Detroit Stars in Low Winter Sun
AMC’s newest drama has gritty Motown as a setting
Published: March 27, 2013
There is a sense of territorial pride in knowing outsiders think enough of your city to base their talent, resources and reputations here. It’s a happy diversion from convicted ex-mayors, tax-liened emergency managers and a dysfunctional school system, and it’s fun to look for familiar landmarks in the background of a series broadcast worldwide. But let’s be for real: Detroit might magically have been transformed into New Orleans, Albuquerque or the big city in a film-friendly state had it not been for the $7,544,611 in incentives granted Low Winter Sun by the state of Michigan. According to the Michigan Film
Office (MFO), the production expects
to hire 245 Michigan workers, a full-time equivalent of 148 jobs, and is projected to spend $26.4 million here in making its nine remaining episodes.
Mark Adler, owner of VAIdigital video assist company in Novi and founder of the Michigan Production Alliance, worked on the Low Winter Sun pilot as key video assist operator.
“They had a predominantly Michigan crew on the pilot, and I think you will have a predominantly Michigan crew on the series, which will shoot for 10 months,” Adler says. “I would say there will be at least a 150 [person]-Michigan crew, both on set and behind the scenes in departments like accounting, licensing and their production office.”
The incentive legislation, officially titled the Film and Digital Media Production Assistance Program, was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011. It transformed the film credits into a line-item budget appropriation and capped the state’s total contribution for all productions at $25 million annually. Through an unexpected bubble in the system, the figure was more than doubled to $58 million for fiscal 2013, which ends in October. However, Snyder has said he intends to slash it back to $25 million for fiscal 2014.
“The sad truth is, each year an appropriations committee has to decide whether they’re going to allow us to have $25 million,” says Adler. “Due to the efforts of many filmmakers who lobbied on Sen. Richardville, we were able to get an additional $25 million plus an amount, I think it was $8 million, that rolled over. That’s how we got to $58 million.”
Regardless of the number, it’s up to Margaret O’Riley to divvy it up. A veteran Republican politico who served under Gov. John Engler and helped create the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, O’Riley was appointed by Snyder to direct the MFO around Halloween 2012. She traveled to the Sundance Film Festival to explain Michigan’s confused incentive picture and reaffirm the state is still open and eager for film business.
“I was very busy meeting with producers who had Michigan connections,” O’Riley explains. “Either they had done projects here or they were from here. I was trying to get the word out about the Michigan film industry and the resources we have. I think we’re going to see projects coming here because of some of those meetings.”
No single topic engages and enrages the local film community more than the incentive program. There’s not enough money in the pot. We can’t compete with the packages of other states. We lost precious momentum when Snyder bad-mouthed filmmaking as an industry here, then approved funding reductions.
None of this comes as a shock to O’Riley. “I come to this job with 20 years of experience in economic development, and incentives have always been a source of debate,” she says. “Whether they’re for manufacturing or green energy or technology, it’s an age-old issue. But I was a little surprised that there was this whole discussion about films being supported with public dollars, because I’m so used to debating whether we should have them at all.”
The concern for Adler is, “There seems to be no strategic plan. There’s a certain amount of money, they’re bringing in films, but there’s no real plan to build infrastructure or maintain crew levels, which have fallen back to 2007 levels after hundreds left the state to find work.”
Going back to Lansing every year to ensure the incentives are still there is a long-term detriment to attracting producers, Adler believes. “These people work several years out, and they need to know,” he maintains. “They don’t want to wait until the last minute. What we would like to see from the state is a little more consistency, and some support. We hate it when the governor says negative things about the film industry because faith in the leadership goes down. Our application process is not as easy as states like Ohio and Georgia. And we’d like to get the Michigan Economic Development Corporation promoting us in a more positive way.”
LWS: Long-term thing or just a fling?
The expectations for Low Winter Sun are considerable, yet the plot suggests that the storyline could be wrapped up in a one-season arc, like the British version. Is Mundy producing a show for the short term or a long, successful run?
“You need to do both,” he says. “I think The Wire was pretty much the best show ever on television, and every one of those seasons was very much its own self-contained thing. And yet its world was big enough so you knew it was always going to keep going. So to me, that’s the goal. You want it to be satisfying for people who watch this season and not feel like they’re being eased along, but at the same time you’ve got to understand all the avenues for growth and the ways you want to keep following these people for hopefully five, six, seven seasons, as long as we can keep making it good.
“I’ve got such a deep affection for this city, I’ve got to tell you,” Mundy adds. “For everybody, it was such a special process doing this pilot. I can’t quite describe it, but everybody from the crew to the cast just attached themselves to the place in a really kind of profound way. It was great.”
Maybe he’ll need to start looking for a condo.
Jim McFarlin writes about media for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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