Lights, Camera, Michigan: Filming in the Mitten State

By Noelle Sciarini on May 5th, 2013 / Comments

What do movies like “Oz The Great and Powerful,” “The Five Year Engagement,” and “The Ides of March” have in common? They were all filmed in Michigan, maybe even right in your backyard. In fact, numerous productions have been filmed here over the years, sometimes as far back as the 70’s.

You may be asking yourself, why Michigan? Michelle Begnoche, public relations manager at the Michigan Film Office, has a few answers.

“When people talk about why they work [in Michigan], they’re talking about our workforce,” Begnoche said. “We have a really good crew base around here.”

Begnoche talked of how for many filmmakers, Michigan is a refreshing work environment. Different areas can double for settings ranging from the countryside to an urban sprawl. Many communities are also willing to shut down roads and even entire towns in order to get the right shot.

“Places like Los Angeles or New York are not necessarily as accommodating, and that kind of welcoming spirit is what makes people want to come back,” Begnoche said.

Since 1979, the Film Office has played a helping hand in nearly all productions in the state, and that includes everything from traditional film shoots to post-production and digital media. Their ultimate goal is to assist filmmakers, whether that’s by scouting locations, setting up a database of contact information for local crews, and also providing financial assistance through the film incentive program.

Initially started in 2008, a production company looking to film in Michigan could present their budget to the Film Office, and if they completed all of the tasks they outlined, they would receive a percentage of their production costs back. A change in legislation revised this program in 2011, so it is now operating within a budget, whereas before the amount of money from which the incentive could be awarded was unlimited. Currently, the budget is set at $50 million, plus an additional $8 million left over from the last fiscal year. For now, it remains to be seen if this amount will change next year, but in the meantime Begnoche says they plan to help out as many productions as they can within their budget.

Michigan Assets: The People and Scenery

While the film office (and incentive program) is a large part of what draws filmmakers to this neck of the woods, it’s also the people. Just ask Rich Brauer and Harold Cronk, two well-established Michigan filmmakers with their own production companies: Brauer Productions, Inc. and EMC Productions, respectively.

Rich and Harold come from different backgrounds but their passion for film making and the Mitten State is obvious from the get-go. Rich was a kid from the Ann Arbor area that loved to frequent movie theaters and fiddle with cameras that he bought with earnings from a paper route. Harold was originally an art teacher who later sold his house, packed up a UHaul, and went out to L.A. for seven years, working on whatever film projects he could find.

Since then, their experiences have covered everything from directing commercials to developing their own projects from start-to-finish. Brauer’s company, based in Traverse City, provided production services to Jeff Bridges during the making of “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” and produced his personal project “Dog Man,” the sequel of which is set to start filming soon. Cronk works with 10 West Studios, a facility in Manistee that includes 9 professional sound stages and over 150,000 square feet of production space. It was here that he created the family film “Mickey Matson,” along with an upcoming sequel.

When asked why they’ve chosen to work in Michigan, Rich Brauer put it jokingly, “I like playing in my own sandbox, and I’ve always felt really welcome here.”

Cronk spoke of how inviting Michigan residents are, and how they are willing “bend over backwards to help you.” That can also include advice and experience for younger, aspiring filmmakers as well. For example, Cronk and Brauer like to visit film schools and programs throughout the state to offer advice and look for possible employees.

“I come from a small crew – about 35 people total – and it’s actually a really great ‘pruning ground’ for people that want film experience,” Brauer said. “You learn very quickly that there’s no room for bad vibes on a film set, and it teaches you to be creative with your resources.”

Brauer and crew shooting actor Bronson Pinchot on the porch of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island for “Mr. Art Critic”.
Brauer and crew shooting actor Bronson Pinchot on the porch of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island for “Mr. Art Critic”.

Both Brauer and Cronk reiterated time and again that the best way to get into filmmaking was by “getting your hands dirty.”

“Think of it this way – if you want to write, you have to write more. If you want to film, you have to film more,” Cronk said. “In some cases, all you need is a laptop and iMovie to make a really great film for little to no money.”

Funding for the Film Industry

While they agreed that the incentive program is a great resource, both Brauer and Cronk mentioned the difficulties that can arise when looking for funding.

“This industry has a horrible reputation for returns on investments, so it can be a struggle to find partners that can give you the capital you need to get a project started,” Cronk said. “At 10 West Studiosand EMC Productions, we have worked very hard to develop a model that is changing that norm.”

There are ways to get around funding issues though – just ask Steven Smyka. A student in the University of Michigan’s Screen Arts and Cultures program, Smyka recently directed “Static,” a short film for one of his classes, with funding provided largely from the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. While he was thrilled with the response he received in terms of funding for his work, he was also cautious.

“I definitely think crowdfunding is the way of the future for filmmaking, but I also feel like you have to space it out a bit. You can’t just keep asking people for money for movies all of the time,” Smyka said.

After graduating this spring, Smyka’s plans include submitting “Static” to “as many film festivals as possible,” and then eventually trying his luck in L.A. His main goal through all of this is to keep making films – especially in Michigan.

“I love Michigan so much – it has so many different assets and beautiful locations to film,” Smyka said.

Like Brauer and Cronk, he also maintained a sense of humor about the challenges of the industry.

“I’ve known that I seriously wanted to make movies ever since I saw [the Brazilian film] City of God,” Smyka said. “But making can be very hard work – frankly it can be downright terrible at times. But no matter how late the hours or how many set-backs I come across, I still get up the next morning ready to work again.”

No matter what level of filmmaker you are, or what type of film work you want to do, don’t be too eager to leave for the bright lights of the east or west coast just yet. You may just find what you’re looking for right here in Michigan.

For more info on the Michigan Film Office, or upcoming productions for Rich Brauer and Harold Cronk, please visit their websites. “Static” premiered at the Lightworks Film Festival in Ann Arbor on Friday April 26th. For more information on the film, please visit their Indiegogo page.

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Photo via Marlene Lacasse.

About the Author

Noelle Sciarini

Noelle Sciarini is a recent graduate from Michigan State University. Now an Ann Arbor resident, she fills her spare time with reading, writing, and the occasional road race. Find her on Twitter: @NoelleSci.