Rubin: Michigan Film Office tries to stave off The End

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

We can give you a sunrise and a sunset on the water. We can give you mansions five minutes from ruins.

If you’re making movies, said the director of the Michigan Film Office, “There’s a lot of things we can offer that a lot of states can’t.”

What we can’t offer any more are incentives. Soon, we might not even be able to offer a film office.

All those superheroes who’ve traipsed through town these past few years? Jenell Leonard could use one.

As the leader of the state’s film office, she could be presiding over a resurrection, helping the legislature recognize the value in a department it seems determined to leave on the cutting-room floor.

Or, she could be the last one out of the theater, locking the door behind her as she goes.

She figures she has until late next year to make its case — to keep Michigan from becoming the only state without a dedicated film office.

Meantime, a few hours south, the president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission stands waiting for the things Michigan has decided it doesn’t need anymore, among them jobs, talented young people and translatable technology.

“All I can do,” said Ivan Schwarz, “is say thank you, Michigan, for training our new work force.”

It’s too lengthy to qualify as an elevator pitch, but the condensed version of the Michigan movie boom and bust goes like this:

During the Jennifer Granholm administration, with the auto industry imploding, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved tax credits for movie, television and video game production.

The incentives work — 37 other states currently have them — but at a cost. What cost, and what value, depends on who’s crunching the numbers.

Opponents can prove that taxpayers are buying a Yugo. Supporters can show we’re buying Yahoo. Meantime, Rick Snyder becomes governor.

Philosophically, he opposes incentives. Politically, absurdity takes hold: His fellow Republicans start grousing about subsidizing rich Hollywood liberals, as though the boxing robots of “Real Steel” were somehow blue when all they really represented was green.

Incentives get slashed, then finally eliminated; the last of the approved disbursements are on a three-year countdown to be used or abandoned. The sea change claims the state film office, whose relatively trivial $653,000 operating budget is scheduled to disappear after September 2016.

The tide has turned so sharply that even Leonard’s husband supported folding the office into the Michigan Economic Development Corp. — which is significant, since he’s Rep. Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt.

Jenell Leonard, who was Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s external affairs director, finds herself in an awkward position: working to save a department her party has no use for.

As she points out, the film office has existed since 1979, nearly three decades before the creation of the incentive program.

What her small team needs to do, she said, is prove its value through promotion, tourism, educational alliances that help keep creative young people from fleeing the state, and crafting public/private partnerships.

That’s beyond the standard film office tasks of slicing red tape, assisting location scouts and serving as a clearinghouse for crews and other useful personnel.

“It goes back to perception,” she said. “If people think we’re just about incentives and Ben Affleck and Ryan Gosling, that’s not enough.

“The reality is that we’re seeing Michigan-based crews and vendors put to work.”

The question is, where will they be working next? And where will Leonard?

It seems likely that the Michigan Film Office can create $650,000 worth of value, even without incentives as a lure. It seems less likely that the Legislature will notice.

In Ohio, where incentives top out at 35 percent, there’s a state film commission and three more in large cities.

“It’s not about politics,” said Schwarz, from the office in Cleveland. “It’s about jobs.”

Hard as it may be to give credit south of the border, that’s one thing Baja Michigan gets right.