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End of the Road

March 31, 2011

Francis J. Sampier has devoted the last six years of his life, creating a movie about a Michigan legend, with a predominantly Michigan cast and crew, to be filmed in Michigan. Unfortunately, it may end up with the designation: Not Made in Michigan.

Sampier says that if the incentives given to Michigan movie makers are pulled, he will simply move his production of Morrow Road to Georgia or Louisiana, where the film incentives are still intact. “180 jobs will be gone from Michigan, just like that,” he told me, and shooting the film will be transported to another state.

Francis is just summing up what Michael said in the famous movie classic, The Godfather, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” He will do whatever it takes to get the movie made as economically as possible, whether it’s in Michigan or Louisiana.

Francis and his assistant director/composer, Jeff Arwady, have boundless energy because they believe that Morrow Road is going to be an exciting and successful movie, partially because it’s a combination horror movie and mystery/drama based on an actual legend. The development of the film began in December, 2004 and the history of its development is a lengthy one which can be found on its website, and its Facebook page.

Creating a movie from scratch…planning it, writing the script, casting it, composing the music, securing the cinematographer, designing the set…is a truly creative and collaborative enterprise but in the end, making movies is still a business. The lengthy process of making movies can also be extremely expensive.

How much money has Sampier budgeted to film Morrow Road and make the movie a success? Let’s just say it’s a seven-digit figure.

Based on the actual late-1800s Michigan legend, Morrow Road explores the story of the end of Isabella Chartier’s life and the mysterious circumstances surrounding how she died on a search for her lost child. Many people believe that the death was so tragic that her ghost spirit remains haunting the road to this day, still searching in an eternal frustration for that impossible-to-achieve answer: what happened to her son?

Morrow Road is a southeast Michigan rural road that that until recently was entirely a dirt road. What makes the legend of Morrow Road fascinating is that there are many versions of how this legend came to be. What happened to the child? What happened to the woman? How did they disappear? Why do people claim to see orbs in the woods at night? Has anyone really seen the woman with bloody hands wandering down the road? Is there any validity from those who claim to hear a baby crying near the south bridge? There are about ten theories about what happened to the mother and child, including possible kidnapping, drowning, fire, freezing to death, and murder, among the possibilities. What keeps the legend alive is not only the mystery of the story but the many sightings of apparitions of the woman within feet of the road.

Sampier and Arwady have been fundraising for the last five years which includes their award-winning Morrow Road Haunted Trail. They have not stopped thinking and planning different ways of equity financing, as they declared in their latest open house which my wife, Judy, daughter Marlee, and I attended. Francis elaborated afterward on his website, “Open House was a huge success! Josh’s latest composition was premiered, Tobi & Josh’s collaborated mural was revealed, about 100 private invites attended. The new DVD handout was made available, and it was announced that the London Symphony Orchestra has been locked, and venture capital has begun to be received.”

Francis has investigated every aspect of the story, wrote the screenplay, and has spent hundreds of hours researching what it takes to make a successful and profitable movie. He decided to make this his first feature film not only because he lives very close to the actual Morrow Road and knew the legend but because of the potential for horror movies to be blockbusters. Think of Halloween, Carrie, The Ring, Scream, The Exorcist, Aliens, and of course, the cult classic, The Evil Dead. Think of all of the horror movies introduced virtually every week at movie theatres; remember the sudden unpredictable successes of 1999’s Blair Witch Project which cost less than $25,000 to shoot, a final budget below $750,000, and ended up grossing $249 million worldwide. Who can forget 2009’s Paranormal Activity, the supernatural horror movie which was one of the most profitable movies of all time, generating $179 million worldwide?

Francis studied horror movie marketing and realized that the popularity of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is unparalleled in the “horror community.” To excite diehard horror movie fans, he approached all five cast members of The Evil Dead and signed up Rich Demanincor and all three of the original ladies of the 1981 horror cult classic, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, and Sarah York ( The last cast member, Bruce Campbell, will most likely come on board once the film is funded.

Sampier also contracted one of the best cinematographers in Michigan who worked on the movies, 8 Mile and 21 Grams. Francis signed the special effects company behind War of the Worlds and X-Men 3. He added the stunt coordinator from Batman Begins, graphic designer for The Evil Dead, and signed the cast, mostly from Michigan. In fact, Morrow Road, according to the website, is “95% a Michigan film, both crew and talent living in, or having Michigan origin.” And then to top it off, he secured the London Symphony Orchestra and for public relations, Dick Delson & Associates, the same company that represented Jaws, American Graffiti, and The Lord of the Rings, among others.

