Blog: Donald Harrison

Over 2,500 artists each year submit work to the Ann Arbor Film Festival, a venue where the dime turns on provocative indie and experimental fare. Our pow wow pick of the week is the fest's executive director Donald Harrison, who'll be addressing the film industry vs. film as an art, and regional notions of a creativity crisis.

Post 1: Michigan Plays Los Angeles

Are you starstruck yet?

Since passing the nation's most attractive film incentives in 2008, we've seen more than 80 feature film projects shoot in Michigan. It's clearly excited a regional interest in film culture, whether or not you believe the incentives are an effective economic tactic for our state.

I'm not here to argue the pros and cons of the film incentives, although I do believe that our new governor should give them a full five years before determining their merits (as articulated recently by Mitch Albom). We have a long history of filmmaking here in Southeastern Michigan (e.g., the Jam Handy Organization) and I believe that we should focus on rekindling our region's spirit of imagination, innovation and original thinking. We need to cultivate our own culture of creative artists and enthusiastic audiences.

Although Hollywood has flocked to Michigan to produce their films, they're also running short of new good ideas. Have you noticed the wave of recycled film titles recently? There are more than 86 movie sequels in development or production in 2010 including: Alien 5, Evil Dead 4, Blair Witch Project 3, Avatar 2...and, Friday the 13th Part II, the sequel to the remake! Oh, and a childhood favorite of mine, Gremlins, is now slated for Gremlins 3 (in 3D of course!).

I'm also not here to argue that we should boycott derivative Hollywood movies or sequels. Some of these are entertaining and have their merits. I am, however, challenging our community to look beyond the stars to deepen our appreciation and understanding of film as an art form. Let’s become a region that makes and seeks movies which offer more than just a business plan and box office goals.

As director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, one of our area's most internationally renowned cultural events, I am motivated to spark the imagination of film-goers and deepen the quality of film culture in our community. Our festival serves as one of the largest forums for cutting-edge, experimental, and truly independent cinema in North America. We celebrate and support filmmakers as artists, providing a stage for those bold enough to dream and create beyond commercial considerations.

In this difficult economic climate I can understand our region's focus on building the creative class and seeing the arts as part of business revitalization efforts. I do argue, however, for the importance of cultivating a culture that supports artists who are creating non-commercial, imaginative, and even radical new work. I believe there is value in developing artists who inspire with their ideas and not with their business savvy. I doubt that any great, influential films started with a budget and a marketing plan.

As I look around Southeastern Michigan, I see an area that has the right ingredients to play more than a back stage role for Hollywood. Our region has a long tradition of innovation, leadership, strong work ethic, and producing great ideas. I believe that now is the time to build an active, robust and vibrant local film & arts culture. That's the foundation for dreamers to become doers and for a creative renaissance to begin.

Whether the studio film industry is here to stay or not, let's use this opportunity to kick start our own film culture and inspire our collective imagination. Catch an art house gem at the Michigan Theater or Detroit Film Theater. Get more adventurous with indie fare at the Burton Theatre in Detroit or Hott Lava happenings in Ann Arbor. Start your own film collective, host screenings, take video editing and production classes, or just start making and showing your own work. And, of course, don't miss your annual chance to get inspired, challenged and rewarded by film as an art form at the 49th Ann Arbor Film Festival – March 22 – 27, 2011.