The growing filmmaking scene in Lansing

With more than 100 features shot in the area (and thanks to the film incentives offered throughout the last few years) Michigan has seen quite a growth in movie production.

Though the status of these incentives are constantly changing, there are still filmmakers in Lansing that refuse to stop making movies. Independent studios like Rebel Pictures, Strike to Burn Productions, Airship Cinema, and filmmakers like Jon Junia are stepping up, creating projects they are proud of, and helping Lansing carve a name for itself in the industry. 
While the incentives were great for Michigan and allowed independent films like The Funeral Guest produced by Ahptic to be filmed, to some filmmakers, the absence of the incentives have been a blessing in disguise. According to Travis Hayward, owner of Strike to Burn Productions and winner of the Capital City Film Festival's Fortnight Contest, “[The lack of the incentives] forced me to make my own movies instead of just working on other sets."

The result of this push: two award-winning short films, and a fan feature called Resident Evil: Red Falls. The feature, which was filmed entirely in Mid-Michigan, premiered in October at Studio C, has received 115,000 views on YouTube and has been promoted by the Resident Evil franchise.

Capital City Film Festival

The incentives may not play a large role for independent filmmakers, but what’s even more important is an opportunity for exposure and creating a sense of community. Dan Hartley, former Program Director for the Capital City Film Festival (CCFF), says the film industry is still going because of independent filmmakers; and it is festivals like CCFF that help give these filmmakers many of the resources they need.  

The Capital City Film Festival began in April 2011 and in its second year, the Fortnight Film Contest was introduced. According to Hartley, it was modeled after a 48-5: a contest where you get 48 hours to complete a five minute film. The Fortnight Contest extended it, giving teams two weeks to complete a ten minute movie. "You end up with a much more polished product," says Hartley.

The festival also helps to create a culture of film around Lansing. According to Hartley, "It says a lot about how serious we are about film … we are not just a market to skip over."

The Fortnight Film contest also gives the filmmakers involved a chance to have their work viewed. A large number of teams, not just the winners, get the opportunity to show their finished work to the three to four hundred people involved in the contest. Simply getting your project seen, according to Hayward, who placed first one year and second another, "Is a really big deal."

The contest and festival serve many purposes for filmmakers. It gives them experience, credibility, and, according to local filmmaker Michael MaCallum, owner of Rebel Pictures, they are, "A great way for people to get off their asses and actually make something.”

The Festival and others like it are also a great way for filmmakers to get the funds needed to keep making their movies. When Hayward's short, Animus, won first place in the Fortnight Contest he used the prize money to help make Resident Evil: Red Falls. "To have that money come back is a blessing," he says.

Making It Work

But, festivals aren't their only option. Other filmmakers choose to appeal to their fan base and use crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter to get their projects off the ground. Brandon Laventure, owner of the production company Airship Cinemas, used Kickstarter to get his project, The Riverview, fully funded. And even though you can look forward to other pieces before The Riverview starts filming, because of the funding, it's ready to go when it's time.

Jon Junia, Director of the upcoming project Contrapasso, has also utilized crowdfunding although he has taken a slightly different approach. Junia plans to use funds raised from an Indiegogo campaign to shoot a short film which will act as a preview for Contrapasso. The short will be used as part of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the feature. Since Indie filmmakers don't have the funding of major production studios, these crowdfunding techniques are becoming a popular way to get their projects off the ground. But, it's not just Indie films. Junia says this way of making money is "almost necessary" and even some of the big names are doing it.  

Despite the fact that Indie filmmakers often struggle to find funding, there are many advantages to making films on your own without the help of a large studio.

Doing What They Love

"Content is king," says McCallum, "I'm not trying to sell anything, I'm trying to tell the stories I want to tell." Many of the other local filmmakers share this attitude. "If it doesn't fascinate us, we don't do it," says Laventure, who has done movies about brain-to-brain interface, the apocolypse and an assasin who is just not a very good assassinating.

The “Calling your own shots” mentality also applies to who you work with, and this, for McCallum at least, is a huge perk to being independent. McCallum chooses to focus his attention on Lansing when it comes to both where he shoots and who he works with. When it comes to music, he would much rather feature local talent than give the attention to someone who doesn't need it. He has worked with a wide variety of local musicians including; Jen Sygit, Sam Corbin, From Big Sur, Cash O'Riley, The Lincoln County Process, Eight Ball Grifter, Wesley Tkaczyk, DJ McCoy, Jeff Starr and Steppin' In It.

He also tries to do things that celebrate the area. His credits include four feature films, numerous short films and a few music videos, and each of his projects are filmed primarily in Lansing or around. His newest film, Buffalo, now in post-production, and the accompanying music video featuring Jen Sygit, are actually set in Lansing.  "It's hard to find somewhere [in Lansing] I haven't shot," he says.

Being a small project also helps when it comes to filming in local locations. According to Laventure, "We have the time to be personal, we can let people see into the film and the process ..."

Coming Soon

Each of these filmmakers has something to look forward to in the coming year.

McCallum just released a DVD of short films, he has five shorts to film this year and his feature Buffalo will premiere this year at Celebration Cinemas. You can find his work on the Rebel Pictures website and also on

Laventure's project, Greater Than One, begins shooting in April. You can find more from Airship Cinema on their website and also watch their Frank the Assassin Goes on Date shorts, which Laventure says is some of their best work to date.  

Junia is currently shooting a short to promote Contrapasso, a psychological thriller where the punishment meets the crime, and Hayward is ready for Strike to Burn Productions to start taking on new projects.

Because of these filmmakers and others like them, the future of Lansing's film industry looks bright and they all hope to see the industry flourish. "Michigan needs to continue to diversify and not be just a one-industry state," says McCallum. Laventure is optimistic that this is just what is happening, "Hollywood is relocating, which is bad news for Hollywood professionals, but good news for people looking to break into the industry."

To prove this point, independents aren't the only ones with a big year ahead. Ahptic Productions also expects big things and are shooting their own feature film in 2015. They are also teaming up with Nathaniel Eyde and offering their editing services on a short film anthology. The anthology will feature shorts about Michigan and will be called, Michigan Stories.
For others looking to make films, Hayward says he sees Lansing as an untapped resource. For those worried about the future of the incentives, Hayward doesn't seem worried, "You don't need money, just grab friends, go in your backyard, and shoot a movie."

Allison Monroe is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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