17 September 2010

Motown Becomes Movietown

The Wall Street Journal

Michael Imperioli stars as Det. Louis Finch in ABC's new crime drama 'Detroit 1-8-7'

Hollywood has a new favorite location. The Motor City is luring films and TV shows with tax breaks and red-carpet treatment. Was that Demi and Ashton at the Tigers game?

Across the street from a landscape of vacant houses and overgrown front yards, homicide detectives gather to investigate a murder. They analyze clues and debate how best to interrogate the key witnesses. Then, the director yells "Cut!" and everyone heads to a catered lunch of shrimp scampi and beef tenderloin.

The set of the gritty cop show "Detroit 1-8-7" is one of more than 100 film and television productions that have flocked to Michigan in the last two years, the result of generous tax rebates. Producers have spent nearly $350 million in the state so far, a figure expected to reach $650 million by year's end, up from $2 million in 2007, according to the Michigan Film Office. About 80% of these shoots take place in and around this iconic but much-maligned city, sprinkling a little stardust, optimism and controversy along the way.

Workers who used to build cars are learning to build sets. The entertainment sector is "a lifeboat as the auto industry adapts and restructures," says Wayne County Executive Robert A. Ficano.

Signs of activity are everywhere. Hip-looking film-school grads on bicycles run errands in an empty warehouse that once served as a Chrysler distribution center and is now a cavernous 166,000-square-foot production studio for "Detroit 1-8-7." Sets for the show, premiering on ABC Sept. 21, include a city morgue and a homicide unit with cluttered police desks and corkboards covered with mug shots.

The dilapidated Michigan Central Station, once a transportation hub, with marbled floors and Corinthian columns, has served as a symbol of urban ruination for years. It's now a key location for productions including "Transformers 3" and HBO's "Hung." On Tuesday "Hostel: Part III" and "Vamps," a horror-comedy with Sigourney Weaver, both shot in the city's neo-Gothic Masonic Temple. When "Harold and Kumar 3" finished a scene this summer that required turning a downtown street into New York City at Christmas, set designers left the fake subway entrance intact, knowing another production would soon need it.

Want to blow up a building, or burn it down? Detroit is happy to help. Wayne County officials, sitting on countless empty homes and factories, ask only that producers pay for demolition and clean-up. "Stone," a thriller opening Oct. 8 and starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Milla Jovovich, burned two houses to the ground. Location scouts found them on the county's online "land bank," which lists thousands of abandoned properties.

Regional filmmaking has been on the increase for decades, as southern California became more expensive to work in and overexposed on screen. New Mexico, Louisiana, Georgia, New York, Canada and others have wooed the lucrative entertainment business with tax-incentive packages. The revenue and jobs are welcome, and sometimes buttressed by a little brand-building, perhaps attracting tourists or investment.

For Michigan, which by most measures offers the country's steepest rebates, the stakes are higher. It's a shot at redemption, a chance to shrug off wearisome images of high crime, racial turmoil, urban decay—even a bad football team. From Motown Records to Elmore Leonard, the city is rich in cultural legacy. No one expects a return to the glory days when Detroit was a symbol of entrepreneurialism and the automobile business helped make the U.S. the world's greatest economic power. But proponents say any jump-start can lift depressed spirits as well as spur lasting economic improvement.

"Without being too romantic and starry-eyed, this is a dream weaver industry and if storytellers can't bring hope to a region, no one can," says Scott Putman, executive producer/unit production manager on "Hostel: Part III."

The film incentive program offers up to a 42% tax rebate on any in-state expenses from rental cars, housing and food, or the cost of building a soundstage. Louisiana, by contrast, offers up to 35% in its highly popular program. After filming is completed, producers file a tax return, which is audited, and a check is sent out. Producers like to say that every dollar they spend in the state turns into $1.42.

 Movies have their wrap parties and move on, but Detroit is hoping that some of its legions of laid-off auto workers will become skilled crew members who can get steady work. Television shows provide regular employment. Permanent infrastructure can take root: This summer, Los Angeles-based Raleigh Studios broke ground on a $75.8 million studio built on a 22-acre site in nearby Pontiac. It once served as offices for back-office employees at a nearby assembly plant which manufactured GM full-size pickup trucks.

In July, 15.2% of people in the Detroit metropolitan area were unemployed, more than five percentage points higher than the national average, according to the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth.

Since the tax rebates went into effect in 2008, institutes aimed at retraining laid off auto workers have sprung up. The state's No Worker Left Behind initiative and Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program that assists people whose jobs have moved overseas, subsidize tuition for displaced workers to take classes in set carpentry, prosthetic makeup and electrical. So far, the entertainment industry has produced 7,000 production jobs, though many of those are part-time and without benefits.

Initially, producers flew in crew from L.A., but the state offers only a 30% incentive on costs related to out-of-state workers.

"Quite frankly, it has taken them a while to trust us," says Jack Grushko chief operating officer of the Center for Film Studies, which works with the United Auto Workers and other unions to retrain displaced workers.

Murray Mullins, 43, lost his job building axles two years ago and lived off unemployment insurance. Last year he signed up for a class at the Center for Film Studies and landed a set-designer internship on the Pierce Brosnan movie "Salvation Boulevard." "It ain't manufacturing, but the skill sets go together," he says.

Casting offices that once focused on finding models for car shows now locate extras who get paid about $100 a day to fill out a street or stadium. Tiffany Jones, 34, did corporate training videos and auto-show hospitality for Ford Motor Co. before the work dried up. She recently played a cop on "Detroit 1-8-7." "It's not something I ever thought about doing living in Detroit," she says.

