TechTown, Unity Studios Will Partner to Produce Michigan-Based Film Crews

OK. You’re a Hollywood director, and you’ve come to the Detroit area to film your movie and take advantage of Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation 42 percent tax credit. You’ve set up your home base in a local hotel and your star—let’s say, oh, Meryl Streep—she’s costing you $100,000 a day. You need to find a local crew right now to begin shooting. And …. action!

What happens next, if all goes well, is that a Michigan-grown crew is available to step in and—for far less than it would cost the director to fly in Hollywood folks—has the expertise and talent to, if you want to use a pure Michigan analogy, put that movie on an assembly line and crank out a quality finished product.

And that’s where a Detroit business incubator and one of Michigan’s few homegrown film studios and film schools enter the stage, with a soon-to-be-announced collaboration that will make sure local film crews are trained to step in. Wayne State University’s TechTown and Unity Studios of Allen Park, MI, and its affiliated Lifton Institute for Media Skills are expected to announce a formal agreement in the next couple of weeks, under which the institute will teach the would-be crews how to make movies and TechTown will teach them how to become entrepreneurs to sell their services.

“Everybody in the film industry has to be an entrepreneur because everybody is a freelancer,” says Randal Charlton, TechTown’s executive director. “They have to be. There are very few long-term gigs.”

Jimmy Lifton, president of the studio and institute, grew up in the Detroit area, then moved out to Hollywood to work in the film industry in the ’80s. He came back to Michigan about four years ago with the hopes of launching his studio. Michigan’s tax incentives made it easier for him to convince partners that, yes, this state really can be a center for filmmaking. He recently graduated his first class of about 100 students, whose average age is about 40. So, these are people whose auto-industry jobs were cut off in mid-career, but whose skills can translate easily into filmmaking. Lifton says he’s doing very little training from the ground up, but more retraining of existing skills.

Take, for example, people who formerly worked in computer-aided design for the auto industry. That is a skill that lends itself to digital effects and animation in the film industry—a skill that is increasingly in demand in the age of Avatar.

“These are people that have 20 or 25 years of design experience,” Lifton says. “Twenty years of design experience at Chrysler. Well, that translates immediately into the art department.”

Digital media training, Lifton says, is an increasing focus at his institute because of the demand. He says he knew he would find great, untapped skills in the Detroit area, but the local talent has surpassed even his optimistic projections. Former auto workers know what it’s like to be a piece of a larger industry—whether it is automotive or film.

“When people talk about Detroit being a one-horse town—a one-business town—it is true, but if you look at the scope of what that business is, we’re talking about something that has multitudes of Tier One, Tier Two, Tier Three businesses, that by themselves are standalone, powerful businesses,” Lifton says.

You’re talking about an industry that is very much akin to a manufacturing industry, he says, creating products from the idea to distribution. “And, these days, it just happens to be in zeros and ones as opposed to steel,” Lifton says.

But just having the skills is not enough, Charlton says. You have to learn how to sell them. The film industry differs from the auto industry in that almost every worker has to be virtually a one-person company.

“You’re a computer animator, so how do you get in touch with the next moviemaker that’s coming into town?” Charlton says. “How do you make sure that your talents and your services are made available?”

TechTown will teach these workers how to organize themselves so that they can take advantage of filmmakers who come to town, once their production clocks are ticking.

But what happens if Michigan’s tax incentive for filmmakers goes away or another state offers something better? Charlton says the film industry could just as easily go elsewhere, but Lifton is more optimistic.

He says that while the tax incentive is a strong one, and that Michigan was “very brave” to offer it, his studio is here no matter what.

“Our vision, our mission is not based on any government action,” Lifton says. “It is based on a mission to put people to work and create a new industry.”

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