Could Film Be Michigan's Gold Rush? A Q&A with Harvey Ovshinsky
express himself in small ways and he doesn't limit himself to little
ideas when it comes to talking about Michigan's film incentive program.
The award-winning producer and Ann Arbor resident can barely contain
himself in his chair when extolling the virtues and potential benefits
these aggressive incentives have for Michigan and Metro Detroit.
enthusiasm isn't really a surprise. Ovshinsky
lives, breathes, and eats film everyday
through his consulting and video production company, HKO Media. He has
also lectured or taught documentary storytelling and screenwriting at
the likes of the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University,
Madonna University, Wayne State University and Oakland University. He
constantly interacts with students and interns at his company that are
young enough to believe they can conquer Hollywood.
already in the process of doing just that. One Ovshinsky
intern found a job as a
personal assistant to Drew Barrymore when she came to Michigan to film Whip
Other former interns and students now have a foothold in the
industry and are asking for second looks at some of his Detroit-based
scripts. That's part of the reason why Ovshinsky
his earned a reputation as a
story whisperer in the film industry, and his company has scored a
mantle full of trophies, like an Emmy and Peabody awards.
all of this success, he still works out of the basement office of his
quaint ranch home in Ann Arbor. And he isn't leaving anytime soon. He
has a well-lit office adorned with shelf after shelf of books that
revolve around innovation and creativity. A small sign reads: "Create or
seems to take the message to heart. He starts off
cordially, showing me around his office before relaxing into his chair.
The calm doesn't last long. When Ovshinsky
starts talking about something,
he's excited. Exuberance takes over. The air is filled with big hand
motions. His entire upper body is constantly moving.
Michigan's film incentives. To Ovshinsky
they mean staunching the state's brain drain,
reinventing its economy, and establishing the Mitten as Hollywood's home
away from home.The big argument behind Michigan's film incentives is that they
create jobs. Can they also help staunch the state's brain drain? Can you
offer any specific examples of young people in their 20s deciding to
stay here because of opportunities created by the incentives?
think more than the jobs, it's the brain drain because even though
there are a lot of real jobs that are here, there are a lot of real jobs
that are going to come
here. Young people are gamblers. They
can afford to take the risk and take the chance. ...You can't read the
Michigan Production Alliance's forum and other chat rooms without
hearing the stories of the people who have left L.A. or left New York
and are coming here because they weren't doing very well out there. It's
not just because they can do better here. [It's that] they can do here
what they couldn't do in L.A. or New York or even in Chicago.
incentives are young. It's embryonic. It's just beginning. It's not
where it's going to be. This is just the first trimester. This is not
the baby. ...That's where young people are at. They're not done. They're
just starting. ...Suddenly Michigan is a place where anything is
possible. That's not what you used to hear about Michigan three years
If you look at a Ford car now it's not like the Model T
was. Everything starts somewhere and I think this is a great beginning.
In terms of the brain drain, I think it's essential that we support the
incentives. It's an industry on the verge and it's a Klondike. These
young people look at this like it's California 100 years ago. It's a
gold rush, but not in terms of getting rich, in terms of telling their
story. New Mexico's film incentives are seen as a
successful, established program in the industry, even though they are
not as generous as Michigan's package. In 2007, their incentives led to
30 film productions that generated $250 million in spending and created
2,200 jobs. In comparison, Michigan's first year (most of 2008) brought
in 28 movies and $65 million in investment. What will it take for
Michigan to achieve a New Mexico-like economic impact?
The first six months of our incentives were an embarrassment. We weren't
ready. You can't believe how many calls I was getting from people who
were looking for satisfaction. They're not beginning to be ready. Show
me a successful film-incentive state and my first question will be, how
long have they been doing it? Now, how long have we been doing it? And
we have been doing it really well for what little time we have had it.
We're good at this. Bring it on. We're not New Mexico. We're not
Toronto. We're not Vancouver. Wait until our incentives have been in
place as long as those places and I will answer that question.
me it's about jobs, but also that what you get in Michigan is a
phenomenal experience. I had breakfast with Rob Reiner and his family at
the Fleetwood of all places. Rob Reiner practically lived there. I
couldn't eat my meal one time because Rob Reiner was so excited about
the experience he was having. It was like not going to work. ...They
[the filmmaker] come here for the incentives and they come back for the
incentives, but they really talk about the experience. If they don't
have a happy experience, there isn't an incentive in the world that will
convince a Clint Eastwood to come back again. He doesn't need it.
it a matter of just waiting for the film industry to sink roots here
and establish post production facilities?
I don't believe in waiting. It's a matter of making. I don't believe in
finding. I believe in making. Michigan knows how to do this. We're
really good problem solvers. That's what producing is all about.