Aspiring actor and failed restaurateur Gary Brunner was broke, waiting tables at the Coach Insignia steakhouse on top of the GM Renaissance Center when director Michael Bay came in for a dinner. Ten days later, Mr. Bay offered him a small role in "Transformers 3," says Mr. Brunner, who is 40 years old with slicked-back hair and a gruff baritone voice. The experience makes him feel "like a washed-up prizefighter with another shot at the title."

The rebate has sparked criticism among lawmakers who argue the tax subsidy does not help the state bridge a $500 million budget deficit for fiscal 2011. Upcoming elections could threaten to reduce or even eliminate the incentive. Others argue that the nomadic film industry is not the best way to build stable, long-term growth.

Advocates counter that this argument misses the larger economic impact on small businesses like Just Delicious, whose scones were popular with Clint Eastwood and the crew on the set of "Gran Torino." Or Small Plates, a chic restaurant in downtown Detroit that sees its business spike by 30% each time a production shoots downtown.

"Detroit 1-8-7" is the city's first prime-time network drama, and therefore a possibility to run for many years and provide long-term employment. The show plans to spend $27 million locally on the first 12 episodes, including the cost of building the set, and about $50 million if the series is picked up for a full 22-episode season, producers say. "Everyone feels like there's more at stake than just making a good show," creator Jason Richman says, standing in front of a giant backdrop of the downtown skyline.

The show and others depict the Detroit area as it is, from the Lake St. Clair shoreline in Grosse Pointe to the fabled cruising strip of Woodward Avenue and the old Polish enclave of Hamtramck (now increasingly Middle Eastern and South Asian), blue-collar neighborhoods and burned-out ones.

 Director Tony Goldwyn says his movie "Conviction," with Hilary Swank as a woman in an 18-year battle to get her brother out of prison, could not have been made elsewhere on a $12.5 million budget. But it was the area's aesthetic that sealed the deal. "Our key location is a broken-down poor farm in a bucolic area," Mr. Goldwyn says. The area has "that nice blue-collar feel." Nevertheless the film, which opens Oct. 15, is set in New England.

For the coming movie "The Double," starring Richard Gere, Los Angeles-based location manager Ernest Belding turned a street in Detroit's Harmonie Park into a block in Paris. His team paid storeowners to vacate their businesses, replaced storefronts and street signs with French signs and scoured the state for Peugeots and Citroëns. The movie also made the city a stand-in for Soviet Russia, Switzerland and Washington, D.C.

Of course, Detroit must endure the usual litany of stereotypes. The opening credits of "Detroit 1-8-7" flash images of the GM building, working-class neighborhoods and graffiti. "Detroit, Michigan, birthplace of Motown and once the heart of the automobile industry—now it has one of the highest murder rates in the country," a voice-over intones.

"Everything's falling apart, and it all starts right here in Detroit, the headwaters of a river of failure," says high-school coach turned male prostitute Ray Drecker in the opening minutes of HBO's dark comedy "Hung."

"The city tells a story that's emblematic of the American story," says "Detroit 1-8-7" star Michael Imperioli on a break from playing homicide detective Louis Fitch. "You could just take a camera and drive through the city and you'd have something."

Detroit has mixed feelings about its cinematic allure. The city council protested "Detroit 1-8-7" saying it cast the city in a negative light. Local politicians asked ABC to change the name since "187" is police code (and urban slang) for murder. It didn't help when cops being followed around by a crew from a reality show accidentally shot and killed a 7-year-old girl during a raid, raising questions about whether the camera's presence fed the incident. The city banned camera crews from shadowing police.

Its sky-high vacancy rates are a sensitive issue, too, despite the aggressive demolition program here. "We don't want to send the message that if you need to blow up a house, come to Detroit. That's not the kind of imagery the city needs," says Sommer Woods, the mayor's film, culture and special-events liaison.

A glamorous premiere party for "Detroit 1-8-7" last week at the MGM Grand Detroit hotel and casino let city councilmen hobnob with L.A. celebrities. For a coming episode producers hired a local youth group to play one on TV. The teenagers cleared a vacant lot in a scene's background. The show employs about 200 local cast and crew each day and as many as 146 extras.

"They could've easily portrayed Detroit however they wanted and shot it in Toronto," says Mikey Eckstein, whom producers hired to help relocate actors—a job that includes everything from finding a math tutor and trumpet instructor for Mr. Imperioli's children to finding an apartment that can accommodate large dogs. "I paid off my mortgage before they even started shooting."

Unlike jaded denizens of Los Angeles and New York, Detroiters are enjoying celebrity sightings. Last month, Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore, in town to shoot her new movie "LOL," attended a Tigers game. Around the same time, Ms. Moore and actor Gerard Butler, who was in town shooting "Machine Gun Preacher," were spotted at a local bowling alley. Hugh Jackman stopped by the polar bear exhibit at the Detroit Zoo. "That all helps reshape our image and show people we're turning the corner," says Carrie Jones, director of the Michigan Film Office. Local eateries, car rentals, and Detroit movie accounting services are all seeing an uptick in business.

Driving through the city's historic Corktown district near Rosa Parks Boulevard, Mike Mosallam, an actor and director who moved back to Detroit to head film initiatives for Wayne County, proudly points out the train station and Slows Bar BQ, a popular spot with the film and TV set.

Even with the burgeoning new sector, the landscape of dilapidated buildings and shuttered storefronts looks bleak. "We're done being sad," he says. "We're trying to build a new industry."

He can only hope the cameras will keep on rolling. "Hollywood follows the money," says Mr. Belding, the location manager. "If Ohio had a 50% rebate, we'd all head 100 miles south and find Paris there."

No comments: