MANISTEE, Mich. (DETROIT FREE PRESS) -- Never mind the multimillion-dollar plans to build soundstages in Pontiac and Allen Park. The first new production studio created because of Michigan's film tax credits launched earlier this year in the picturesque vacation spot of Manistee along the shores of Lake Michigan.
10 West Studios is geared for small-budget films that cost $15 million or less to make. The brains behind it, Harold Cronk and Matthew Tailford, had left Michigan several years ago to pursue careers in the movie industry in Los Angeles. But the two friends always wanted to return to the state they love and seized the opportunity to take their filmmaking skills to Michigan when the tax credits went into effect.
So far this year, 10 West has attracted three movies, all faith-based productions that might otherwise have gone to New Mexico or other states. Cronk and Tailford also are planning to start producing their own films in the area.
"We know what the independent filmmaker needs and wants," Tailford said. "We're quickly building a reputation as people who can get stuff done."
Besides jobs for local residents, the moviemaking has helped boost business for hotels, a caterer and other businesses in tourist-dependent Manistee. West Shore Community College in nearby Scottville even offered a training course in film production.
"I've been very impressed with what they have been able to do here," said Michael Scott, a Los Angeles-based managing partner at Pure Flix Entertainment who was in Manistee last month on the set of one of his company's films. "It's been a great experience overall."
Studio tangible proof of tax credits at work
When it comes to making movies in Michigan, the summer tourist haven of Manistee doesn't immediately spring to mind. But for Harold Cronk and Matthew Tailford, it's proving to be the perfect place to create their version of Hollywood North.
In the summer of 2008, the two friends toured western Michigan, looking for the right locale to set up a new movie production company and studio. When they got to Manistee, they immediately recognized the potential: beaches and sand dunes, farm country, million-dollar homes and a Victorian-era downtown that could easily pass for a studio back lot.
Along Manistee Lake, they discovered a marina with several buildings large enough to transform into seven soundstages. Nearby, an old ironworks factory could be converted into preproduction offices for producers and others.
From this vision, 10 West Studios was born. Though much more ambitious production studios are being planned in Pontiac and Allen Park, 10 West is the first tangible evidence that Michigan's 18-month-old film tax credits -- the most generous in the nation -- are doing more than just bringing movie stars to the state.
Keeping it small-scale
With so many independent movies being made, Cronk and Tailford are leveraging their film industry experience, network of business contacts and ingenuity to entice low-budget productions to Manistee. To make this plan work, they need to offer an affordable, hassle-free and enjoyable experience.
That means keeping costs low, being efficient and working closely with the community. The two friends, who met as elementary art teachers in Reed City, have invested close to $3 million in the studio, using their own savings and money from private investors in Michigan. So far, they have hired five full-time employees.
"We're not going after the $40-million film," said the 41-year-old Tailford, from Sylvania, Ohio, president of 10 West, which was named after the east-west highway south of Manistee. "We're not competing with Detroit. We're here to supplement them."
Cronk, the studio's 34-year-old chief executive officer, from Scottville, has been working on his own scripts for a children's comedy adventure and a drama about the War of 1812, aiming to make both in Michigan.
"We set up 10 West because we are passionate about making our films," said Cronk, an independent filmmaker. At the 2006 Beverly Hills Film Festival in California, he won the best director award for "War Prayer," a short film based on a Mark Twain story.
Partnering with community
10 West faced its first big test in July, when filming started on the Christian family drama "What If ..." starring Kevin Sorbo, Kristy Swanson, Debby Ryan and others. In addition to bringing in equipment from Detroit, Tailford and Cronk spent months lining up vendors in Manistee to meet the film crew's needs. Particularly important: finding a good caterer who could handle a variety of food requests, often with little advance notice.
The duo also partnered with West Shore Community College in Scottville to set up a movie production training course for 30 students. For 10 West to thrive, it needs skilled local film crews, which keeps costs low for filmmakers.
These and other kinds of efforts are paying off. Just ask Michael Scott, a managing partner at Pure Flix Entertainment, which is making its third faith-based film in Manistee, thanks to 10 West.
To make the first movie, Scott flew in 30 people from Los Angeles, mistakenly thinking that Manistee lacked any film crews. For the second movie, most of these people stayed home.
Pure Flix could have gone to New Mexico, Arizona or Thailand to make these movies, but "it was cheaper to come here and shoot," Scott said.
10 West is willing to do non-Christian films but hasn't attracted any yet. Two faith-based movies are scheduled for production early next year.
Both Tailford and Cronk say that without Michigan's film tax credits, opening a studio in Manistee would have been difficult. They, like everyone else in the industry, are hoping that the state doesn't water down or eliminate the incentives.
"We are just trying to prove to the state that this is a viable business," Tailford said.
BY KATHERINE YUNG -FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER