December 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

Mitten Project helps 'indie' filmmakers thrive despite Michigan film incentive cuts

Today's featured film, 'Goat Years' by Michael Pfaendtner won the 2012 Mitten Movie Press Award

When Michigan downsized its generous film incentive program, it sucked the air out of Michigan's growing film industry bubble.

Hollywood looked elsewhere for locations with rebates, and many of the creative Michiganders who'd found jobs in the burgeoning local movie biz began leaving the state too.

But there's one branch of southeastern Michigan's film "industry" that the reduction in film rebates really didn't affect. It's the realm of low-budget, independent film shorts and documentaries made by tenacious filmmakers who will find a way to make their films with or without money.

They make films because it's their passion.

Time was when these "indie" filmmakers were so independent they barely knew each other. And worse, they had precious few avenues to get an audience for their creations.

The Mitten Movie Project changed that paradigm. Driven by Detroit's Connie Mangilin, the Mitten has given these filmmakers a place to show their work and network with each other — most often at Royal Oak's Main Art Theatre.

Mangilin, a filmmaker herself, defines an independent film or short as one with no studio financing or distribution. "It's a nitty-gritty, labor of love, no-to-low budget production," she says.

The Mitten, as Mangilin affectionately calls it, has created a sense of community among the producers, directors, set designers, lighting artists, sound technicians and actors who make films because —well — they just have to.

Many of these folks try to develop day jobs in the "legit" movie business, but that's harder now that Hollywood has mostly pulled out of the area. Mangilin, 38, who practiced law for a hot minute after she completed law school, works as a payroll accountant for Hollywood film productions. She does, that is, when there are films here to work for. This summer she was forced to go to Chicago to work.

She plows all the time and energy she has left over into the Mitten Movie Project.

She reviews the 200 or so films that are submitted each year and chooses the ones she thinks are good enough to show at the monthly Mitten screenings. She arranges for the theater, promotes the events, emcees the film evenings and organizes voting for a monthly Audience Choice Award.

At the end of the year all those monthly winners go into the Best of the Mitten Movie Project for judging by a selection of 13 filmmakers, 13 audience members and whatever press representatives Mangilin can cajole into coming out.

Unlike most festivals, there's no charge to submit a film. And audiences don't have to wait a year to see the submissions. Mitten Movie screenings are on the first Tuesday of every month.

"It fills my heart when I see a packed house because it makes the filmmakers feel so good," says Mangilin. And there must have a been a lot of happy filmmakers at the Best of screenings; there was barely an empty spot in the 275-seat house.

Back in 2007 when Mangilin took over the two-year-old MMP there were a lot of local crews making movies, "but we didn't quite know each other," she says. "We only knew of each other. So when I began curating the Mitten Movie Project I began inviting all these people and securing their shorts to screen at the Mitten." So now there's a community where there was none. Filmmakers can find people to collaborate with and share resources and information.

"Let's say someone needs a special effects artist or a good sound guy or whatever," she says. "I'll tell them there's one sitting right there. Let me introduce you."

The connections people make at the Mitten foster "more collaboration, more creativity, more options for filmmakers," she says. And during the four-plus years she's been running the festival she's seen the quantity and quality of submissions improve.

And the winners are...

Michael Pfaendtner, 55, of Macomb has screened at least 15 films at the Mitten. He says it's "great to get a chance to get up there and talk about your films." It's a little different from his day job editing corporate and automotive films. "You see the same faces; I like the feeling of community."

Pfaendtner's documentary "Goat Years" won this year's Mitten Press Award and took third overall. (In the interests of full disclosure: I was one of the press judges this year, and I'm using this opportunity to showcase a few of the winning films on our website.)

The film about an offbeat couple who own a boatyard called the Goat Yard in Detroit —and the goat that gave the marina its name — is featured in the video above.

"It's pretty darn nice to hear people laugh at the funny parts," says Pfaendtner.

The Best Short of 2012 was "Thieves" made by J.G. Barnes, 29, of Eastpointe, who's only made three films and a music video while working retail jobs like selling TVs at Best Buy. He made the sci-fi film for $300. "Half of it was for wardrobe," he says. The rest was for lighting and props. "It was all from thrift stores."

"Thieves" is the first film Barnes submitted to the Mitten and he was stunned to be the overall winner of the festival. He says the Mitten Movie Project is "an absolutely exceptional program for filmmakers."

His stiffest competition was the second-place film "Certain Essential Elements," by Jeffery T. Schultz, who says the Mitten is "a valuable resource for filmmakers who are just starting out."

He lives in Detroit and shot his short feature about love and commitment here and in Port Huron. In four days he and his crew squeezed in 12 locations including Detroit's Le Petit Zinc, the Detroit Medical Center, the Belle Isle Conservatory and his own Woodbridge neighborhood.

The film also won the Cinematography category for its rich but straightforward approach that doesn't distract from the storytelling. Schultz weaves together two complex story lines giving the feel of a full-length film in a mere 23 minutes.

'Charm in Michigan'

"There will always be independent filmmaking in Michigan," says Mangilin. And, although many filmmakers have to leave here to make a living at it, "there's a certain magic, a certain charm in Michigan, in Detroit, for filmmaking — or art in general. There's a passion and an energy in this area that you don't find anywhere else"

"The artists in this town don't really give a damn about what's going on in L.A. and New York," says Mangilin. "That's why you see artists from Brooklyn and New York flocking to Detroit: because there's original thought here."

Connie Mangilin, of Detroit, curates the Mitten Movie Project, a monthly film festival featuring independent shorts and trailers. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
More Donna Terek