West Michigan film industry hits restart button


Derek Street, left, and Gorilla Pictures co-founder Eric Johnson are among the approximately 30 filmmakers operating out of Gorilla's offices, which has more of a collaborative structure. Not everyone there is on the Gorilla payroll.

It’s been a rocky transition for the West Michigan film industry following Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s changes to the state’s film incentive program that originated under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration, and West Michigan-based film and video production company Gorilla Pictures has been around for the entire ride.

Founded nearly a decade ago by Eric Johnson and Eric Machiela, Gorilla Pictures set out to build a sustainable film and video production business operating out of West Michigan. The pair already had worked on films in larger markets, including Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C.

“We spent a lot of time working on films out of state because there wasn’t a lot going on here at the time,” Johnson said.

Eventually, they began looking more closely at Grand Rapids and decided to give the city a go. Johnson said that, in the beginning, the company’s focus on corporate work and documentary films allowed it to have its hub in Grand Rapids rather than a larger market.

“We are always flying around to another country so it didn’t matter where we were based,” he said.

With a sustainable foundation, Gorilla Pictures began to envision what else the city might accommodate. Johnson said Austin, Texas, serves as a good roadmap for what he and Machiela would like to see happen with the West Michigan film industry.

“We decided that we wanted to focus on something a little bigger than what was immediately available in Grand Rapids,” he said. “We are interested in owning intellectual property and feature film work and all that sort of stuff that, when you are in Grand Rapids, Michigan, doesn’t necessarily have immediate dollar signs tied to it.”

By developing a long-term vision, the company began to attract likeminded creatives who also were willing to give Grand Rapids a chance. Johnson said approximately 30 filmmakers currently operate out of the Gorilla office.

“Not everyone works on the Gorilla payroll,” he said. “I would look at it more like a collaborative structure where we have sort of an economic engine that keeps a lot of things going, and then we also have a lot of freedom for growth and for people to join us and come in if they share the vision that we have.”

Johnson said collaboration is a key element in creating a viable film industry in the city because it leads to the kind of environment people want to hang around in.

“Usually in a small market like this, the talent emerges, outgrows the area and then leaves for L.A. or New York or Chicago,” he said. “You would be amazed at the amount of musicians and filmmakers that have come from West Michigan over the last 20 years — they’re just not here anymore. It’s pretty unbelievable.”

Building a community that encourages talented people to give their career a shot in Grand Rapids extends beyond the film industry, Johnson said. He pointed to Start Garden and ArtPrize.

“If you look at the stuff that Rick DeVos is doing and some of our other friends around the area that have really invested into not just artistic things but artistic things that have economic and business implications — those are encouraging things to us, to see that going on,” he said.

“I think that’s allowed us to grow in all facets, not just in the way of creating films or music videos or shorts or the fun stuff, but also bleeds over into the way we approach corporate work now — sort of as storytellers rather than just executing a visual.”

Johnson said the film incentives ushered in by Granholm in 2008 provided a boost to the industry, but recent changes initiated by Gov. Snyder dismantled much of that, showing that the incentives weren’t necessarily the best way to generate a sustainable film industry in the region — at least, not without a longer-term commitment.

“There is a lot of negative that happened with the film incentives, to be honest,” he said. “It didn’t touch us too much, but it created a scenario where we sort of hit a bit of a reset button. We’d been building quite a bit and then we ended up losing a fair amount of it because there wasn’t enough to sustain what we had built when the incentive went away because the films stopped coming. But Gorilla itself isn’t really sustained as much by other entertainment companies coming in from out of town and setting up shop, so we didn’t get hurt as much by the incentives going away.”

Johnson thinks a better path is to create a film industry in Michigan that is not reliant on outside entities bringing in projects.

“I would like to see us be able to create an internal economic engine so what we build here is sustainable,” he said.

“When someone quits their job or transitions, or a kid gets out of film school and he says, ‘I want to stay here and work,’ he isn’t running the risk of wasting three years of his life and then having things fall apart because the big movie didn’t come to town. That, I think, is fairly unsustainable and why it’s hard to grow a large film community in a smaller area like Grand Rapids.

“So for us, we are looking at it and saying, ‘What is the opposite approach? How can we start small and slowly develop feature film projects from home base so that it’s a sustainable system, a sustainable economic plan?’”

He said although Gorilla Pictures may leave the area to work on a project, it ultimately is still good for Grand Rapids.

“We just signed a deal with FOX to shoot a feature film in Australia in February, and we get excited about that because, ultimately, it’s intellectual property that ends up being owned by a company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.”

He notes that while the efforts of local film companies like Gorilla Pictures may have a substantially smaller impact than the movie “30 Seconds or Less” being filmed here, he thinks they still are building a local film industry with longevity.

Johnson noted that having the Waterfront Film Festival, Compass College of Cinematic Arts and strong film programs at Grand Valley State University and Calvin College also helps to build the film community and the reputation of the area as a place to make films.

Johnson said the Gorilla space is made up of about half Compass College and Calvin grads, and the rest are from GVSU.

He said the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts also is a vital component of the local industry, providing an outlet for filmmakers’ work and a place where they can receive feedback.

Johnson thinks that, given the changes in distribution and filmmaking, Grand Rapids can create a sustainable film industry.

“We are on the right path and we are seeing opportunities open up that I don’t believe filmmakers in West Michigan have necessarily had opportunity for yet,” he said.

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