November 18, 2010
Since the passage of the film tax incentive program here in Michigan in 2008, the number of creative production crews in the state has reached unprecedented levels. But with Hollywood films being shot on and around the University’s campus and their actors visiting Ann Arbor hotspots in their downtime, it can be easy to gloss over the more important, lasting effects of the incentives: local film production companies based in Michigan itself.
One such company is First Element Entertainment, a start-up production company in Detroit. Started by University alum Adrian Walker, the company works with film, music and other media, with the goal of gathering industry professionals together to bring original forms of entertainment into the mainstream.
Walker described the fateful meeting at the University that propelled him to start the company in Michigan.
“I went to a (business) school event where Spike Lee was coming to speak to the students,” he said. “I was able to have a one-on-one conversation with him and he actually suggested that instead of trying to go to Hollywood, we should just start up and try to do our thing here.”
About two years later, the company is prepared to complete its first foray into film production with the release of “The Art of Power,” which will roll out its red carpet for a premiere on Nov. 20 at the Michigan Theater. The film follows Wesley (Scott Norman), a young D.C. adult who looks to exact revenge against a powerful senator (Peter Carey), embroiling two women (Erin Nicole and Marisa Stober) into his life as his plan unfolds.
Shot on a miniscule budget in both Michigan and Washington D.C. and starring newcomers, the film is emblematic of the new Michigan film industry — small, burgeoning and ambitious.
“The production was very large-scale for our budget,” said Walker, who serves as writer and executive producer for “The Art of Power.” “We ran a skeleton crew in D.C. of about 16 people, but when we came back here it probably went up to about 30 people without extras or actors … it was basically 12 days production in D.C. and 17 days in Michigan.”
The scale of the production was made possible by advancements in camera technology, which allowed the filmmakers to achieve state-of-the-art picture quality without investing the time and money associated with film stock. The crew shot on the Red camera, the premiere digital film-alternative camera currently taking Hollywood — and particularly independent filmmaking — by storm.
“The cost of production would have been over a million dollars if we had used film stock,” Walker said.
Beyond its production, however, it was important that almost all post-production on the film took place in-state, and not just the incentivized film shoot.
“I feel like incentives are just the catalysts that spur the industry forward,” Walker said. “They’re not the long-term vision I think this state should have.”
The exception to the Michigan post-production is the film’s score, which features two different composers. Half of the score was recorded in Chennai, India by The Acoustricks, a group stemming from the KM Music Conservatory, which is run by Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire”).
Beyond “The Art of Power,” First Element Entertainment hopes to continue producing films while also branching off and spending more time on its other media.
First Element COO Robert Presnell is a second-year MBA in the Ross School of Business. He compared the evolution of the film industry to similar events in the music industry, when file-trading of mp3s began in the late 1990s, and firms were slow to realize the business opportunities therein.
“Movies and everything going forward are going to be really different,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting coming up … seeing who makes the first move and what it is.”
Walker echoed the sentiment, comparing the film industry going forward to the auto industry of the past few decades.
“I kind of liken it to where (the auto industry) was at one point in time,” he said. “I feel like a lot of your biggest players for decades, if they’re not careful, if they fall asleep, they’re going to end up having a lot of new companies emerge that end up taking their place.”
First Element Entertainment hopes for “The Art of Power” to propel the company forward and lead it into further endeavors in film, animation, music videos and other media.
“We’ve got about six scripts in the pipeline,” Presnell said.
Before it can move on, though, First Element’s must find a distributor for “The Art of Power” after its Saturday premiere at the Michigan.
“I’ve been in contact with about 80 to 90 companies,” Walker said. “It’s an exciting time (in the industry); it’s crazy right now. We’ve been in talks with a lot of digital media companies who have never really done film distribution before.”
As the industry progresses, First Element is riding that evolution to position itself within the state of Michigan as a prime example of homegrown filmmaking. Modeling itself after early iterations of corporations like Apple and 3M, the company hopes to foster creative ideas internally and be the next step in the entertainment industry as a whole. That said, its leaders understand the challenges of that ambition.
“It’s a constant chess game,” Presnell said.
With the Michigan Theater premiere of “The Art of Power,” First Element makes its opening move. With a background of Michigan alumni and students involved at different levels, the company looks well suited to maneuver itself through a growing and constantly changing industry.
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