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Terminated workers find new future in film

Kevin Lavery, WKAR News
A production crewman checks a camera on a student-built film set at Michigan State University.

By Kevin Lavery, WKAR News


(East Lansing, MI) – When Michigan instituted one of the nation's most generous tax credit programs 14 months ago, filmmakers flocked to the state to shoot their next production. Aside from attracting large studios, the incentive is also meant to train homegrown production assistants to work in the industry.

This week, about 60 students at Michigan State University are doing just that. They're wrapping up work on a short feature film. The class is their first step on a journey of re-invention.

AUDIO: Here's the sound you don't hear when you plop down with your popcorn to catch the next summer blockbuster (SFX).

Actors may get all the juicy dialogue -- well, this guy had a choice line -- but banging wood and ripping tape are the soundtrack of the film production assistant.

An army of blue-shirted students is busy making sets and going over camera shots on the final three days of what's been a three-week crash course in the art of film. Though each of them started out on a different road, recently, life has written them into the same script.

"Virtually everyone we have has been fired from a previous career," says Gary Reid.

He's a telecom instructor at Michigan State University, and the lead supervisor on this project. The film he's leading is actually called "Fired." It's the story of a middle-aged accountant who finds himself downsized at the hands of a younger boss. Downsized, fired, whatever the term Reid says his students have been there:

"They range in age from mid-20's; people that have recently graduated from college, to late-50's," says Reid. "People have had full-blown careers that are looking for another option."

The course is a collaboration between MSU, Lansing Community College and Capital Area Michigan Works. Reid says after Michigan began offering a 42 percent tax credit for studios that hired local talent, industry leaders and instructors came together to create an intensive curriculum:

"It's impractical to expect that any studio could bring their whole group here," says Reid. "So it really makes the most amount of sense for Michigan to have qualified production assistants, and that's exactly what we're focusing on."

At its creation last December, the program received about 1,000 applicants. It was narrowed down to 100. Those who made the cut proudly wear the film's title on their shirts. For Melody Teodoro-Kurtis, it's a badge of honor:

"Ironically, during the time of the candidate process, my company was going through a workforce reduction," she says. "And I decided to put all my eggs in one basket and decided to go for it."

Kurtis spent five years in IT (information technology), though she majored in music. She's been keeping tabs on the tax credit program, and she's optimistic that it's a shot in the arm for Michigan's sagging economy. Kurtis says she'd enjoyed hearing from the film experts on the set who've shared their wisdom and experiences.

"Telling you that this is a very grueling business; this is not a 9 to 5, bankers' hours job," she says. "You're going to have to go out there and support the business."

Elizabeth Stroik has a similar tale. She started off in elementary education, but realized it wasn't the right fit. Now, she's learning the complexities and cooperation required to make a film.

"You can do it with a crew of four or five people; it's just a lot of work involved," Stroik says. "But there's a lot of stuff that goes into it; it's not just a video camera and you go."

The students continue shooting "Fired" until Saturday. Then, after some fast editing on Sunday, each will receive a DVD copy on Monday, along with a certificate. After three busy weeks of lights and cameras, it will be time to put some new skills into action.

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