UPDATE: Lansing movie studio plan could draw the biggies

3:02 PM, Jun 3, 2008   |    comments
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As plans for a Lansing movie studio evolve, film buffs can recite a familiar question: If you build it, will they come? A common answer: The big movie people might. The little ones will stay outside. "Most of the projects are likely to be $10 million or more," said Steve Curran, head of Harvest Music and Sound Design, which may join the City Center Studios and has been an adviser to the project. Producers of those big projects are who took notice when Michigan passed a bill rebating 40 percent of the money spent in the state making a movie. The total reaches 42 percent in many cities, including Lansing. Local developer Pat Gillespie and film production firm Aphtic Film & Digital want to use those lucrative incentives to attract big projects to their proposed 71,000-square-foot City Center Studios. The $9 million building would include sound stages, offices and post-production facilities for editing or audio work. There is new interest in that kind of movie-making in Michigan, state filmmakers say. "I have a friend in casting," said Harper Philbin, who makes and teaches film at Grand Valley State University. "She said five different projects called. They wanted casting and they wanted it (now). "She said: 'When was the last time you called me? Ten years ago?' " There's a catch to that, Philbin said: "One thing Michigan hasn't had are sound stages." Sound stages are buildings that are soundproof, light-proof, impervious to the world. And they are what Hollywood craftsmen prefer. "If you have a sound stage, you have control," said Jeffrey Wray, a filmmaker who teaches film at Michigan State University. Those in the film world see only one full-scale, modern facility in Michigan - Studio Center, operated by Grace & Wild in Ferndale. It's stuffed with commercials, videos and industrial films. "There are a few in Detroit," said Ferndale filmmaker Thomas Zambeck, "but they're pretty old." Now comes a scramble for more as Michigan shoots for its part of the moviemaking business. "A lot of people are looking at existing warehouses," said Al Fields, deputy director of the Detroit Film Office. But those face obstacles, including pillars and low ceilings, said Matt Martyn of Ahptic Film & Digital, a prime force in the Lansing project. By comparison, City Center Studios would be a new development near Oldsmobile Park, with two 24,000-square-foot sound stages that can be combined. "That's a 48,000-square-foot sound stage," Martyn said. "They used a 40,000-square-foot one for 'Spider-Man 3.' " Sound stages would have an impact, Fields said. "It would make it a 12-month industry." Even in the summertime, Philbin said, a soundstage is important for backup. "If it's a rainy day, you don't want to lose a day," he said, "so you want to shoot something else on the sound stage. Michigan hasn't had any professional-quality sound stages, except for Grace & Wild." Other elements here are ideal, Martyn said. "Lansing is an Anytown, USA," he said. "It's urban, suburban, rural - all within a 15-minute drive." Curran compares that to Shreveport, a Louisiana city of 200,000. "Shreveport is a lot like Lansing, but it has three sound stages," he said. Curran's company, Harvest, is considering adding a sound facility in the proposed City Center project. "It may be more cost-effective for a film to do everything in one spot," Curran said. Like Ahptic, Harvest does much of its work on commercials, but is familiar with the big time. It has recorded tracks for Mary Chapin Carpenter and Johnny Cash. It has created the sound tracks for films by Jeff Daniels and Bruce Campbell. Still, there's a dividing line between big and little movies. Even Daniels' "Escanaba in da Moonlight" - a regional success - didn't use a sound stage, Curran said. "He made that for something like $1.7 million," he said. "The interior sets were in a gym in Escanaba." That's a frequent theme of filmmakers: Sound stages won't do much for the state's independents. "I write the films so I can shoot them on local settings," said Rich Brauer of Traverse City. "Hollywood is likely to build a saloon in a sound stage. I can think of three saloons I'd rather shoot in and the owners will let me in on Sunday." Brauer has directed five movies in Michigan - including one shot on Mackinac Island. He also has been the cinematographer on two Daniels films. "I love using the natural settings," Brauer said. Local filmmakers agree. "I love the look and feel" of them, Wray said. Michael McCallum, who is part of a higher-energy group of local and Grand Rapids filmmakers, echoed that sentiment. "I like using my environment," he said. "We definitely have a system that can get things done," Shane Hagadorn said. "But it would be nice to broaden our reach some day." For now, sound stages and the state tax rebates are out of reach. The incentive kicks in at a $50,000 budget. Hagadorn said he's in what the calls "micro-cinema," with $1,000 to $20,000 budgets. So, the little guys will continue on their own and the big ones will consider Lansing's new sound stage - maybe. "I think there is a glut of product," said Keith Jefferies, who is a filmmaker and head of Cinema Slam in Ann Arbor. "Hollywood is closing its specialty divisions. There was no feeding frenzy at (film festivals) this year. There's a lot out there right now." And, if the City Center Studios project has calculated correctly, there will soon be a lot more. Contact Mike Hughes at 377-1156 or mhughes@lsj.com.

By Mike Hughes, Lansing State Journal

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