Post on Michigan film incentives stirs lively discussion on Facebook–Mark Adler and Kerry Sanders exchange views

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File this one under Some Stories Write Themselves

You do recall the Michigan film incentives, don’t you?

It doesn’t matter on what side of this issue you may stand if you are engaged in Michigan’s film industry you have something to say about Michigan’s film incentives.

Okay, the Michigan film incentives are no more.  They were killed by Governor Rick Snyder in 2015, not a decade after they went into effect.  But whether you were present and engaged, working in the industry from the beginning (2008) or came into the picture later,  you have your opinion on what happened and what could have been.

A post on Facebook brought these ideas and opinions to the surface recently.   This post asked, “How many of you are still holding on, hoping for the restoration of Michigan’s film incentives.”

Mark Adler (AKA Philo Farnsworth) and Kerry Sanders seemed to dominate the thread with the ideas they expressed.  Adler is the founder and director of the Michigan Production Alliance.  A 501c6 trade/business organization Michigan Production Alliance, he has provided professional and educational resources to media producers in the state of Michigan. His maintenance of the MPA website has served union, non-union and anyone are interested in media production with resources such as crew and equipment contacts, as well as seminars, workshops, and various other industry related support. As the author of the text for Production Assistants, Mark has contributed to the growth and professional status of the state workforce by improving performance standards as well as by providing an access path for working in the industry.

Kerry Sanders (everyone knows Kerry.)…

Mark Adler (AKA Philo Farnsworth) Holding on? I hope its not to that. Most people who are left standing do not NEED incentives in order to keep working. Any future incentive legislation would be a stimulus for those who work or support the industry. We hope to have training and more local inclusion of facilities, equipment and humans….The concept of incentives is to bring work into a state for economic development. GA and NOLA have adapted that to include in their legislation and more importantly for State support – training and other assistance for local vendors. MI has a lot to offer, low costs for hotels, transport, locations acquisition really nice locations rural and urban close to one another. We have lost hundreds of people in many departments. AD, Production Design DIT, Script, and more we are very light even for big commercials. We need to grow that and document exactly how deep we are in key areas. I do see younger crew training up- a good thing. People do what they need to do but working for a living wage is key. With or without incentives we need to work together to develop the cash base, crew development and distribution.

Kerry Sanders Most of the fault lies with those who came to see the incentives as their birthright, arguing when they ended that something was being taken away from them when in reality the incentives were always a temporary gift from the taxpayers. No other industry sees that level of incentives without providing permanent jobs. In fact, MI’s film incentives were bleeding money, at a cost for each job generated of nearly 20 times the cost of incentivizing jobs in the automobile sector. For the auto industry, you pay the bribe once, and the jobs stay in state for a couple of decades. With the film industry, you pay an equal amount each year, and the jobs leave after a few months. It’s hard to turn a profit for the state when those are the terms.

I’m not arguing against film incentives, I’m arguing against the local industry claiming they had an eternal right to oversized gifts from the taxpayers, especially after the industry failed to come close to turning a profit after the first 5 years of incentives. It’s not just MI, most other film incentive programs also failed to deliver as promised, because their systems were also poorly structured and demanded special consideration.

The benefits of hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer largess were shared primarily by a very small group of local filmmakers and very wealthy media corporations, who took their profits back to CA without even paying local taxes on their gains. A much better system would be to link the level of government subsidies to the number of permanent jobs created. That’s how every other industry is judged. If you want freebies from state and local govt, prove that you have a lasting commitment, by putting down roots instead of engaging in fly-by-night commerce.

It also would have helped if the locals who fed at that public trough had a personal financial investment in the incentive program, instead of demanding that other people fund their chosen lifestyle. A surtax of 5% of the gross salary of all film workers and vendors, would have netted enough income to offer the same level of incentives without any taxpayer involvement. 95% is a lot better than 0%.

