Jeff Daniels & Mitch Albom

Two Hollywood heavyweights discuss how larger public incentives could make Michigan a major player in the film industry. (March/April 2008)
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daniels albomThere’s been a lot of talk — you’ve read about it in the newspapers and heard about it on the television news. Heck, even [Governor Jennifer Granholm] mentioned something in her State of the State address about Michigan being a great place for people to shoot films. A couple of guys who’ve been working very hard at that are guys in the film business — our own Jeff Daniels and our own Mitch Albom, who spends his time on radio, writing, television, movies, etc. The two of you have been working very hard to get Lansing to understand how significant, how important it would be to make it possible, to have incentives for filmmaking in the great state of Michigan. What was the reception like [in Lansing]?

Mitch Albom: I think that whenever you can go to Lansing and say, ‘Hey, we have an idea that can create jobs and bring in tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy,’ they’re going to listen to you. I think they were a little surprised and needed to be educated as to how the business actually works. The simple, sort of blueprint of that is, if you offer a discount or a rebate that is greater than other states’ to movie makers, they will come and make their movies or their television shows in your state. It’s pretty much that simple. It’s sort of a gypsy business, and they go set up shop and set up cameras and set up sets and things like that, and then when the production is over, they break it down. So it really isn’t so critical where they do it, especially since actors and directors and the people involved come from all over the place. What’s important is how much money they save. And currently, there are a few states in America that offer a pretty substantial rebate — along the lines of 30 percent — to people who make films or television shows in their states. And what we’ve observed is that these states, which include New Mexico and Louisiana and Connecticut — in other words, places that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as the film business because everyone thinks ‘California’ or ‘New York.’ These states have gone from virtually no activity to hundreds of millions of dollars of activity, almost overnight. And so Jeff [Daniels], [filmmaker] Mike Binder, [and I] — and some other people went to the people in Lansing and said, ‘Why on earth aren’t we doing this when we’re in desperate need of jobs and money? We have a lot of creative people who would love to make their films or television programs at home, but can’t, because they’re being forced to go to places like Connecticut and Canada and Louisiana and [elsewhere]. That sort of got the ball rolling and has brought it to the point of where we are today. Jeff, you make films. Certainly we know 8 Mile was done here, as well as Somewhere in Time, Diehard 2, and, of course, your own Escanaba in da Moonlight. You found [Michigan] to be a great place to make a movie. Do you think the state leaders are going to move quickly on this issue? Were you able to bring some of your thoughts to the table in Lansing?

Jeff Daniels: I was not. Mitch and Mike Binder did a great job of going up to Lansing and making the case. I agree with Mitch. It’s about the money, and that’s what producers and studios — that’s where they go to shoot. And I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve done in Vancouver and Winnipeg and Toronto since the late ’80s, simply because it was cheaper. They used Canadian crews and a lot of Canadian actors and, you know, I’ve gotta go where the work is. They were not gonna shoot The Crossing for A&E about George Washington in Virginia on locations that would mirror where Washington was. We went to Toronto to shoot it. And the same thing is true — [the movie] Because of Winn-Dixie I shot in Louisiana. Why? Because they had a rebate. They had a tax incentive that helped their budget simply by going to Louisiana and hiring Louisiana crews and day players — actors from New Orleans were in the movie. It created so many jobs, simply because the state of Louisiana … provided an opportunity for the producers and studio to bring their movie there and save some money. That’s all they care about. So getting the state legislature to kind of wake up and see — I mean, with Escanaba in da Moonlight — Governor [John] Engler came up to visit us and he basically said, ‘What are guys doing?’ We basically said, ‘John, we’re dumping $1.3 million onto Main Street of Escanaba. We’re hiring, we’re eating in their restaurants, we’re staying in their hotels, we’re buying their materials, we’re renting their cars and trucks, we’re paying them for their locations, we’re putting them in the movie, we’re hiring them to build sets.’ Yeah, it’s transient, but you start providing opportunities for more and more producers to bring their movies in here, and suddenly, as Mitch says, it’s millions and millions of dollars comin’ in.

It can’t be overstated: The state of Michigan needs to find as many new ways to bring money in as possible. We had been pushing tourism, and for good reason. As the auto companies right size or downsize, we have to do other things, and this sounds like such an incredible amount of potential money for very little work. Tell me, Mitch, how exactly does the incentive tax rebate work? If a company says, ‘We’re gonna spend $10 million to produce a film,’ … how can the state step in and make that a better price for them?

