Monday, June 22, 2009

Michigan in fight for film jobs

Michigan in fight for film jobs
Infrastructure improvements touted to give state competitive edge
Nathan Hurst / The Detroit News

Manhattan Beach, Calif. -- If there ever were an exemplary home of Tinseltown magic, it's here at Raleigh Studios' hangar-like sound stages.

In one of these 25,000-square-foot behemoths, special effects masters are working on the futuristic set of "Iron Man 2." Nearby, the phony morgue drawers for the CBS drama "CSI: Miami" await cadavers du jour.

But movie-goers and television watchers wouldn't ever know that the worlds created for big and small screen alike are in the studio just off a traffic-jammed freeway southwest of downtown Los Angeles. For all they know, the filming could've been done on location.

Or in Louisiana. Or Missouri. Or New Mexico. And soon, maybe even in Michigan.

While the Great Lakes State has the nation's most aggressive tax break for entertainment producers, it's far from the only suitor vying for attention from a sector that's estimated to generate some $60 billion annually. And it's not the first.

"When producers are looking at where to take their projects, they've got a lot of options," said Michael Moore, chief executive of Raleigh Studios, which has locations in Shreveport, La., Budapest and L.A.

Moore's company is also set to run Motown Motion Picture Studios, the massive moviemaking project slated to take the place of a defunct General Motors Corp. facility in Pontiac.

While every state rolls out the red carpet for production crews, a handful -- especially those looking to diversify their economies or kick-start new growth -- are giving the industry a generous helping hand to bring business within their borders. New Mexico was one of the earliest contenders to steal Hollywood's thunder; there, Gov. Bill Richardson spearheaded the creation of a 25 percent rebate program in 2002.

Since then, thousands of film and television jobs moved from the hazy sprawl of Los Angeles to the deserts around Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where studios and production facilities have sprouted up, helping to draw business away from the Golden State.

In Louisiana, where filmmakers can get tax credits worth up to 35 percent of qualifying expenses, sound stages have sprung up quickly, too. Production is up, and many of the mechanisms of a surrounding support industry -- post-production facilities, special-effects outfits and consulting agencies -- are opening and growing, centered around Shreveport.

But tax credits and rebates aren't enough to move a critical mass of Hollywood to Michigan.

"States have to start thinking long-term," said Jimmy Lifton, founder of Unity Studios, the multimillion dollar studio and production facility slated to open this year on the site of a shut-down Visteon plant in Allen Park. "There needs to be an infrastructure to support year-round production."

Lifton is just one proponent -- and investor -- in the strategy of building out the industry here in Michigan, by creating facilities, a talent pool and support industries that will, should everything go as planned, keep as much work as possible here, instead of farming some back to California or other states with a larger infrastructure already in place.

The state's tax credit program gives a 25 percent credit for building out infrastructure, which will help add to limited facilities already in the state.

Both Lifton's project and the one in Pontiac include noncore components such as training programs to build an in-state work force and post-production facilities that will allow functions such as film editing and processing to be performed here.

"The key is getting the state to the point where it's not a drop-in center," said Lifton. "It's about getting as many moving parts of the business to Michigan as possible.

"It's not building a business. It's building an industry."

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