Michigan taxpayers funded artistic and financial flops in last film-subsidy effort

In movies and subsidy programs, the sequel is rarely better

Michigan lawmakers are moving forward with a package of bills to subsidize films and commercials. The hope is that this Hollywood sequel will be better than the original. Politicians and taxpayers should keep in mind the sequel is usually even worse than the original.

And the initial film incentive program in Michigan was a stinker. From 2008 to 2015, Michigan taxpayers shelled out $500 million for dozens and dozens of movies and TV shows to be filmed (at least partially) in the Great Lakes States. By the time it was over, several studios (and one town) were nearly bankrupted, teachers’ pension funds were raided to cover costs and only a small, short-lived blip of jobs appeared. The subsidies were widely derided by economists across the political spectrum.

One claim is that getting Hollywood to film in Michigan will help showcase the “our lush forests, vibrant cities and historical landmarks.” But it’s hard to believe that anyone ended up with a better impression of Michigan as a result of the program. State taxpayers shelled out their hard-earned money for some very rotten tomatoes, including:

  • “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” – The state gave filmmakers more than $8 million on behalf of taxpayers for this travesty. The trailer for the film raised questions about whether the film violated Michigan’s obscenity statute, which it deemed to do. Also obscene was the decision to make citizens pay for this third Harold & Kumar film.
  • “Red Dawn” – No, not the well-reviewed, unsubsidized and financially successful 1984 classic. This was the 2012 remake that turned Detroit into Spokane. The North Korean army replaced the Chinese one as the invading force, to “maintain access to the Chinese box office, though the film was still not released in China.” It was a critical and commercial failure. That’s $17 million wasted.
  • “Piranha 3D” – This box office success “dishes out gore, guffaws and gratuitous nudity with equal glee." But it’s hard to say this did much for tourism. Did Michigan lawmakers intend to suggest that some of the Great Lakes State’s best assets are filled with piranhas? At least we didn’t pay for the follow-up, Piranha 3DD.
  • “Scream 4,” “Hostel: Part III” and “Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations” – The list of bad sequels partially funded by Michigan taxpayers is long, and it includes these almost unwatchable movies. The “revelation” in the third Butterfly Effect was that it got even a 1.5-star average rating from reviewers.
  • “Cedar Rapids” – This movie about a Wisconsin salesman took place in Iowa but was shot in Michigan to take advantage of our tax credits. The whole thing takes place in a hotel. But we’re to believe that Michigan came out looking good here?
  • “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” – Simply a bad film in one of the worst movie franchises of all time. Michiganders paid more than $6 million ($1.36 per taxpayer) for ... what? Taxpayers had to fund a movie which made more than a billion dollars, and most of the references to “Michigan” on its Wikipedia page refer to the avenue in Chicago.
  • “Oz the Great and Powerful,” “The Oogieloves” and “Noodle and Doodle” – These are combined because they are animated or done in a studio. Most of the work could be done anywhere in the world. So taxpayers spent $40 million for the filmmakers of Oz to move their actors, producers and VFX folks to Michigan and make the production here. And that’s supposed to make the economy better? Why not just spend that $40 million on bridges or teachers already here?
  • “Capitalism: A Love Story” – The Michael Moore film that sought to expose “the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans” was distributed by a massive corporation that was approved for $1 million in select subsidies, paid for by everyday Michiganders. It was one of Moore’s lowest-rated films.
  • “Hung” – An HBO series about a Detroit teacher and basketball coach who made so little money that he became a prostitute to make ends meet. (I don’t know which part of this is the most unrealistic.) The series cost taxpayers $2.7 million and was canceled after three seasons.
  • “You Don’t Know Jack” and “Kevorkian” – Yes, the people of Michigan funded not one but two HBO documentaries about Jack Kevorkian (“Dr. Death”), who euthanized at least 130 people and was convicted of murder. These were generally well-reviewed. But here’s a question: Why did the state film office approve subsidies for documentaries about someone who lived almost his entire life in Michigan? Why did we need to bribe companies to film here? Where else were the filmmakers going to shoot?

Michigan lawmakers claim that this time things will be different. There’s a new financing mechanism, you see. But there’s little difference between a direct subsidy and a transferable tax credit. Regardless of the method used, there’s still a film office redistributing taxpayer money away from more productive uses.

The results from around the country, and in Michigan’s own past, suggest we will get more flops. Both at the box office and in economic returns.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.