'Transformers 4' is coming: Metro Detroit filming to bring $81.9M spark for economy

9:36 PM, Mar 20, 2013   |    comments
  • An explosion on the set of Transformers 3 in downtown Detroit, September 24, 2010. (Brian Kaufman/DFP)
  • Courtesy GM - The Autobot Bumblebee
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DETROIT (Det. Free Press) -- There's more than meets the eye to Wednesday's announcement that the new "Transformers" is heading to metro Detroit for filming this spring.

The fourth installment of the huge box-office franchise has been approved for $20 million in incentives on $81.9 million in anticipated spending in the state.

That makes it the second-biggest project under Michigan's film incentives, which became a national player in 2008. The current hit "Oz the Great and Powerful," which was shot in the state in 2011, was awarded nearly $40 million in incentives on roughly $105 million in in-state spending.

The latest "Transformers" is good news for the local film community, which has been hit hard by reductions to the incentives by Gov. Rick Snyder's administration. It also will be a big boost for Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac.

"Transformers" plans to use the state-of-the-art complex, and details are being worked out, said Tony Wenson, the Pontiac studio's chief operating officer.

The studio had planned to be a hub of movie production. But since "Oz," the facility has hosted only one film, the upcoming tornado thriller "Black Sky." It also missed several bond payments, with shortfalls covered by the state.

Michigan will be one of several locations for the film, which has yet to release an official title. The first installment in the franchise, released in 2007, shot scenes in metro Detroit. So did 2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," which was awarded roughly $6 million in incentives on about $17 million in anticipated Michigan spending.

"Transformers 4" could represent a vote of renewed confidence by Hollywood in the state. There has been much concern over whether major movie players would want to work here again after the cutbacks made under Snyder.

Besides putting Michigan back on the international cinema radar, "Transformers 4" could help make the case for sparing Michigan's incentives from cuts.

"Transformers 4" is arriving as the state's film incentives are facing a potential budget battle. The current allocation for the incentives is $50 million, but Snyder has proposed a $25-million cap for fiscal 2014, which would wipe out the increases for the current fiscal year that were reached under a budget compromise.

So far in fiscal 2013, 13 projects have been awarded a total of nearly $31million on $120 million in estimated in-state spending.

The movie puts Michigan back on the international cinema radar.

"It's a huge film from one of the biggest studios in the world," said Ken Droz, a local film consultant and screenwriter who's worked for projects that have received incentives and formerly worked for the Michigan Film Office.

Opponents of the incentives disagree with the philosophy of government picking winners and losers and doubt big-budget projects like "Transformers" will build a Michigan film industry. "In general, they're just going to go wherever they get the most subsidies," says Jarrett Skorup, research associate for the conservative think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The numbers on "Transformers 4" reflect the reduced rates of the incentives under the Snyder administration. With the previous plan, for instance, the robot boxing movie "Real Steel," was awarded $18 million on roughly $49 million in estimated Michigan spending, a return to the filmmakers of nearly 37%. In comparison, the $20-million incentive for "Transformers 4" would return about 24% of the estimated $81.9 million in spending.

Michigan Film Office spokeswoman Michelle Begnoche said the "Transformers 4" award is part of the effort to find a balance between smaller, locally driven projects and bigger-budget studio ones.

"It's also an indication of the new incentives program and how we've targeted the incentives to be more Michigan-friendly," Begnoche said.

Creatively, "Transformers 4" is poised for big changes. Director Michael Bay recently told Forbes that he and his team have "redesigned everything from top to bottom" for the fourth installment of the franchise. It will star Mark Wahlberg and a young Irish newcomer, Jack Reynor.

The story picks up after "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," which featured a major war between the Autobots and Decepticons. Only now the robots have pretty much disappeared from Earth, and there's potential trouble on the horizon from an ancient Transformer menace.

Whatever happens on screen, expect an epic action-packed battle between good vs. evil. That's always the "Transformers" way.

Contact Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or jhinds@freepress.com

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