detroit

After fanfare, then controversy, film company to relocate

Unity Studios President Jimmy Lipton, left, with Allen Park Mayor Gary Burtka closing the clapboard slate in 2009. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)

Unity Studios said Thursday it is abandoning plans to build a film and television production studio in Allen Park and is looking at sites in Detroit -- including an empty factory on the campus of the nonprofit group Focus: HOPE.

Unity Studios, headed by Metro Detroit native and veteran Hollywood film executive Jimmy Lifton, is opting out of its Allen Park lease -- less than two years after it came to town to much fanfare, and four months after it was threatened with eviction from the city's Allen Park Studio Center property. It is temporarily relocating to a corporate office at Detroit's TechTown, a business incubator in Midtown.

Unity's decision is "purely a business decision," said Eric Cedo, director of marketing for Unity Studios and the Lifton Institute for Media Skills, which offers film training to Michigan residents. "The reality is that you look at the bulk of the industry in the region, it is in the city of Detroit. We really want to tap into Detroit's creative corridor."

The city of Allen Park gave a less flattering perspective on the studio's departure, with Mayor Gary Burtka saying in an e-mail statement the film studio "has not developed into the project its owners represented."

Two sites are being considered for Unity Studios' sound stages, production offices and support businesses, the studio said Thursday. One is a 63,800-square-foot factory on the main campus of the nonprofit Focus: HOPE, said Kathy Moran, a group spokeswoman.

"We've been talking with (Unity) since July," Moran said. "They would lease the entire factory."

The facility was last used in 2006 by Focus: HOPE, which operated an auto supply business and training facility in the plant.

Unity officials would not confirm the talks with Focus: HOPE.

"It's just premature because we have not yet formalized an agreement," Cedo said.

But Lifton said in an e-mail that Unity is in "final negotiations" with a city-based workforce development organization and the Lifton Institute for a film training partnership. Focus: HOPE does work force training.

Unity's corporate offices plan to relocate to TechTown until final negotiations on a permanent site are completed, Lifton said.

The move is the latest in a series of tumultuous developments since April 2009, when Lifton, Allen Park and state officials announced plans for the construction of a $146 million, studio on 104 acres at Southfield Road and Enterprise Drive. There was hope Unity Studios would hire 3,000 workers.

The site is a former Visteon campus that the city bought for $28.3 million to lure the burgeoning film and television and digital media industry. Unity currently has about 57,000 square feet leased at the site.

In May, Allen Park started the eviction process, saying Unity Studios had missed rent payments and not met other requirements.

The studio failed to provide quarterly balance sheets indicating profits or losses, a list of its complete curriculum, instructional staff and students for the Lifton Institute as well as information on employees, the city said. Unity maintained that its rent was current, and the city and company entered into talks to change the lease terms.

"We have no plans to leave Allen Park," Cedo said in May.

But Unity and the Lifton Institute had the right to end the lease if another tenant occupied space on the property that offered competitive services, according to the mayor's statement.

"We have two significant and growing tenants at the Allen Park Studio Center in Stautzenberger Institute and Roush," Burtka said.

Others film companies have faith in the Allen Park site. In June, the Center for Film Studies and Global Renaissance Entertainment announced it would move into the complex. In July, S3 Entertainment Group of Ferndale was hired to operate and manage the Allen Park facility.

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A 68,000-square-foot building on Focus: HOPE's Detroit campus is ... (Focus: HOPE)