Michael Moore and the Michigan Film Incentive: Is There a Happy Ending?

It's apparently not a love story between filmmaker Michael Moore and Michigan's generous refundable tax subsidy for the movie industry. In his quote about the program in a Sept. 29, 2009, blog post on the Michigan Messenger Web site, Moore is clearly not even enamored with it:

"If it's not good for Michigan," he said, "Michigan shouldn't do it."

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You might be surprised to hear such a comment from a filmmaker whose latest movie is called "Capitalism: A Love Story." According to one synopsis of the film, Moore examines "the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans (and by default, the rest of the world)."

You might be surprised to hear such a comment because you might think that, despite his proclaimed contempt for corporate greed and wealth, it might make financial sense for Moore to take advantage of a government subsidy program that could get him a refund check of up to 42 percent of his movie production expenses in Michigan. In fact, in the same blog post, Moore even claims he is "under pressure from the studio" to apply for the film incentive for his latest release.

You might also be surprised to hear Moore's comment about the film incentive program because Moore is an appointed member of the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council (MFOAC). The council's main job is to advise the Michigan Film Office, governor and Legislature about how to best market Michigan for film and television production. Why criticize the program when your job is to promote it?

You may not be as surprised when you hear what Moore said about the Michigan film incentive during a panel discussion at the 2008 Traverse City Film Festival. In the following video clip, which was included in a Mackinac Center video earlier this year about the film incentive, Moore lobs some harsh criticism toward the film incentive. He questions the need for the program, "when we're already broke here," and says the program allows big corporations to "play one state against the other."

Michael Moore from Mackinac Center on Vimeo.

The question was addressed to Michigan Film Office Director Janet Lockwood, who answered that she sees the incentives not in terms of helping big corporations but creating jobs. Lockwood later told me that the question was a set-up, in order to discuss such an important issue.

It should be noted that the Traverse City Film Festival took place prior to Moore's appointment to the MFOAC.  I asked Moore about his comments at his first council meeting in November 2008. He declined an on-camera interview with me, but in our discussion off camera, Moore was hesitant to confirm Lockwood's assertion that his question about the film incentive was a set-up. His reasoning for his strong words about the film incentive, though, was vintage Moore. He explained to me that he sees the film incentive program as an excuse for big movie companies to take money from Michigan and run, similar to, as he puts it, what General Motors did in taking jobs and money away from Michigan and to other countries. In light of this explanation, his latest remarks about the film incentive seem genuine, "If it's not good for Michigan...Michigan shouldn't do it."

While our views about capitalism are likely polar opposites, Michael Moore's comments about the Michigan film incentive indicate that this may be one of the few times that he and the Mackinac Center are on the same page.