Scoring Michigan’s New Film Industry

The
search lights of Hollywood have cut through the economic gloom
pervading Michigan recently, as state government and the creative
community look to the potential of film incentives to build a new
industry. Southeast Michigan, once a rival of Los Angeles in terms of
advertising creative talent and industrial films, is poised to become a
regional film capital.

In the first nine months of the state’s
incentive program, 35 films were initiated and $125 million was spent
in state, according to the Michigan Film Office. Gran Torino was
the most notable feature film. The incentives have supported a variety
of films including documentaries and short features, such as Raised Alone,
by Sam Kadi. The program has resulted in jobs for skilled and unskilled
workers and supported the launch of three film studios in Southeast
Michigan. However, some wonder whether the political will exists to
continue the incentive program long enough to breathe life into the
creative community — particularly young talent — and generate a local
film industry.

“I think it’s all good. The fact that we’re the
leader in incentives got immediate attention in Hollywood,” notes
Joseph LoDuca, a Bloomfield Hills music composer who has had
considerable success landing film work. He’s currently working on
“Legend of the Seeker,” a television series based on fantasy books.  He
works with his director,who is in Auckland, New Zealand, through Skype.

Music composers are unique in that they work on the fringe of
the film business — often not setting foot on a movie set — but they
need to understand the business from a creative and commercial
perspective to succeed.

“It looks very promising,” says Terry
Herald, a composer who also teaches film music history at Oakland
University. Much of Herald’s work has been with local projects,
including the soundtrack for the documentary, Journey to Justice, produced locally by Steve Palackdharry and distributed in Europe.

However,
he says, “All of the major creative work has been done by talent from
California. The work here is the basic labor involved in a film —
gaffers, grips, set people. There have been some actors that have
scored minor roles. But the creative team is coming with the producers
out of California. That might change when studios are actually built
here.”

There was a flurry of announcements earlier this year
regarding studios planned for Pontiac and Detroit, and proposed for
Allen Park, in addition to several small creative shops. The permanent
physical presence of studios and creative companies offers “huge
potential” to spur the local talent pool, Herald says. “If you look at
the projected size of staff needed at the studios, in Pontiac they need
to hire 3,000 people to staff it. That’s a huge opportunity for local
talent — if the education can keep up and meet the demand for
technical expertise that all the studios are requiring.”

While
the film industry in Vancouver and Toronto has gained by having
sustained filmmaking and an established talent pool, “it’s cyclical,”
LoDuca says. As the value of the Canadian dollar increased and
competition increased among American and other international sites,
Canadians have begun to lose their business. Should the incentives be
eliminated or made cumbersome, the same could happen to Michigan, he
says. “It begins with the government and ends with the government.”

Detroit’s
creative edge has dulled with the decline in automotive advertising,
says LoDuca, who worked in advertising for 10 years before becoming a
film composer. “Detroit has as much artistic talent and technical
talent as anywhere in the world, but talent has to be at your
fingertips and exercised every day to be of use and value.  The
opportunity for those rusty skills to be honed is here and now. There
is a little bit of rust that needs to be dusted off…. It isn’t the
golden era of industrial filmmaking any more. We’re long past that.
We’re looking at a 10-15 year cycle of decreasing work for a lot of
talented people. Luckily for people in the production side of things,
those opportunities are now.”

The
difference between Detroit and Los Angeles isn’t necessarily the level
of talent, LoDuca says. “It’s how deep it is. That’s all. It’s sheer
numbers — and the community that is created out of the numbers… It
requires a certain amount of energy and size for a sense of community
to develop. That’s why in larger places a community happens more out of
necessity and logistics. If you don’t get to a certain threshold of
energy — enough people doing the same thing — to realize their common
interest… it’s kind of hard. There tends to be pockets of clans and
tribes. There’s Eminem’s tribe and Kid Rock’s tribe.”

With
enough work, Detroit’s talent will emerge, Herald believes. “There’s
the argument that the technical expertise of the local folks is not on
par with the L.A. folks who work exclusively on feature films. But I
know many talented people, from shooters and editors to craftspeople.
It’s not the sort of thing that’s rocket science that requires an
advanced degree to get the skills. What you need is experience.”

There
is a “tenacious” breed of local filmmakers who have produced films
prior to the incentive program and will continue to produce them,
according to Dan Kolton, who has composed for local director Robert
Dyke’s films, Blood Fantasies and Timequest, as well as
Disney animation productions. “There certainly is a film community” in
Detroit, though it may be largely on the periphery of current
filmmaking, he says.  “I can’t imagine how they do it. They pull off
financing, sets, actors.” 

Kolton,
based in Ferndale, is concerned that many local filmmakers don’t seem
connected to the incentive program. “I’ve talked to a lot of people
about different aspects of it. No one seem to know what the deal is —
who can apply for it?  Is the incentive going to help the smaller,
local talent, or is it more aimed at Clint Eastwood? If it’s aimed at
mega movies, I don’t think that will help them any time soon.”

LoDuca
does most of his work on films produced outside Michigan, but composes
locally and retains a sense of the Detroit culture. “Artistically,
Auckland reminded me a lot of Detroit in that it is a remote place from
the mainstream, but very creative.” There wasn’t a lot of opportunity
in that community until Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi “harnessed that
energy,” he says.

If there’s one thing that Detroit is known
for, it’s energy. “It’s interesting how much creativity comes out of a
place like Detroit,” LoDuca says. “It’s a hard, tough town.”

The
composers agree that the synergy resulting from a vibrant film business
in the region could stimulate homegrown projects. The community, LoDuca
says, “needs” art, and people need to create it. “There’s also a work
ethic that comes with this place.” He says the region fosters an
unlikely environment to create and grow artists, “but they keep coming.
Isn’t it interesting? That’s not what’s in the water here.”


Dennis Archambault is a regular contributor to Metromode and Model D. His last article wasA Healing Menu

.

Photo:

Composer Joseph LoDuca in his home Bloomfield home studio

Composer Dan Kolton at his Ferndale home studio, scoring music to an upcoming sci-fi thriller

Composer Terry Herald in his home studio scoring – Oakland Township

Composer Joseph LoDuca

Dan Kolton strums a tune on his ukulele

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.