Mitch Albom: Without losing too much to the X’s and O’s, essentially the way the rebates work are one of two ways, and it depends on which state you use as a model. One is a straight cash rebate, meaning if someone spends $10 million. Let’s say it’s a 30 percent rebate. They literally give you a check at the end of your production for $3 million. It’s pretty simple. Another more common way is tax rebates. What that is, is they give you $3 million in tax rebates. Of course, you’re a movie producer and you don’t really have a company in Michigan, so you can’t really use the tax rebate. So what you do is you sell them to companies like Ford or Kellogg … they can use it because they’re paying taxes, and you generally discount them maybe 5 percent or [more] and you sell them to those companies, and they give you the actual money in hand. That’s how it works in Connecticut and a couple of other states. There are other elements to it, as well. Let’s say you’re making a movie with Will Smith, and he’s going to get $20 million to be in the movie. That isn’t discounted. It’s not like, ‘Well, Will Smith’s getting $20 million; we’ll give you back $7 million for Will Smith.’ He doesn’t need it, and that doesn’t seem very fair. So you cap salaries for actors and things like that. I think the proposal they’re talking about in Lansing is $2 million, so it’s no more than that. You’re not generally paying for superstar actors’ salaries. What you want to get discounts for is money spent on sets and on production designs and on people staying for long periods of time and travel and all the rest of that type of thing. The one that we’re proposing in Michigan is a tax rebate thing. It’s a little easier and more palatable for our state than to just be writing a check for people, but what they’re proposing is a percentage discount that’s even higher than Connecticut’s, Louisiana’s, or anybody else who’s doing this. And in addition, what we’re suggesting — some other things between [Binder] and I and some other people we know in the business — and I think that this is one of the ways that what we’re doing is a little different than what other states are doing because it’s being pushed (for want of a better term — it’s a little lofty) but by the creative end of it, as opposed to the business end. And people like [Binder] and [Daniels] and [me] are advising and saying, ‘Well, this is what we would look for if we were doing it,’ as opposed to lawmakers originating it. So one of the things that came out of it is a loan, that if you’re going to make a film in Michigan, a loan program is available for you for of up to maybe $15 million that you can take as an interest-free loan to get started, as long as it’s guaranteed to then pay the money back over a year or two. This is huge for filmmakers because, as Jeff will tell you, the biggest problem when you’re making a film is the money up front. Usually, once you get it done, you can sell it to distributors and you’ll make your money back, but you’ve got to [persuade] somebody to give you the money up front to do it. And if you’re going to commit to an actor, he’s going to want to know. It’s called ‘Pay or Play.’ They’re going to want to know that they’re going to get paid for sure.

Jeff Daniels: The one question you ask is, ‘Do you have the money?’

Mitch Albom: The money up front is huge, and if we could have that as part of the program, that would be an incredible additional incentive for places to do things.

But is that money at risk for the state?

Mitch Albom: Not really because it’s just money that, essentially, is going to come in, in taxes, only you would be taking it off of other companies that would be paying their taxes. Meanwhile, presumably, you’re going to get 70 percent of the money that you don’t have. Our basic philosophy is, ‘Would you rather have 60 or 70 percent of something or 0 percent of nothing?’ And the problem with what Michigan’s done up till now, and the first question we got asked when we went up there was, ‘Well, don’t we have a rebate program?’ We said, ‘Yes, we do, and it’s about 12 percent.’ And they said, ‘Well, aren’t we bringing in some business on account of that?’ And both [Binder] and I said to them, ‘You have to understand that in this game, coming in second or third or fifth or seventh means nothing because all the business is going to go where the biggest tax break is. And so, yeah, we passed this thing about a year and a half ago that got it from 12 percent up to 20 percent, but we’ve seen no business as a result of that. And I’m not surprised. I’m sure Jeff’s not surprised. Telling Hollywood, ‘Hey, you can get 20 percent in Michigan, when Connecticut’s saying you can get 30 percent, and Louisiana’s saying you can get 30 percent, this means nothing. There’s no such thing as second place in this, so you have to really blow ’em out of the water and take the lead, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

Governor Granholm recently visited Los Angeles to tout Michigan as a site for film production. Did she or her staff call on either of you to help assist?

Mitch Albom: I’ve met with Governor Granholm several different times, and [Binder] and I met with her in Lansing, and [Daniels] was represented by a letter [expressing] his point of view, as well … So she’s all for it and very much behind it. But I also think she’s smart enough to know that in order to get it through quickly, this has to be some bipartisan thing. This can’t be something that the governor’s pushing because this happens in our state — if one person from a particular party pushes it, then the other [party] resists it. So we’ve been trying to get support from both sides, which we have, and just say, ‘This is good for Michigan. This isn’t good for one side or the other; it’s just good for the state.’ And hopefully they’re going to follow through on it.

It almost doesn’t matter if the governor goes back to Hollywood and tries to [persuade] producers that Michigan’s a great place to make films. What matters is the bottom line. Get to the point. ‘How much do we save? We’ve looked at everybody else, and we save more with Michigan, and [it’s] easier to make the films in Michigan, and that’s where we’re going then.’

Jeff Daniels: True.

