By Julie Hinds | Detroit Free Press Movie Writer
“Oz the Great and Powerful’ was shot on the seven sound stages of the now-named Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac. For months, it kept the state-of-the-art facility humming with activity.
“There were days in the cafeteria where they served 2,000 people breakfast and 2,000 people lunch, with the extras and the grips and everybody that was working on this film,” said Linden Nelson of Michigan Motion Picture Studios.
The visual dazzle of the sets was “unbelievable,” Nelson said. “Oz” was the biggest made-in-Michigan film project ever, and it’s an example of what’s possible at Michigan Motion Picture Studios, which is located on the former General Motors Centerpoint business campus and truck designing plant.
But that was 2011, and this is 2013. The studio had one film in 2012, “Black Sky,” a Warner Bros. production about a devastating tornado. It has defaulted on payments for an $18-million state-issued bond. Last year, it dropped the name Raleigh Michigan Studios — its moniker during the “Oz” filming — when ending a managing and marketing agreement with Raleigh Entertainment, the nation’s largest independent studio operator.
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Nelson said he thinks “Oz” provides an argument for putting more support behind the state’s film incentives. The current allocation is $50 million, a figure that was reached through a budget deal. But the numbers for fiscal 2014 could be cut in half to $25 million if Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget plan is approved.
Back in February 2011, Snyder first proposed capping the film incentives at $25 million. The dramatic reduction of the uncapped incentives under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm chilled Hollywood’s interest in Michigan and led to a big decrease in filming in the state.
Nelson said he can’t wait for the people of Michigan and legislators to see “Oz.”
“This movie, and I will use this word, is truly pure Michigan,” he said, using the title of the tourism program that Snyder views positively.
Nelson said “Oz” provided the jobs that the incentives sought and wound up using talent from every area code in Michigan. “They were drawing people from all over the state,” he said.
Nelson also said “Oz” was the sort of project that fought the brain drain that draws aspiring young people to Los Angeles, New York and other hubs of creative industries.
“This is what this industry was supposed to bring to Michigan,” he said of the overall impact of “Oz.”
Nelson declined to talk specifics about which film projects might be interested in using the studio this year, but announcements are expected soon. He said the $50 million in incentives needs to be repeated next year.
“We’re hoping that the governor will see clear and the Legislature will see clear to make that number at least what it was for 2013.”
The studio’s investors include Nelson, a Birmingham businessman; A. Alfred Taubman, the billionaire mall developer; John Rakolta Jr. of Walbridge, one of the nation’s biggest construction firms, and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, a top talent agency.
As the Free Press reported last year, the studio expected to make money immediately, and there were projections of a gross operating profit of $13.7 million by its 10th year. The revenue was expected to come from renting out the sound stages and 360,000 square feet of office space on the 22-acre campus.
But after “Oz” completed filming, activity died down and the studio missed bond payments that the State of Michigan Retirement System is obligated to cover in such cases.
In June 2010, former state Treasurer Robert Kleine agreed to a plan involving state employees’ pension funds. The Guaranty and Credit Enhancement Agreement “promised to pay $18 million of bonds, principal and interest, if the Michigan Motion Pictures Studios Investment Fund LLC (the company) was unable to make payments to bondholders.”
The bonds were issued on July 13, 2010, and payments of $630,000 are due in February and August each year, Michigan Department of Treasury spokesman Terry Stanton said in a statement.
Bondholders were paid $630,000 in February 2012, of which the retirement system paid $420,000, and the retirement system made the full $630,000 payment in August 2012 and in February of this year, Stanton said.
But Michigan Motion Picture Studios isn’t giving up. Borrowing an Austin Powers phrase, Nelson said Michigan had “the mojo” for building a thriving film industry. In his opinion, it just has to find it again.
“This is worth fighting for,” Nelson said. “This is worth getting back.”