Michigan’s Film Tax Incentive is a provocative piece of legislation that has incited passion in many film buffs — friends and enemies alike. The incentive’s 40-percent tax-refundable credit for filmmakers is currently the highest offered in any state and has attracted many Hollywood-based and local productions. Famously, Clint Eastwood’s film “Gran Torino” was shot in Michigan after the incentives were passed. Drew Barrymore’s “Whip It,” a more recent example, was filmed in the greater Detroit area as well.
Some lawmakers, however, claim the state can’t afford to keep making big payouts to filmmakers. There’s a possibility that the incentive could be decreased or capped to curb state spending. Advocates of the bill in its original form argue that changes will only flaunt Michigan’s economic instability, which could cause Hollywood to look for greener pastures.
Michigan director and producer Mike Manasseri shares these sentiments. But what sets him apart from other voices in the debate is his unmatched devotion to a simple cause: keep the incentive from changing. To further this goal, he created the non-profit advocacy group Big Screen Michigan. The group emphasizes the economic successes brought on by the incentives thus far, especially the creation of new jobs for Michigan.
Monday night, Big Screen Michigan held a rally at the Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac. Manasseri spoke with the Daily by phone before the rally.
A joint project with a local news station convinced him of the incentive’s positive effect on Michigan’s economy. While interviewing Michigander crew members on the set of the upcoming remake “Red Dawn,” he heard personal stories that inspired him to take action.
“One person after the next, over and over, basically said ‘I was laid off from my job, I had to move out of the state, I was going to lose my house,’ ” Manasseri recalled. “Before these incentives were passed, they were in serious, serious trouble. And here in person, they all said ‘I’ve been working non-stop ever since the incentives passed, and it has changed my life.’ ”
One of his favorite stories from his time working with Big Screen Michigan involves a diner in Birch Run where part of “Whip It” was filmed. The new owners of the diner re-opened the restaurant as a real-life version of the fictional “Oink Joint” that appeared in the film.
“It’s there now,” he said. “They serve a great pulled pork sandwich. I’ve been there. I’ve eaten it.”
Manasseri’s passion for the cause is palpable. He spoke with gusto about the importance of the incentive for the Michigan economy, describing it as “a bright light that is shining on this state.”
“We need to make sure that the legislature — who invited this industry in here with a great incentive package — doesn’t start tinkering with it, changing it, cutting it,” he said. “Because when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, these companies will turn away, and we can’t have them do that.”
Manasseri went on to answer critics who fear that Michigan could be outbid or wouldn’t be able to sustain the incentive. He turned to Louisiana as an example of a successful film incentive program.
“They’ve had their incentive for a decade,” he said. “Because that infrastructure was given the time to take root — to form a foundation — Louisiana is doing fine. They’re still making terrific money. Their workforce is still doing incredibly well.”
Manasseri also downplayed the incentive’s impact on the state budget.
“The entire incentive package for 2008 was less than one one-thousandth of the state budget,” he said. “There are so many more important things (to single out) than this, but because it is high-profile, because it is Hollywood, it’s an easy target.”
Asked about upcoming movies to be filmed in Michigan, Manasseri mentioned “Highland Park,” starring Danny Glover, and “Game of Death,” a remake of a Bruce Lee film set to star Wesley Snipes.
After the rally, Manasseri shared his thoughts on the event by e-mail.
“Great speakers and a terrific turnout,” he wrote. “State Senators Gilda Jacobs and Hansen Clarke took the stage followed by Mitch Albom who really rocked the house with a passionate speech.”
While Michigan’s Film Tax Incentive is still in jeopardy, Manasseri’s enthusiasm has already worked to mobilize supporters. The issue has obviously attracted strong opinions from a variety of viewpoints, and whether or not the incentive is actually helping Michigan, remains up in the air. Regardless of the feasibility of sustaining the tax incentive, Manasseri at least has his heart in the right place: He’s committed to helping fix Michigan’s economy while also bringing the state the excitement of an active film industry.