The Michigan Film Office has been active since 1979, serving as a bridge between the state government and those interested in bringing images from the Great Lake State to the silver screen. The state-funded entity offers financial incentives and other services to studios and filmmakers. Last month, Michigan’s Legislature passed a new law that extended the state’s film subsidies program until 2021.
Bright Ideas spoke with the Michigan Film Office’s director, Margaret O’Riley, to find out more about the services it provides and its impact on state and local economies.
Margaret O'Riley, Director of the Michigan Film Office/Photo courtesy of Michigan Film Office
Tell us about the work the Michigan Film Office is doing. What kinds of opportunities are available for filmmakers and studios through the office?
For many years, the Film Office was here to provide location scout services and to try to help local governments when a film was trying to do a shoot. When the program actually started being an incentive program back in 2008, that dramatically changed the activity in the office.
Today, we manage the money in the state’s film promotion fund. The fund is available for movies, TV shows, documentaries and digital media projects. That includes video games, mobile applications and interactive websites — as long as they have entertainment content.
In the last several years, the Legislature and governor have appropriated $50 million for the fund as a cash rebate program. Once a project has spent more than $100,000 in Michigan, then they can apply to our program. They turn in an application with a proposed budget, a summary of the project, a script, and any other financial information. We review it with a fine-toothed comb and then make a decision on whether to support it.
If we decide to support it, we then enter into a three-year contract with the applicant. They don’t get any money up front; they get it after they’re done with the project, and after it’s been exhibited in one or more states. These are all legal requirements. Then they turn in a separate form with their entire ledger. An independent auditor that they hire audits it, and we also audit it through our office.
We operate with a staff of five, including me, an administrator, a locations scout, and two program staff.
What other services does the Film Office provide?
We support many smaller independent films that are made here in Michigan. Through our social media, we promote movie showings and premieres. We also have a production directory on our website. If you’re a business and you want to get hired by a production company, whether for hair and makeup, catering, camera work, crew work, whatever, you can go on that website and list your services and credentials.
We also have about 5,000 photos of Michigan locations for shooting movies on the website, and if you’re a producer, we can offer up to two days of free scouting services to show you different kinds of Michigan locations.
We also actively support local film festivals. We have dozens and dozens of film festivals in this state. Many of them apply to our program to receive some funding or at least a letter of support. Some of the larger ones we do provide funding to include the Traverse City Film Festival, The Waterfront Film Festival, Cinetopia, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and the East Lansing Film Festival.
What are some examples of high-profile projects the Film Office has worked on?
The highest-profile project we worked on was the largest movie produced in the United States in 2014, “Batman v. Superman.” They indicated they would have a $130 million budget here in Michigan. I believe that they ended up going over that budget. They had 6,000 extras and 425 Michigan hires. Their production office was probably open for close to a year, and they were shooting for several months in many locations around the state, everywhere from downtown Detroit to Pontiac, even up here in East Lansing at the Broad Museum. It turned out to be a great project.
But the vast majority of projects we support are small independent projects. We continue to invest in a mix of projects, including small ones, which helps our Michigan filmmakers. The large ones, like the Supermans and the Transformers, obviously keep us on the radar screen with Hollywood.
Back in 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder changed the formula for the state film incentives. Could you talk a little bit about how the the current program is different from the previous system?
When Governor Snyder took office, we were running in the red as a state. So he put a stop to all incentive programs, not just film. He stopped everything. He stopped MEGAs (Michigan Economic Growth Authority incentives). He stopped everything across the board and said, ‘Time out. We need to stop and look at how we’re doing things.’
He switched many of those programs from tax credit programs — which are difficult to manage from a budget perspective because you don’t know when they’re going to get turned in and utilized — to cash rebate programs.
The industry likes it this way. We check with Treasury to make sure the company doesn’t have any outstanding tax liabilities, but they no longer have to file a tax return and wait for Treasury to refund that credit. Now we just go through the audit, confirm that they spent what they said they did, calculate the cash rebate, and it’s transmitted back to them in the form of cash or an electronic fund transfer.
What kind of impact has the incentive program had on state and local economies in Michigan?
In fiscal year 2014, we funded 27 projects. Total incentives awarded were $63.7 million. Those 27 projects were projected at $245.5 million in the state and hired over 2,000 Michigan workers.
One factor that is always hard to measure, even on the national level, is the “cool” factor. Superman was here in Michigan in several dozen different locations around the state, doing the biggest movie in the country. How did citizens feel about that? How do you measure Mark Wahlberg being on the Jimmy Fallon show, saying, ‘Wow, I just spent the whole summer in Detroit doing Transformers, it was great. Everyone should visit there and bring their families and spend their money. It’s a great city.’
I don’t know how you measure that kind of thing. It’s kind of the same discussion that’s in travel. How do you measure the success of the Pure Michigan brand? It’s hard to put a dollar figure on that.