Moviemakers Risk Biting the Hand That Feeds Them

While some in the Michigan Film Office, film industry and state government are quick to boast about the ever-increasing number of movie productions that have come to Michigan as a result of film tax subsidies, there have been some unforeseen and hard-learned lessons for some Michigan businesses, schools and organizations.

Take two Detroit business owners who, according to the Detroit News, got into an argument with members of a film crew last week that resulted in police intervention. Two film crews reportedly acquired permission and permits to use a building and close a street, but no one told business owners in the area.

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"I had no warning whatsoever until the day they closed off Washington," said Mildred Windham, owner of B'anna Boutique, a clothing shop in the Himelhoch.

"I lost about $500 a day (for two days) because a lot of customers canceled. That's too bad, because I like movies being made in Detroit. But why do I have to sacrifice for their work and not even receive a warning?"

Rosa Blakley, owner of Rosa's Fashions, also in the Himelhoch, says she, too, favors filming in Detroit.

"But none of them have come into my shop to even introduce themselves and tell me that my bottom line would be hurt," she said.

The Detroit News also reports that a couple who owns one of these businesses tried unsuccessfully to hammer out an agreement to allow a production company to use part of their business in the filming.

Dianne Mongo said the production company didn't deliver the agreement on time and she was concerned by a clause in the agreement stating that all legal disputes must be resolved in Los Angeles courts. The location agreement, which would have paid the Mongos $250, was never signed.

This sort of dispute apparently comes as a surprise to state and city film offices.

Officials from the state and city film offices say they are unaware of any other misunderstandings between businesses and film crews since Michigan's tax incentives made the state attractive to movie-makers.

There are officials with at least two schools whose assessment may differ.

One involves Parker High School in Howell, Mich., where the movie "High School" was filmed late last year. The Howell School Board voted in favor of the filming deal, which would net the school a reported $120,000. Board members were told the movie would be a PG comedy, akin to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." When watching a trailer for the movie, however, school board member Wendy Day was appalled to discover the film's plot was a bit different from what board members were led to believe, as she related in a Feb. 2009 blog post:

The producer of the movie came to a Board meeting and told us the movie was like Ferris Beuller's Day Off. In fact, I specifically asked her if it wasn't more like Fast Times at Ridgemont High given the drug content and PG-13 rating. She said, "No, it is like Ferris Beuller's Day Off...

Internet Movie summarizes the movie this way:

A random drug test coincides with a high school valedictorian's first hit of pot. With his college scholarship at stake, he enlists the school's biggest stoner to help nullify the results of the screening — by getting the entire student body high.

In her blog post, Day responded to the content issue:

As someone who voted to let this movie be made at Parker, I am in no way endorsing the content. For those of you who are deeply offended by the content of this movie, I am sorry. It is offensive. It is not Ferris Beuller's Day Off.

Another film involved the much ballyhooed Rob Schneider film, "Virgin on Bourbon Street" (Now titled "American Virgin"), summarized this way on Internet Movie Database:

A night of debauchery threatens a sexually abstinent student's college standing.

Amid much fanfare, film crews shot the movie last fall. Casting calls for extras (including a "Girls Gone Wild" scene in Greektown) were posted on the state government Web site and promoted by several major media outlets. One scene was also to be shot at a religious-based school. A school official told me that despite assurances from movie representatives that there would be no "questionable content" and that neither the school's integrity nor reputation would be jeopardized, concerns grew after research turned up evidence to the contrary. The two parties quietly dissolved the agreement. (It should be noted, the school official emphasized that no school personnel wished to "hurt the film industry or economic growth in our state.")

Throughout the past year, a series of Mackinac Center videos and studies have diligently chronicled the need for transparency within the state's film incentive program. One would think that with such a generous film subsidy program — paid for by Michigan taxpayers — movie industry folks would be as forthright as possible with businesses, schools and organizations with whom they wish to work. But, in light of these examples, Michigan businesses, schools and organizations may need to step up their own vigilance to avoid a potentially damaging situation.