The last year or two has brought some badly-needed excitement and pride to Michigan. Many movies and TV shows have been filmed here because of the state’s film incentives. Stars such as George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Aniston, and Hugh Jackman have filmed and lived here and contributed to Michigan’s economy. The television show, Detroit 187, was shot on location in the Metro Detroit area and shown on ABC, displaying Michigan scenery, streets, and history. The last episode, for example, was partially filmed in the awe-inspiring Henry Ford Museum.

Three years ago, a commitment from the Michigan Legislature was made to make Michigan the next mini-Hollywood. The excitement and jobs that this generated is hard to dispute, even if it has cost the state some tax dollars. Currently, the incentives rebate up to 42 percent of an approved production’s qualified in-state expenses for a movie, TV show or other project permitted under the law. They’re considered the most generous film incentives in the nation but have been criticized by some for not being revenue neutral or adding to state coffers.

Since the incentives were launched in 2008, 199 productions of varying types have been approved by the state, and collectively they qualified for $364 million in rebates. There is controversy about whether the state can afford these tax breaks but there have been studies praising the financial results of the incentives.  A recent study by Ernst & Young said the incentives created the equivalent of 3,860 full-time jobs for Michigan residents in 2010, and productions spent $531 million in the state over the past two years.

Newly elected Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed capping the incentives at $25 million annually starting in 2012. His administration seeks to curb tax credits in general as part of an effort to trim state government spending and bring the budget in line. Since his announcement, many film makers, not wanting to stay in limbo, have already left the state as have others hoping to find work in movies and television.

Ask yourself, how is this state going to grow and thrive if young people continue to leave the state? My son left after graduating college as have many of our friends’ children to find jobs and careers in other states. A friend’s son, who studied film in college and wants to make it his career, worked as a production assistant on Detroit 187 and realizes if the film incentives die, he may move to California to find work.

To help keep the film industry alive and vibrant in Michigan, Detroit Free Press columnist and author Mitch Albom has worked on modifying the film incentives to benefit the state and movie business (“Mitch Albom makes pitch to save state film incentives,” Bill Shea, Michigan Entertainment Network, March 16, 2011).The proposed measures he proposed are aimed at “increased economic benefit and fiscal return to the state from the incentives program.” Unfortunately, this proposal or any other may not be enough to change the mind of a “bean counter” like Snyder, who seems to think having a balanced budget will solve most of Michigan’s issues.

Leading a state is not just balancing a budget. Making business taxes fairer isn’t enough to bring in new businesses. Business owners are looking for good people to hire and if college graduates keep leaving the state for better opportunities, what chances do Michigan businesses have? Proponents of the “fair business tax” with no special incentives argue that leaders have been trying to diversify Michigan’s economy away from the automobile industry for years with limited success. But it is my opinion that we haven’t had enough incentives to get businesses to come here. I think we should do everything in our capacity to bring movies, clean energy, high tech, any industry with lasting potential, to get people moving here and staying here, who will make money and pay taxes. This is for the sustainable long-term benefit of Michigan and everyone who lives and works here now.

I hope that Rick Snyder doesn’t achieve what he did at Gateway Computer when he attempted to cut costs, subsequently allowing HP, Dell, and Apple to dominate the market. His tenure on the board of Gateway ran from 1991 to 2007 until Gateway was sold to the Taiwanese manufacturer, Acer Inc. on October 16, 2007. Because of his tenure at Gateway, outsourcing jobs was a campaign issue and even Snyder admitted that some jobs were outsourced. Yet, even though he was a Gateway board director, he said that outsourcing was not something he voted for.

Will Snyder let Michigan lose out in competition to other states the same way Gateway lost to HP and Apple? Will he pretend that it’s strictly business as jobs and people flee the state and cities lose population, leaving deserted factories and pothole-plagued streets? Will movies like Morrow Road be forced to leave the state along with the thousands of jobs that the entertainment industry has brought to Michigan?

I guess the good news is that Governor Snyder won’t be able to sell Michigan to Taiwan. On the other hand, anything is conceivable for the newly elected Michigan legislature which, at least until now, seems willing to let Michigan-made Morrow Road, Detroit 187, and dozens of other projects say goodbye to Michigan.

Jobs are starting to flee the state like ghosts, stuck in orbs along Morrow Road, I-75, and I-94, heading south to a warmer, friendlier climate, to states willing to do whatever it takes to thrive in the post-housing-financial-bubble-bust of the 2010s.

What a shame it would be if this is truly the end of the road.

From → Movies

One Comment
  1. Bruce Rosenblat permalink

    Great blog Arnie.. You bring some clarity to the average Michigan citizen regarding not only the real numbers but what a sad day it will be when we lose yet another revenue source for the state.

    My daughter has moved to Florida to persue her Masters in Speech Pathology. The big question is when she is done, besides family, is there a real reason to come back?.

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