It was destined to make Michigan the movie-making capital of the Midwest. Then, just three years after it was enacted, it was decimated by Gov. Rick Snyder and the boom went bust before it even began in earnest.
“Jane of All Trades: The Rise & Fall of the Michigan Film Incentive,” which screens at 8 p.m. Sept. 6 at Royal Oak’s Main Art Theatre, explores how Michigan played a key role in the film industry for a few years before falling out of favor with Hollywood thanks to Snyder’s efforts.
It all started in 2008, when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm put forth the Michigan Film Incentive. While several other states had similar programs, Michigan’s was the most generous. The state would provide a rebate of up to 42 percent of a production’s expenditures. Instantly, filmmakers began flocking to the state. Before 2008, Michigan averaged about five feature films per year. In 2008, there were 31. All told, more than 100 feature films have been made in Michigan since the incentive was put into place, films such as the horror flick “Scream 4,” the Drew Barrymore-directed “Whip It” and the action blockbuster “Transformers 3.” Whitney Houston’s final film, “Sparkle,” was also shot here.
One of those who took advantage of the opportunities the film industry brought to Michigan was Chris-Teena Constas. The Detroit native had moved to Chicago to work in films as a location manager, her first feature being the Sandra Bullock-Keanu Reeves drama “The Lake House.” Once she heard about the incentive, though, she considered it her call to come home.
“I had so much hope,” Constas says, recalling the glory days following the announcement about the incentive. “I had a fire that ignited inside of me like I’d never known before. I knew that if I came back I would be able to help people get into the business. Some people took me up on it. Soon, I was buying my first house. I never thought I’d be buying anything in my life and here I am investing in this home and this business and I knew it would take off, and it did. We just saw immediate results.”
For a couple years, all went according to plan, and Constas remained highly in demand and constantly working. She began keeping a video journal where she recorded the work she was doing in the industry and how it was helping people discover new careers. Then in 2011, Snyder, arguing that the percentage-based film incentive was leading the state to give back more in rebates than it was taking in, all but killed the incentive when he put a $25 million cap on it.
In a “where were you when Kennedy died moment,” Constas clearly remembers hearing the news.
“I was in Greece visiting my mother,” she recalls. “I heard about it and I just could not believe it. There was a rally happening and I thought, ‘I have to get back. I have to do something about this.’ That’s when it hit me: I had all this footage and I could show people what I’d done and what so many others had done in the industry.
“I had never considered myself a filmmaker,” Constas continues. “But when the tax incentive got reduced, I was devastated. I saw my peers and people I was surrounded by who were just devastated. We were just hung out to dry. I realized I had captured not just my story but many people’s story and I wanted to show people that I can’t believe our governor did this.”
Constas spoke with and included the stories of people like Cameron, a young intern turned stunt double turned production assistant; Andre, a regular jack of all trades who provided location support; and Kayla who, like Constas, did location scouting and managing. The stories are compelling, as is the evidence Constas offers to prove that Snyder’s math is wrong. The film cites a February 2011 report by accounting firm Ernst & Young, which found that the tax incentives resulted in the creation of 2,631 jobs for Michigan residents in 2009 and 3,860 jobs in 2010. The study found that every dollar spent on the film industry returned $6 in economic activity in the state.
It appears that Synder may have realized he made a mistake. He raised the cap this year to $50 million. But insiders say that number is far too low and the damage has been done.
“We’ve lost the momentum now,” says Constas. “I think we’ve lost a lot of trust with Hollywood and the producers who are putting up the money for these films. When Ohio is approving a movie in five days and it’s taking Michigan months, they don’t have the time to wait around. We’re going to get smaller productions and the problem with that is that we don’t get our benefits. We’re not going to see any big Hollywood blockbuster films coming here. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Jane of All Trades
8 p.m. Sept. 6
Main Art Theatre
118 N. Main Street, Royal Oak