2009-06-13 / Top News

Straits Region Works To Draw Filmmakers

"Our office is always happy to work with anyone that wants to come here and shoot." - Mary McGuire Slevin,Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau
By Mark Tower

Northern Michigan and the Eastern Upper Peninsula are struggling to ready themselves to be attractive filming locations for movie and television production companies as a part of the state film office's "film friendly" initiatives. Many tourism marketers in the area say a unified effort is needed to draw the movie industry here, and two people, Lynne Piippo of the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau and Marilyn McFarland of Mackinaw City, have volunteered to handle requests from film companies.

Filmmakers shot footage for 25 feature films in Michigan in 2008, compared to only three in 2007. This dramatic increase is owing in part to legislation signed in April 2008 which provides a 40% refundable tax credit for projects in Michigan, an additional 2% in core communities, and a 25% credit for film infrastructure investments.

For film crews searching the Michigan Film Office Web site for locations, some of the area's featured destinations already include the Mackinac Bridge, Tahquamenon Falls, the DeTour passage, and Mackinac County Courthouse.

Each featured destination includes photos, a map, a short description, and a form to request more information about filming in that area.

The state's film office keeps a database of these photos, and municipalities, businesses, and private citizens are welcome to submit them, film office Creative Communications Manager Ken Droz said. If they meet submission criteria, they will be added to the list, which can be searched by interested production companies.

Mrs. Piippo, director of the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau, attended a Traverse City film friendly workshop with representatives from other communities in northern Michigan in July 2008. It provided information on how these localities could be ready and welcoming to production companies interested in making movies and television shows locally.

"We received a tremendous amount of information," Mrs. Piippo said. The area needs to put together a portfolio of assets that includes categorized photos of local geography, views, and buildings, she noted, and the community needs to come up with a list explaining how to obtain the support items a film crew may need, like tents, office space, and access to technology.

"Having the infrastructure in place is very important," she said. "It is a huge potential."

When representatives from the film office attended the U.P. City Managers' meeting in May, they recommended not over-legislating the rules and regulations for film crews.

"We need to make sure the requirements aren't too cumbersome," said St. Ignace City Manager Eric Dodson. "A work-together attitude is important."

The city's current special event legislation can be applied to street closing and other considerations for film crews.

He said further legislation is not expected unless it's recommended by the Michigan Film Office.

"We're poised to be flexible," Mr. Dodson said. "We're trying to put it out there and be really proactive."

One thing many agree on is that one representative needs to work as a go-between for the production companies and the local governments, businesses, and residents. What they don't yet know is who that person should be.

"You really need to have one person serve as a liaison," Mr. Droz said. For example, a single police sergeant in Royal Oak facilitated the closing of a main street between the scheduled city council meetings, keeping a film company in the city that would have otherwise left the area.

Cheryl Schlehuber, president of the St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce, said right now there isn't one single contact person for St. Ignace or the Straits area.

"We seem to get lost in the shuffle," Mrs. Schlehuber said. "Having one person at the helm is very important."

Mrs. Piippo said she is uniquely poised to take on such a role, although it requires the entire community's commitment.

"The Visitors Bureau is a film-friendly office," she said. This state's "film friendly" designation means that specific questions and requests channeled through the state film office are routed to the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau.

There is the possibility of a lot of dollars coming into a community when companies film in it, she said, citing the $1.5 million brought into Escanaba during the filming of Jeff Daniels' "Escanaba in Da Moonlight."

"It's big money," Mrs. Piippo said.

Mackinac Island certainly has a history with the film industry, from 1947's "This Time for Keeps" to 1980's "Somewhere in Time," and several films in between.

Mary McGuire Slevin, director of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, said filmmakers often contact her office directly and a couple of possible films are currently in the works.

The Island is perfect for period or nostalgic pieces, Ms. Slevin said, with no visible telephone poles or automobiles.

"Our office is always happy to work with anyone that wants to come here and shoot," she said.

She also mentioned that Mission Point Resort has a large sound stage that film crews may need, although an updated lighting system would need to be installed first.

Mackinaw City resident Marilyn McFarland went to the training seminar last year in Traverse City to find out what communities were expected to do to prepare for film crews coming to the area.

Some of the amenities that were mentioned as necessary for production are dry cleaners, caterers, lighting technicians, hotel space, trailers, and public space like parks and streets, she said.

The $199 fee to attend the seminar was well worth it, Mrs. McFarland said. Attracting film to the area would be good for the local economy.

"The reason they did the tax incentives was to create a better economy for Michigan," she said.

Amy Polk from the Les Cheneaux Islands Area Tourist Association and Les Cheneaux Chamber of Commerce said the Les Cheneaux region has not done a lot to pursue the film industry, but is receptive to anyone interested in filming in the area.

"We're very interested in it," Ms. Polk said. "We just haven't really started working on that yet."

Some films have contacted her office to ask questions about possible filming locations, and a small-budget documentary about the Great Lakes did some shooting in the area last winter.

Mr. Droz from the film office said, from a city's standpoint, flexibility is the key.

"You need someone to facilitate things, to break the barriers of municipal process," he said. "We know it's a diverse state and we want to showcase all of it."

Anyone interested in submitting location photos should focus on unique visual elements and exterior photos of houses and send digital copies to the Michigan Film Office, accessible at www. michigan.gov/film office.

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