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By Barbara Coven-Ellis
It's funny. Michiganders' dedication to the idea of "buy locally" is evidenced everyday on our freeways. I've spent time in just about every state in the union and no where, by my recollection, is the percentage of American-made cars so high as on the streets and freeways of Michigan.
And now, one of the many branches of the environmental movement encourages you to "buy locally" (food and goods produced nearby) so as to reduce one's carbon footprint.
When you think about it, it makes sense; because when you "buy locally" you are supporting your friends and neighbors and their businesses, and they, in turn, funnel their monies right back into your community.
But how often do we apply that mindset to the arts? If you're a reader here, chances are that you already support local theater with your attendance - which is wonderful! But did you know that very few actors can actually survive on the seven-to-12 week contracts offered by most area theaters even if they are fortunate enough to be employed theatrically on a regular business?
Why? Because most of the contracts pay a salary that is roughly equivalent to minimum wage - yet they require time commitments of 30-45 hours a week!
Now, there is no "blame" here. The local professional theaters pay their actors as well as they can, and many of the contracts are negotiated through Actors Equity Association, the union for professional stage actors. It's not that anyone is out to get anyone else, it's just that all those lovely things like costumes, lighting, sets, the people who design all those things, the administrators, the ticket sellers and even the mortgage holders all have to get their respective piece of the pie.
So the slices tend to be pretty darn slim.
So how do actors survive?
In this market, we have been extremely fortunate to have a wonderful ally - the auto industry. Actors here are used regularly at auto shows as "product specialists" and as narrators (those folks standing up on a platform, in gorgeous clothing, telling you all about the new models) here and throughout the country. And the constant overhaul of car lines and models means that there has always been a pressing need for actors to appear in "industrial films" - films that are used to train the people who eventually sell and service the products.
As a matter of fact, for quite a while the greater Detroit area was the top maker of "industrial (training) films" in the United States. We produced more training films here than in Hollywood!
Additionally, auto manufacturers drew upon the acting talent and driving skills of Michiganders to produce their commercials. It used to be a fun challenge to watch Big 3 car commercials and try to guess in which community they were shot. "Was that Somerset Mall's parking lot?" "Ooo that looks like that new equine community in Milford!" "I recognize that overpass at I-75 and I-94!" "Hah! They're using the RenCen for a drive-by shot again!"
Michigan actors regularly appeared in commercials on television screens across the country. This was a good place to be for someone involved in acting and production. The housing was affordable, the cost of living within reason and the state offered them a safe environment in which to live and raise their families.
But as our state's economy weakened and the Big 3 pulled their respective belts ever tighter, the production of industrial films dropped precipitously. And commercials? Well, all you have to do is watch a few and you'll notice that most are of the exteriors of cars. They don't feature film clips of families traveling from inside the car or van. They rarely even show a mom unloading groceries in the family driveway, or loading up the kids (filthy, of course) after their sporting activities. And interestingly enough, when they DO feature these things, it is very obvious to those of us who live in the Midwest that the film was shot in the much milder climes of Southern California.
The result? Area acting and production professionals are having a harder and harder time making a living here, and so many of our best and brightest are often forced to leave the area or the industry for which they are trained.
But to me, the big question is: WHY are companies doing this?
It must be just as expensive, if not more so, to do these commercial shoots in other areas, especially considering that you have to fly the advertising people from the corporate headquarters to the sites of the shoots to oversee the production. Whenever you do commercial shoots there are several people there who represent the actual company for which the commercial is being produced.
And the Big 3 aren't the only ones.
There are three major pizza chains that were founded in this area. Of the three, only Hungry Howie's still produces its commercials locally. The Michigan Lottery continues to produce commercials here, as do the three Detroit Casinos, using local talent and production companies. OnStar uses voice talent that is all based right here in the area. Fifth Third Bank does its commercials in Michigan (although they are usually non-union), and Comerica has been doing a lovely set of "industrials" that are styled after popular television shows and films, which utilize area acting and production talent. And while Bissell continues to shoot its commercials locally, they regularly choose to use Chicago or New York talent, even when local directors insist that the talent available locally is just as good AND doesn't cost the extra dollars incurred by paying the traveling costs of an out of area actor, as well as their housing and per diem costs during the days of the shoot.
So what's my point in all this?
I guess what I'm trying to show is that we HAVE the local resources to help support acting and production professionals in this area. There are many multinational businesses that are headquartered here, as well as numerous others that are multi-state. Just as we need to support local businesses, and therefore our own communities, we also need to encourage those same businesses to use the multitude of talent available right here in Michigan. We have ad agencies here that are known all over the world - Campbell-Ewald, Carmichael Lynch, BBDO and others.
Michigan businesses need to look to local advertisers, and local advertisers need to remember and employ local talent.
So, just as YOU help local acting and production professionals every time you gather in a theater for a performance, you can also help them, and the area economy in general, by encouraging businesses to look to Michigan talent and Michigan vistas when producing their advertisements (be they print or film).
Remind them that dollars spent within Michigan go back into the communities of the people who work for them. That money spent out-of-state on projects that could more cheaply be shot here, is money that goes to support another economy, not our hungry one here. Encourage them to "think locally" when considering creative projects.
And watch as the dollars trickle down into our local economies and help us all.
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