Filming is underway for the yet-to-be-titled movie based during the 1967 riots in Detroit, directed by Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow. The movie is based on a script by Mark Boal, who won the Academy Award for original screenplay for “The Hurt Locker.” So far the movie has signed up Star Wars star John Boyega, and other stars such as Hannah Murray (Skins and Game of Thrones), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), Kaitlyn Dever (Justified), and others. Obviously the story is set in Detroit and takes place against the backdrop of riots that erupted in the Motor City over five hot days in the summer of 1967. But filming is ongoing not in Detroit Michigan, but in various towns in Massachusetts, and the town of Brockton, MA has this week been transformed into Detroit circa 1967. So the picture above isn’t of a burned out Detroit neighborhood, but is actually a set in small town, MA.
This is hard for me to type. A movie based around the 1967 Detroit riots is being filmed in Massachusetts. Every now and again someone on Twitter raises the question why, but of course the answer is obvious. Michigan recently terminated its Film Credits, and the production simply can’t turn down the credits offered by other states, such as Massachusetts. Why is this such a Big Deal? Movies are all about make-believe, and how many movies are actually filmed in the city where they are set? After all, Detroit has recently stood in for Paris (The Double), China/Korea (Red Dawn), Gotham and Metropolis (Batman v Superman), London (Transformers:The Last Knight) and many many others. Countless movies set in New York City or Chicago and actually filmed in Vancouver, Toronto, Cleveland or (increasingly) Atlanta. But when they need the Empire State Building, they go to NYC. If they need Navy Pier they go to Chicago. Those cities will always have a relatively thriving movie industry even with minimal financial incentives, because they have landmarks that movie makers need. Now Michigan has a lot to offer the movie industry in terms of its diverse natural beauty, coasts and forest, almost every kind of landscape you can imagine, and of course the more obvious urban settings that have tended to bring film makes here in the past. It’s no coincidence that many of the movies filmed in Michigan have taken advantage of the less developed areas of the city of Detroit, using the devastated urban areas as post-apocalyptic settings, but Michigan has a lot more to offer the movie industry than just Ruin Porn. However there are very few movies that are actually set in Detroit, so the likelihood of a thriving movie industry based around that fact is slim. And now there’s this movie. Set in Detroit. Filmed around Boston. And that sucks.
The ending of the Film Credits was painful. It was a miserable blow to the many people who had decided to make a go of the industry here. The many who had benefited from the rush of productions here since 2008. We know who they are. Catering companies, lumber yards, security firms, taxi companies, drivers, tradespeople who are needed on every production to build sets, hotels, restaurants and all of the local businesses experience a boom when the movies come to town. And people love it. I have been around many movie sets, and I have yet to encounter one single person who wasn’t excited, thrilled, amused, delighted by the movie magic around them. Most people I’ve spoken to were disappointed to learn that the credits have gone. Transformers: The Last Knight recently filmed between the towns of Webberville and Stockbridge in rural Michigan, and hundreds of local people came out to see the action. Dozens of cars lined the roadsides for a glimpse of Bumblebee or Optimus Prime, or maybe even Mark Wahlberg. Adults, teens, parents with their kids. I’m not saying this is an unbiased cross-section, but it struck me that in the last 6 years I’ve still yet to meet more than a couple of people who really thought the film credits were a bad thing, and yet reading the comment sections of the newspapers, you’d think that the populous despised them.
As we know, and as the detractors of film incentive programs often tell me, the movies go to where the incentives are. Yes, they do, because that’s how this unique industry works. And that’s why a movie set in Detroit is now being filmed in Brockton, MA, employing hundreds of local people, bringing money into the local economy, creating interest in the movie industry in MA, and generally doing good things for the economy. Could the way the incentives were managed have been improved? Maybe. Could we learn from places where the incentives haven’t been so effective? Sure. Could we learn from Georgia where the movies brought in $6 billion last year. We would be stupid not to. Michigan started its incentives at a time when the auto industry was in crisis and we were foolish to abandon them just because the industry is booming again. Michigan just passed legislation giving literally billions of dollars of tax breaks to Data Centers in West Michigan, but we couldn’t invest $50M a year to continue to develop the fledgling movie industry in our state.
The latest Transformers movie has now moved on to the UK. The Detroit Riots movie does plan to swing through and film a few scenes here, but realistically that could be it for movie production in our state. Meanwhile Pennsylvania just expanded their film credits and Ohio DOUBLED theirs, so our neighboring states are reaping the benefits of the demise of Michigan’s program. I have no skin in the game here really. This is just a hobby for me, but I’ve seen the hundreds of people for whom it was a lot more than that. It sucks.