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Could Film Be Michigan's Gold Rush? A Q&A with Harvey Ovshinsky

Harvey Ovshinsky doesn't 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.

His 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.

Some are 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 It! 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.

With 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 Die Quietly."

Ovshinsky 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.

Blame 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?

I 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.

The 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 ago.

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.

To 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.

Is 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 organically?

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?

I 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 thing.

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 steady diet.

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 effects. Avatar 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.

Jon Zemke leads a cinematic life. He is also the news editor for Metromode and Concentrate. His previous article was Sharing Woodward Avenue.

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All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here

A pensive Harvey Ovshinsky

Mantle of trophies awarded for previous screenplays

A letter of gratitude written by a previous student of Ovshinsky's.

Harvey Ovshinsky

Davinci with Blank Canvas figurine, used as inspiration

Harvey Ovshinsky at work

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