It’s not a question of any more back-slapping or hand-shaking. It’s really now down to the bottom line. It certainly has changed from the old days when a guy would come back from scouting sites and say, ‘Hey, I’ve found a place in Maui that looks just like Duluth.’

Jeff Daniels: You know, they care about all the beautiful places that Michigan has. There are a lot of different kinds of locations, from Detroit up to the lakes, Traverse City, the U.P. — you name it, we can probably create a lot of places in this state. But that’s secondary. What’s been at the forefront — all the way back to when Canada started basically taking business away from the American film industry — is the money.

Will there be any need for the various labor unions to step in and maybe make some concessions to draw more work here?

Mitch Albom: There is, and they are, and that’s one of the reasons that they don’t like to film in New York or even in Connecticut, where they have to use a lot of New York crews because they’re very demanding and it’s very expensive. Labor has been involved with this from the get-go, and unions have been represented in these meetings up in Lansing, and they have said, at least in word, that they’re willing to do whatever it takes; they’ve got workers who are looking for work, and they wanna work with us and make sure it’s affordable. So that’s a huge part of it …

Jeff Daniels: That’s something that’s chased people away in the past.

Mitch Albom: Especially because Michigan has a reputation of, ‘Oh, it’s going to cost us through the unions.’

Jeff, I don’t remember anything about the Michigan Film [Office]. We have one, and the last time I heard anything about it is when Geoffrey Fieger was put at the head. He was like the chairman of the film commission. I don’t think he is in that position anymore, but I can’t tell you who is.

Jeff Daniels: I don’t know why he was put in or what he did. I didn’t hear of anything that he did that was constructive.

It was a short time period, I guess.

Jeff Daniels: Janet Lockwood has been a kind of one-woman show regarding the Michigan Film [Office]. And she has done all she could, all the way through Governor Engler’s administration and through Governor Granholm’s. [Lockwood] has tried to do everything she can, but she’s had no bullets in her gun until now. And I think Mitch was right. In a lot of ways, he and Mike Binder helped explain it to the legislature and the governor as to how it works. I shot a movie in Austin, Texas — you [normally wouldn’t] go to Austin, Texas to make a movie, except Texas had this rebate program, and … crew members of this [Truman] Capote movie I made down there (Infamous) who used to be in L.A. but weren’t really getting the work because a lot of movies were elsewhere — Canada and places like Austin — so they moved to Austin. And they’re working more in Austin, Texas than they were in L.A. And … they’re building sound stages in Austin because there’s so much work coming in. As we’re all trying to find ways here in Michigan to create jobs — you can do nothing or you can do something. And I think this potentially is such a wonderful opportunity for a lot of people, and if the state gets behind it … You know, in Connecticut and Texas, it really can prove to be profitable not only for the state, but for businesses and people.

I agree with you 100 percent. So what are you working on now?

Jeff Daniels: This writers strike looks like it’s gonna be over pretty soon; that would be a good thing for me. One of the movies that I’m looking to do this spring — Steven Spielberg is going to make a movie called The Chicago Seven. And it’s about the 1968 Democratic Convention and Abbie Hoffman and that whole kind of riot situation, and it’s about the trial. And if the writers’ strike is over, Steven will make that movie. And I’m one of the Chicago Seven guys. So I’m just thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to work with Spielberg. I’ve always wanted to be in the room when Spielberg has a camera in his hand.

What an experience — that should be fabulous. What about the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea? How’s that going?

Jeff Daniels: Purple Rose is doing really, really well. We’ve got a wonderful play, Vino Veritas, by a guy named David MacGregor, a Michigan playwright. The reviews have been terrific. It’s a real strong play that we’re doing through early March. Carey Crim, Mort Crim’s daughter, has turned into a wonderful playwright, and she’s written a play [Growing Pretty] that we’re going to do this spring. So we’re doing fine. People are coming to see what we’re doing, and the reason they’re coming, I think, is the quality of our shows and the high standard of performance that we demand is consistent. In nonprofit theaters all across the country, inconsistency is a big problem. One show is good; the other is just god-awful. And we’ve really worked hard over the last six or seven years to really have a sustained kind of excellence. You may like the show or not, but it was always well done. And I think that’s the reason they’re coming.

What am I missing? Actor, writer, producer, director, singer …

Jeff Daniels: Father, husband.

Yes, of course. Those are more important and they go without saying … Jeff, thanks for your support of the state of Michigan, doing those commercials for Pure Michigan, and for all the other things you’re doing to try to promote this great state of ours — and now with your efforts, with Mike Binder and Mitch Albom, to get Lansing to understand how very important it could be for our economy to put forward the incentives that will help us bring in, potentially, hundreds of millions of new dollars to the state of Michigan by helping people come here to produce their films.

Paul W. Smith can be heard weekday mornings from 5:30 to 9 a.m. on WJR-AM 760.

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