Michigan tax credit courts film industry to lure money, jobs

There's even a barely used high school west of Detroit in Howell, Mich., which has stood empty since 2003 because the town can't afford to operate two high schools. It's been the backdrop for at least one movie and is the location now for a pilot being shot for a sitcom for tweens.

New industry, new jobs

August has been reinventing his Royal Oak, Mich., commercial film business to cater to the burgeoning movie demand. He's also a partner in S3 Entertainment, a production house that offers to do much of the legwork for movie companies: financing, gear rental, tax-incentive consulting, catering and accounting work.

Michigan needs to get behind developing a workforce to handle the many behind-the-scenes jobs for the movie industry, August says. That would create local jobs and save filmmakers the expense of having to bring so many of those people with them.

Making movies requires skilled electricians, camera operators, art department workers, interior designers and production accountants who can keep track of costs as the movie is being made. S3 is helping train many of those workers at a local community college.

"Every movie that comes here has production accounting," August says. They have one lead accountant, and fill three to six other positions, either by bringing in folks they know or hiring people locally. But it takes training to transition from corporate accounting to movie accounting.

"The movie industry doesn't want to bring those people in," he says. "We're starting to see local people get those jobs."

Making up for lost work

Former autoworkers such as Daniel Phillips are starting to make new careers in the movie industry. Phillips worked for Chrysler for 14 years before taking a buyout in 2007, a few months before the movie tax incentives took effect.

Phillips had planned to make a living using makeup artistry skills he learned in Los Angeles years ago to beautify brides on their wedding days and models for headshots, and by making the occasional special-effects mask. His basement, he thought, would suffice as office space.

Instead, two years after opening his business, Phillips has leased space for a studio in St. Clair Shores, Mich. He's worked on gory special effects for the movie Intent, a thriller due in October, and did makeup for a children's show shot in Grand Rapids.

While he's waiting to get his union card with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees based in Detroit, he's giving makeup classes and helping train other Michigan workers on how to get into the movie business.

But he's afraid the recent film boom could be fleeting. The industry, he says, is here solely because of the tax incentives, and likely would move on if those incentives are taken away. For now, "there is no other reason they're here," he says. "Los Angeles needs to understand that this is a place where they can come and get quality work done. It's going to take some time for them to be more secure with the work ethic we have here."

Studio space on the way

More infrastructure also is needed to allow moviemakers to do more than just shoot film in the state.

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