Posted by: Kath Usitalo | March 5, 2010

Film Flimflam

This neighborhood hardware store was one of many Detroit area locations used by Clint Eastwood for his movie Gran Torino (photos by TJ)

“Does Clint Eastwood need $600,000 from Michigan when his movie Gran Torino is taking in $200 million?” asks Michigan State Senator Nancy Cassis (R-Novi)  in a radio interview with Ron Jolly of WTCM in Traverse City.

With the Academy Awards this weekend the running debate about financial incentives designed to bring moviemakers to Michigan is on my mind.

Senator Cassis is a most vocal opponent of the tax credits that have been luring Hollywood to the Great Lakes State. It’s a deal in which film production companies can realize a refundable tax credit of up to 42% if they spend at least $50,000 here and abide by several additional rules; see the details at the Michigan Film Office Web site.

She positions the incentive as a “giveaway” to Hollywood of 100 million dollars, a budget line item that this broke state can ill afford. According to Cassis, the “Senate fiscal agency says that at best we are getting back only 17 cents on the dollar.”

The Senator disputes studies that estimate a return of $1.43 on every dollar spent, claiming that formula uses a “multiplier effect” which follows the money down the line. (An example of the multiplier effect is the economic impact of purchases that a local resident makes thanks to money he earned by working overtime at the catering company that a film production company hired.)

“Misleading economic activity is very different than revenue generated,” asserts Cassis.

However, in that same interview from 2009 the Senator admits that some areas of the state, including Traverse City, have “seen some local economy benefits from this ‘giveaway’ if you will.”

She insists the state needs to “right size” the benefits by cutting them to an unspecified percentage.

If you scroll through her Web site you’ll see a number of interviews on this subject including a more recent debate on WWJ-Radio with Mark Adler, director of the Michigan Production Alliance.

On January 31, 2010 she insists this “handout” to Hollywood is an insult to the other businesses in the state that are footing the bill. She wants investment in “permanent’ jobs in the state. She doesn’t seem to get the nature of the film business, which Mr. Adler patiently tries to explain. Listen to this short exchange; is it me, or does she have it out for Hollywood?

Photos of Clint Eastwood and the hardware store staff during filming on location

Besides her hostility, here’s what I gather:

Senator Cassis does not appear to be a creative thinker. She seems stuck in the rut of what constitutes a “real” job: apparently one that requires a desk or a counter to stand behind or a locker with your name on it.

She doesn’t acknowledge that although film productions are by nature short term, they require and hire real people and pay for tangible goods and services wherever they are filming, whether in Michigan or in Pennsylvania standing in for Michigan. Those are dollars spent locally that would not have been spent here without the tax incentives that lured the production companies to the state.

Movies are going to be made somewhere. Why not have them here, filling hotel rooms that otherwise would sit empty…hiring catering companies that must buy additional food and serving utensils and bags of M&Ms…paying location fees…giving actors bit parts rather than have them sit by the phone, waiting for it to ring…renting lights and cars and trucks and who knows what else…

Someone working on a movie will be employed on a project by project basis; the gig may last a few days or a few months.

If the state is successful in making Michigan a desirable destination for moviemakers, when one production wraps up and leaves Detroit or Benton Harbor there’ll be another job to jump to in Frankenmuth or the UP. Hey—there may even be multiple projects in production in the state at one time. What a concept!

In addition to these “temporary” jobs, real people are making real investments in bricks and mortar facilities as a result of the film incentives: Michigan is now home of the largest sound stage in the world with the opening of  Hangar42 Studios, a full service film production facility occupying the former Lear Corporation plant near Grand Rapids.

But rather than looking at the tax incentives as an investment in a new industry Senator Cassis repeatedly bashes Hollywood, implying that the rich moviemakers are stealing from Michigan taxpayers. She rails against the glamour and glitz as if it’s a bad thing for local folks to enjoy a bit of that buzz.

The hardware store staff assembled items that the Clint character purchased, and sold the "Gran Torino Special" as the Walt Kowalski Tool Kit

No, this is not a “permanent” industry in Senator Cassis’s traditional sense of a corporate office or an automotive plant with a roof and “long term jobs located here.”

I would believe she is sincere if she wasn’t also opposed to investing heavily in the Pure Michigan ad campaign, which bolsters the tourism industry and those “long term jobs located here.” But that’s another story.


You are invited to answer a handful of vague questions in a survey on the Senator’s Web site. In the comment box I opined that it’s really a pointless questionnaire because of the poor wording and lack of specifics. For example, she asks about a cap on the incentive but doesn’t propose a percentage. But I suppose the number of participants in the survey will help her gauge the level of interest in the subject.



  1. Once again, you’ve brought something to my attention I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. It seems to me that many of our politicians forget their common sense and what life in the real world is like once they get elected!

  2. I guess I just don’t have what it takes to be a politician.

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