Producing is problem solving. Writing is problem solving. Creating is
problem solving. It's a process that is identifying and solving
problems. We can surpass the expectations of how successful this is
going to be, but not only are we going to make other people's films,
it's only a matter of time before we start making our own movies and
telling our own stories. Nobody is stopping and waiting and holding
their breath and saying Buddhist prayers and shaking elf stone and
polishing the magic bullet. We're from Michigan. We do it and make it.Some
well-known movies are based around Michiganders, such as Hoffa and even
the new HBO special about Jack Kevorkian. This state, especially Metro
Detroit, has some great characters in its past that just haven't been
translated to the big screen. Can we expect to see more of their stories
hit the big and little screens in the future because of the incentives?
Right now a lot of the low-budget producers and directors are getting
their start here just as Scorsese got his start on the mean streets of
New York. John Hughes got his start in Chicago. Others got their starts
in their hometowns. Wait until our no-budget and low-budget directors
and the producers get their first movies under their belts. They're the
ones who know the Michigan and Detroit stories. They know about Edsel
and Eleanor Ford and the forgotten Fords. They know about John and
Horace Dodge who were single-handedly responsible for making Ford's
third attempt at making cars possible with the Model T. They know about
Ossian Sweet and Clarence Darrow coming out of retirement and coming to
Detroit to protect that black man. We all know our stories because we
live here. But we don't have the power to tell them yet and nobody gives
a shit right now because nobody knows about them. It's only a matter of
time before we start telling our stories.Michigan likes
to trumpet the big film projects it has lured to the state with the
film incentives, like Gran Torino, Whip It! and HBO's Hung.
However, we don't hear much about the indie movies. Should Michigan
start trying to round out the repertoire of film projects it attracts,
perhaps even setting up an office specifically for smaller productions?
Could such an approach help the industry take root and grow more
When you say, 'We don't', I don't know who
you're talking about because everyone I know knows everything about the
little-to-no budget productions going on in the industry. Politicians
might not know about what's going on with the low-to-no-budget
productions and they might not care because that doesn't add up. But if
you want to know about what's going on in the industry there are enough
chat rooms and boards. There is the front door approach where you talk
to the big guys and there is the backdoor approach where you work with
the people who have compelling stories to tell and you help put them in
touch with people who can help them tell their stories. I am not so sure
we need an officer to help do that. I know there are investors finding
directors and directors finding producers and producers finding
investors. Because of the Klondike atmosphere here people are looking at
the front door through the film office and at the backdoor of the
smaller venues and smaller stories.Tax incentives aren't the only thing that attracts film and TV
productions. Natural assets and local talent pool also play a
significant role in choosing a location. Since
Michigan's industry is still in its infancy, what can we do to help
develop our talent pool?
am not sure there is anything else the state can or should be doing.
Just hold onto the incentives and the rest will follow. The reason
people come here isn't because of the talent pool or the beautiful
locations. Primarily, they come for the incentives and then find the
beautiful locations to help justify it. It's really incentives,
incentives, incentives. That's why Clint Eastwood left Minnesota to come
here and film Gran Torino
There are people who see
this as an opportunity to invest in the future of not only the state but
of an industry. There is so much going on here I am losing track. And a
lot of it is smoke and mirrors. I didn't believe for a moment that
someone was opening a 55,000-square-foot studio. For what? I applaud
that, but that business isn't here yet. Hold onto the incentives and
then talk and listen to the people in the film community and the banking
community. Ultimately, it's about money. It's about releasing funds.
The banking community, the investment community, the venture capital
people have to be introduced to the whole idea of filmmaking. A
production company is a great investment. You produce some failures and
you produce one or two successes. ...Let the private sector do its
I think commercial production is the next frontier. It
boggles my mind that the incentives don't cover commercials. ...In the
1940s we shot more film here than in Hollywood because of the companies
that produced corporate and industrial videos. It's in our DNA. If the
state wants to do something more, put the commercial community to work.
Post production houses can do movies but commercials are more of a
The other thing is animation. ...You create an
atmosphere that's friendly to gaming and animation and you have young
people that aren't going anywhere.
We have to look at this from
360 degrees. We look at the incentives as movies. We go to a theater and
we watch movies. The movies are a critical part, the most obvious part.
Part of that pie also includes gaming, animation, commercials, special
was made in New Zealand, for Christ's sake. If
you can do Avatar
in New Zealand imagine what you could do in
Detroit? It's in our DNA to do amazing things.
This story originally ran in Metromode.
Jon Zemke leads a cinematic life. He is also the
news editor for Metromode and Concentrate. His
previous article was The Generational Divide Over Ann Arbor's Downtown - Redux. Got
something to say to us? send
Photographs © Marvin
of trophies awarded for previous screenplays
A letter of
gratitude written by a previous student of Ovshinsky
with Blank Canvas figurine, used as inspiration