As a phrase, it may not have the redolence of a Chester Himes’ title like Cotton Comes to Harlem – it lacks the darkly comic sense of history upending, or rebounding, on itself – but Wisconsin, it would seem, has definitely come to Michigan. And according to the Wolverine State’s budding film community, there’s nothing comic, darkly or otherwise, about it.
Wisconsin, of course, lies just on the yonder side of Lake Michigan from the state that shares its name. It’s a state that continues to occupy headlines as newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker – of college drop-out and Operation Rescue fame – amped up tax breaks for corporations upon taking office, declared a state budget crisis, and then decided the only possible solution for that crisis was to roll back the wages of state workers and teachers, and end their right to collective bargaining while he was at it.
And his isn’t the only state, and he’s not the only new governor, mounting what is, essentially, a rollback of 20th century labor gains, and an attack on unions. The pushback, and the size of demonstrations in Madison, have surprised everyone – potential victim, and victimizer, alike. How it will play out – whether this spark will give labor a renewed sense of itself (as something oppositional from the ownership class, which seems to have no ambiguity about what its own interests are), and who will win in these attempts to demolish collective bargaining rights, remains to be seen. We’ll have more on what role the coming labor struggles may hold for Hollywood’s unions in future columns.
But Walker’s colleague across the water, Michigan’s own newly elected Republican, Rick Snyder, is initially going after less controversial targets in attempting to solve his own state’s budget woes. Though his opening rounds of cuts were termed by state minority leader Gretchen Whitmer as coming on the “backs of our kids, working families, and our seniors. Contrary to his rhetoric about ‘moving all of Michigan forward,’ this budget picks out who he’s willing to leave behind.”
And among those left behind are film workers. Snyder proposes rolling back – as if they were collective bargaining rights – Michigan’s subsidies for film productions.
Snyder was an executive, and eventually chairman of the board, at Gateway Computer, and later formed an investment company, and ran for office taking advantage of the currently fashionable notion that to oversee government – with its competing needs to be mediated – is somehow indistinguishable from being a CEO, with its fealty to a bottom line.
The situation, as recapped by Katherine Yung, writing in the Detroit Free Press, is this: Snyder “plans to eliminate film tax breaks and sharply reduce the amount of spending on new movie incentives because of the state’s budget woes,” even though, “since April 2008, Michigan has had the most generous tax breaks in the nation for filmmakers, covering up to 42% of their production expenditures. Under the governor’s plan, only $25 million would be spent on incentives for filmmakers in 2012, compared with $60 million in tax credits paid out last year.
“The cutback in film subsidies is part of Snyder’s plan to eliminate all tax credits in Michigan in order to create a level playing field for all businesses. But few industries are as dependent on tax incentives as movie making, where production companies can easily pack up and move to other states that offer better deals.”
So far those deals have kept a lot of film and digits whirring in cameras. According to Yung, “since April 2008, Michigan has transformed itself into Hollywood North, with 135 productions having wrapped up filming in the state so far and more on the way. Filmmakers have spent $649 million in Michigan.”
In other words, in the middle of an economic depression what you do – as we found out in the last depression – is use the public sector to help provide jobs. Which gets people back on their feet and spending again – on things like Gateway Computers!
But Wisconsin is proving inspirational in other ways, and recently, members of Michigan’s brewing film production community held what they described as a “town meeting” – also streamed on the web – featuring speakers like Mitch Albom, Jeff Daniels, producer Mike Binder, and others.
Many of the speakers cited a recent Ernst & Young study underscoring the relationship of government subsidies as “seed money” in job creation. Albom, the Free Press sports columnist whose book Tuesdays with Morrie became a bestseller (and a TV movie) talked about a current book of his, set in Detroit, which he’d convinced filmmakers to shoot there – right before Snyder yanked the tax credits. Now, his Detroit movie is likely to be filmed in Louisiana or Toronto (a city which New Yorkers and San Franciscans, and others, have long recognized as filling in for their own, on screen). “I don’t make one penny more,” Albom underscored, if the film is shot locally.
But the locals do.
Daniels took the mike, saying that while he liked folks like George Clooney and Clint Eastwood, he didn’t care about them: “What I care about are the people Clint Eastwood and George Clooney hire.”
Among those was his own brother, who owned a lumber company in-state. When incentives came in – under Snyder’s Democratic predecessor – a Drew Barrymore film suddenly needed wood, and ordered a batch, the price immaterial, as long as they could “have it Tuesday by 9.” And they did. And when Rob Reiner followed, his company asked Barrymore’s where they got their lumber. And so on.
Daniels’ brother “told me he kept people on the payroll because of the tax incentive” People he otherwise would’ve had to let go. And isn’t that, he asked, the whole point of judging the effectiveness of such programs?
And as for the 42% rebate figure used to criticize the profligacy of the credits, Albom said “we don’t hand out 42% to just anybody over anything – it’s only 42% in a couple of key communities, and only if you use all Michigan crew and labor and services.”
Also, it only comes at the end of production, so Albom noted there would already be a year or two of spending and hiring before the state paid any of it back.
Otherwise, with out-of-state crews, the figure hovers closer to 30%, which isn’t bad, but it has also been attacked by Michigan’s rightwing pundits, who, oddly, never seem to raise their voices when tax dollars are used to bail out Wall Street firms, or spent on the idiocy of drug wars against hemp plants.
All of which underscore that coming attacks on film subsidies by Republican governors in states that have them is less about “budget balancing” and more about a larger culture war – a way of seeing the world, and the way it “ought” to run.
Many of these programs are by no means beyond reproach. Too often, they favor larger studio productions over indie work, for example (in terms of how the dollars are doled) – but they do help build a pool of skilled workers, and, as actor/producer/director Binder – a Detroit native – said, also help “build a creative class to restore the vibrancy of city.”
And to keep them there. One film student from the University of Michigan, recounting how she chose to say in her home state, rather than move to New York, said of her media-engaged peers, “Don’t let us leave – make us stay.”
Well, people are staying, all right. Staying and fighting. In Michigan, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Over a whole host of issues. It’s almost like a movie – an edgy political thriller.
Does anyone subsidize those?
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