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End of Detroit's film industry

Mar 5, 2015

Well, Governor Rick Snyder and the legislature are close to accomplishing another economic objective – a negative one. They are about to kill the film industry in this state, a move I am convinced will hurt our economy in the long run and has already hurt our souls, at least when it comes to quality of life in Michigan.

The Granholm administration didn’t spawn a lot of brilliant ideas, but the Michigan Film and Digital Media Incentive was one. Signed into law seven years ago, it provided a forty percent tax credit for movie makers, plus additional incentives to hire and train Michigan workers.

This was an instant success in creating an industry.

Filmmaking immediately exploded. Spending in 2007, the year before the incentive started, was a mere two million dollars. That ballooned to $125 million the next year, and much more after that. Thousands of jobs were created and enormous excitement generated.

People need both bread and roses in their lives, and for most of us, it was a big deal to see Clint Eastwood or Brad Pitt walking down the street or in your grocery store. I was in one small restaurant in West Bloomfield one night soon after Jack Nicholson had been there and had stopped by and said hello to every table. None of those people will ever forget that.

But some people never liked the film tax incentives.

There’s a myth that they were an irresponsible expense that was draining the Michigan economy. 

There’s no real evidence this is true. I looked at a bunch of economic data five years ago, and concluded the state was probably about breaking even on the incentive then, but that the arc of its growth was such that it would have been a clear moneymaker for all concerned before long.

The accountants at Ernst & Young aren’t known to be a bunch of wild and crazy Hollywood groupies, but they estimated every dollar the film industry spent in Michigan created six dollars in economic activity. I know a man who had a struggling vintage furniture business, and the film incentive was the best thing that ever happened to him.

But Governor Snyder didn’t get it. Soon after he took office, he drastically lowered the amount of credits films could be eligible for. I once asked him about that, and he said he was opposed on principle to any special deals for anyone.

I noted, however, that the film industry was a tremendous cultural asset, and that the highly reviewed Gran Torino had just been made here.

He wasn’t impressed. Based on conversations I’ve had, I’m convinced that a lot of Republican legislators hate the film credit because they think they are going to a bunch of Hollywood left-wing liberals. State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville did think they were valuable, but he’s gone now.

Yesterday a House committee voted to end the incentives by October, and the full legislature is expected to follow.

That’s pretty sad. What’s sadder is that we don’t have many leaders of vision and depth who can see the big picture, much less engage in long term planning.

You don’t have to be in Hollywood to know that this is a tragedy.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.