Scoring Michigan's New Film Industry

The search lights of Hollywood have cut through the economic gloom pervading Michigan recently, as state government and the creative community look to the potential of film incentives to build a new industry. Southeast Michigan, once a rival of Los Angeles in terms of advertising creative talent and industrial films, is poised to become a regional film capital.

In the first nine months of the state's incentive program, 35 films were initiated and $125 million was spent in state, according to the Michigan Film Office. Gran Torino was the most notable feature film. The incentives have supported a variety of films including documentaries and short features, such as Raised Alone, by Sam Kadi. The program has resulted in jobs for skilled and unskilled workers and supported the launch of three film studios in Southeast Michigan. However, some wonder whether the political will exists to continue the incentive program long enough to breathe life into the creative community – particularly young talent – and generate a local film industry.

"I think it's all good. The fact that we're the leader in incentives got immediate attention in Hollywood," notes Joseph LoDuca, a Bloomfield Hills music composer who has had considerable success landing film work. He's currently working on "Legend of the Seeker," a television series based on fantasy books.  He works with his director,who is in Auckland, New Zealand, through Skype.

Music composers are unique in that they work on the fringe of the film business – often not setting foot on a movie set – but they need to understand the business from a creative and commercial perspective to succeed.

"It looks very promising," says Terry Herald, a composer who also teaches film music history at Oakland University. Much of Herald's work has been with local projects, including the soundtrack for the documentary, Journey to Justice, produced locally by Steve Palackdharry and distributed in Europe.

However, he says, "All of the major creative work has been done by talent from California. The work here is the basic labor involved in a film – gaffers, grips, set people. There have been some actors that have scored minor roles. But the creative team is coming with the producers out of California. That might change when studios are actually built here."

There was a flurry of announcements earlier this year regarding studios planned for Pontiac and Detroit, and proposed for Allen Park, in addition to several small creative shops. The permanent physical presence of studios and creative companies offers "huge potential" to spur the local talent pool, Herald says. "If you look at the projected size of staff needed at the studios, in Pontiac they need to hire 3,000 people to staff it. That's a huge opportunity for local talent -- if the education can keep up and meet the demand for technical expertise that all the studios are requiring."

While the film industry in Vancouver and Toronto has gained by having sustained filmmaking and an established talent pool, "it's cyclical," LoDuca says. As the value of the Canadian dollar increased and competition increased among American and other international sites, Canadians have begun to lose their business. Should the incentives be eliminated or made cumbersome, the same could happen to Michigan, he says. "It begins with the government and ends with the government."

Detroit's creative edge has dulled with the decline in automotive advertising, says LoDuca, who worked in advertising for 10 years before becoming a film composer. "Detroit has as much artistic talent and technical talent as anywhere in the world, but talent has to be at your fingertips and exercised every day to be of use and value.  The opportunity for those rusty skills to be honed is here and now. There is a little bit of rust that needs to be dusted off…. It isn't the golden era of industrial filmmaking any more. We're long past that. We're looking at a 10-15 year cycle of decreasing work for a lot of talented people. Luckily for people in the production side of things, those opportunities are now."

The difference between Detroit and Los Angeles isn't necessarily the level of talent, LoDuca says. "It's how deep it is. That's all. It's sheer numbers – and the community that is created out of the numbers… It requires a certain amount of energy and size for a sense of community to develop. That's why in larger places a community happens more out of necessity and logistics. If you don't get to a certain threshold of energy – enough people doing the same thing – to realize their common interest... it's kind of hard. There tends to be pockets of clans and tribes. There's Eminem's tribe and Kid Rock's tribe."

With enough work, Detroit's talent will emerge, Herald believes. "There's the argument that the technical expertise of the local folks is not on par with the L.A. folks who work exclusively on feature films. But I know many talented people, from shooters and editors to craftspeople. It's not the sort of thing that's rocket science that requires an advanced degree to get the skills. What you need is experience."

There is a "tenacious" breed of local filmmakers who have produced films prior to the incentive program and will continue to produce them, according to Dan Kolton, who has composed for local director Robert Dyke's films, Blood Fantasies and Timequest, as well as Disney animation productions. "There certainly is a film community" in Detroit, though it may be largely on the periphery of current filmmaking, he says.  "I can't imagine how they do it. They pull off financing, sets, actors." 

Kolton, based in Ferndale, is concerned that many local filmmakers don't seem connected to the incentive program. "I've talked to a lot of people about different aspects of it. No one seem to know what the deal is – who can apply for it?  Is the incentive going to help the smaller, local talent, or is it more aimed at Clint Eastwood? If it's aimed at mega movies, I don't think that will help them any time soon."

LoDuca does most of his work on films produced outside Michigan, but composes locally and retains a sense of the Detroit culture. "Artistically, Auckland reminded me a lot of Detroit in that it is a remote place from the mainstream, but very creative." There wasn't a lot of opportunity in that community until Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi "harnessed that energy," he says.

If there's one thing that Detroit is known for, it's energy. "It's interesting how much creativity comes out of a place like Detroit," LoDuca says. "It's a hard, tough town."

The composers agree that the synergy resulting from a vibrant film business in the region could stimulate homegrown projects. The community, LoDuca says, "needs" art, and people need to create it. "There's also a work ethic that comes with this place." He says the region fosters an unlikely environment to create and grow artists, "but they keep coming. Isn't it interesting? That's not what's in the water here."

Dennis Archambault is a regular contributor to Metromode and Model D. His last article was A Healing Menu.


Composer Joseph LoDuca in his home Bloomfield home studio

Composer Dan Kolton at his Ferndale home studio, scoring music to an upcoming sci-fi thriller

Composer Terry Herald in his home studio scoring - Oakland Township

Composer Joseph LoDuca

Dan Kolton strums a tune on his ukulele

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.