MI’s film program made the mistake of buying into a then-popular system of film incentives that had very little history of financial success. They came to the dance late, just as programs in other states were being scaled back or shut down. MI’s program asked for too much money too quickly, demanded rapid unlimited growth which greatly added to the costs of the program and resulted in a severe shortage of trained labor, studio space, etc., and then failed to deliver to the tax coffers. That overreach is what kills most businesses. Slow and steady would have been a much better course of action. MI’s film program wasn’t killed by the governor, it was killed by the ill-advised path of explosive and costly growth chosen by MI’s film community

Philo Farnsworth that’s a lot of words Kerry. Several factors killed it. The Governors stated dislike, a tea party Senate and as you say little state support.

Kerry Sanders Philo Farnsworth I didn’t say little state support. I said the path the Michigan film community chose for themselves, combined with their sense of self-entitlement, doomed the program from the beginning.

I fought for the program. I also predicted this is what would happen if the path wasn’t shifted radically.

Mark Adler Kerry Sanders, BUT your premise that the community killed them is not true….Some people had the impression you do mention, and some still do…yet the structure of the plan was bad which left it vulnerable. If core legislation is bad, it is dangerous to reopen it due to the possibility of changes that would be worse! Gotta get it right and have a legislature that wants it. Also, the film community MAY have been misrepresented by certain studio owners who had little stake in the big longterm stake in the short term. But the film community remains fractured and rarely do it’s ‘members’ agree on all points.

Kerry Sanders Philo Farnsworth it was the attitude that was the underlying problem. Even after the incentives were dead, the entire Michigan film community focused on the narrative that something they were entitled to have been taken from them, instead of being gracious for the enormous gift that they had received for so long, that had increased most of their salaries fivefold.

There is a small core of film workers in Michigan that have been doing their jobs for decades and are top notch. Among the best anywhere I’ve worked. Under Michigan’s rapidly expanding rate of film production, they were being propped up by masses of locals who didn’t know their asses from their elbows. Production companies were being forced to pay top dollar for people who had to be trained how to hold a broom.

To pretend that the new group could be trained within a “couple more years“ to provide the same product as people in other regions of the United States who have been doing this for the past 30 or 40 years is just magical thinking.

You cannot create film industries on that scale overnight. It takes decades. Michigan’s film program was killed by its attempt to go from some guy building custom cars in his two stall garage to being a manufacturer the size of GM inside a few years time, using the taxpayer’s money. No matter how well you structure that transition, it’s going to be loaded with extra costs and wasteful spending that take a very long time to recoup.

When the taxpayers finally catch on to the fact that the majority of that waste is going in the pockets of a few hundred people, they are rightly going to ask a lot of questions. When your only answer is, “I know we’ve never actually done this before, but we can build this dream if you only keep handing us hundreds of millions of dollars that you will never see a return on”, your dream is going to be taken away from you.

It takes 30 years or more to build a legitimate film industry on that scale. Michigan tried to do it in five, and the result was that the weight of the massive inefficiency and added costs imploded on itself. If the Michigan film community had instead tried to build a modest industry that grew slowly and consistently in line with its resources and capabilities, it would likely still be alive today. Instead, everyone got stars in their eyes, and pictured Michigan and the next Hollywood. That could only be accomplished however if Hollywood moved at least temporarily to Michigan, all paid for of course by the Michigan tax payers.

It’s a shame Michigan’s film industry didn’t make it. Of all the film centers in the United States, it was the one with the most potential. All that potential was done in by a plan that was so poorly structured that it became by far the nation’s least efficient film program, and by stock talking points that didn’t hold up to the light of day when the program was finally held in judgment by legitimate businessmen.

If given a chance to do it all over again, what changes with the Michigan film community have made? My feeling is they would’ve been surface, cosmetic changes, and a renewed focus on public relations, instead of on fundamentally re-examining the nuts and bolts of available resources, and money-in/money-out. The program created an impossible uphill battle for itself, that was destined to fail. It was just a question of time.




















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