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Hoekstra: Film credits are a bust

Kathy Hoekstra

All Michigan got from it’s fling with Hollywood stars Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page was was a fat, plastic pig that still sits atop the Birch Run restaurant that served as a site for the film “Whip It”.

The 2009 movie was one of dozens to take advantage of Michigan’s generous, unlimited film subsidy program of up to 42 percent refundable tax “credits.” The $4.75 million refund Barrymore netted for filming in Michigan likely took a bit of the sting out of an estimated $7.8 million box office loss in her directorial debut.

And that’s just one film. Senate Fiscal Agency numbers show that in 2008 and 2009, the state shelled out $109 million to out-of-state, transient movie makers, while creating a “negligible” number of jobs and a net revenue loss of nearly $97 million. In 2010, the state gave another $110 million in rebates.

Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm promised that once movie makers came here, the movie studios would follow, creating a world-class film industry infrastructure that would rival that of California. That didn’t work out so well. The Grand Rapids area Hangar 42 was derailed when questions were raised about a local real estate developer who said he would turn it into a film studio. The head of the new Unity Studios in Allen Park ditched the project and the town, leaving the city a fiscal disaster. And the State of Michigan Retirement System was forced to pick up a $420,000 tab when Raleigh Studios in Pontiac defaulted on a payment to out-of-state bondholders.

Gov. Rick Snyder swiftly reined in the insane program installed by his predecessor, capping the handouts to $25 million, (They were bumped to $50 million during budget negotiations) and instituting a 2017 sunset on the subsidies.

But Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville recently, quickly and quietly hustled a film subsidy rescue bill through the Senate in just three weeks. The termed-out Republican got all but four Senators to go along with his latest plan that ups the ante on Michigan’s remaining film subsidy program. Senate bill 1103 gets rid of the sunset provision, lifts the previous $2 million limit on salaries eligible for subsidies, recalculates the subsidy formulas and requires specific numbers of Michigan workers on future film projects.

Whatever affinity Richardville has toward this program, he’s looking to leave a legacy of politicians picking winners and losers in Michigan’s economy.

In explaining his “no” vote on the proposal, Sen. Patrick Colbeck asked, “Would Michigan citizens vote to increase their taxes to pay for film incentives?”

A companion House bill is lingering in committee for now.

It is now up to the House, and perhaps eventually the governor to decide if their legacies, like Richardville’s, will have a Hollywood afterglow.

Kathy Hoekstra is a Saginaw-based political commentator.