Over the course of two generations, Detroit has gone from a symbol of American industrial pro-wess to a shorthand term for the worst of American urban decay. The city’s hardest days are over, though—the days when commentators were calling Detroit a third-world city or, as Diane Sawyer once said, “the first urban domino to fall”—and there are real signs of recovery.
Businesses have started moving into the once empty downtown area. New housing developments have filled in previously vacant lots in the neighborhoods surrounding the city center. But three decades of middle-class flight, which started in earnest with a riot in 1967, have left Detroit in sorry shape. While the metro area has grown, the city’s population is about half of what it was in the 1950s. The majority of the region’s population and economy resides in the suburbs. So too do the region’s cultural resources.
Detroit, to put it another way, doesn’t exercise the whirlpool effect of most large cities. It doesn’t draw people, ideas, and resources down into a single center. It has trouble achieving that critical mass where individual cultural activities and institutions exceed the sum of their parts and become a vital cultural scene. This, however, is not to say that the city’s film scene is altogether barren. Detroit and its surrounding suburbs have their share of working filmmakers, and there is a thriving production community, though its output is almost exclusively focused on the auto industry. Still, it is a film scene in-progress and likely to remain so for some time.
DFC: Ten years, three names, one acronym
The Detroit Film Center was formed around the idea of sharing resources, specifically an eight-plate Steenbeck flatbed. A little more than a decade ago, DFC founder Robert Andersen discovered the Steenbeck for sale, and thought to purchase it using cable franchise money (money from franchise fees paid to the city of Detroit by cable companies, a portion of which is set aside for local film projects). The administrator of those funds, a government functionary, told Andersen that he could have the money if he put together an organization of twenty people and agreed to house the machine in the city of Detroit. The organization Anderson put together was called the Detroit Film Co-op, the first of three names that would use the DFC acronym. The group incorporated in 1993, changing its name to the Detroit Filmmakers’ Coalition when members realized “co-op” was a legal designation, and soon began holding workshops to raise money for the $225-a-month rent on offices in a former downtown department store. They started holding monthly screenings of local work, and after that, Anderson says simply, “One thing led to another.”
Last October, the DFC celebrated its tenth anniversary and changed its name yet again to the Detroit Film Center, a name members felt better reflected the organization’s increasingly inclusive mission. The DFC is now a 180-member organization with an annual budget of around $150,000, and is very likely the most important resource center for independent filmmakers in the city. The group offers more than a dozen regular filmmaking classes and workshops, taught by local film professionals and university instructors, on topics ranging from basic film production to screenwriting to Super 8 experimental work. It provides inexpensive equipment rental, holds open screenings on the last Friday of each month, and sponsors several film series including the New Cinema series, which focuses exclusively on independent and experimental filmmakers.
And the DFC is growing. In February 2002, the group hired its first full-time employee, executive director Anthony Morrow, and in May, signed a five-year lease on a 3,600-square-foot storefront in the Book Tower building downtown, a space more than three times the size of their previous location. The organization also plans to launch the DFC Academy in 2004—a low-cost program of instruction in film and video production and digital design—while other ongoing plans seek to double the number of regular courses to accommodate a program that’s expanding to include digital filmmaking techniques.
In an effort to invite a broader community, DFC is also trying to appeal to film lovers as well as filmmakers. “The idea has been to offer things for a lot of people out there who don’t [just] want to make films, but are appreciators of the art form,” Morrow said. “Once we started telling more people about it and shifting the perspective, more people started coming down.” Anderson added that expanding the organization and broadening its mission are part and parcel of maintaining its relevance. “If you want to keep [DFC] an important part of the community, you have to be responsive to the needs of the community,” he said. “This is an outlet for people to engage in what I would consider the most popular communicative form of media in the world: film and cinema language,” he said. “We’ve given hundreds, really thousands, of people the ability to be able to speak in this language. I think that’s incredibly important.”
Detroit Docs: One of the newest, and only, games in town
For the most part, Detroit Docs executive director and founder Chris Walny is terribly excited about her fledgling film festival. In November, just a few days before the festival went up for its second year, she gushed about the 10,000 hits her website had received the month before, along with the festival’s substantive programming. “We’re showing sixty-five films, which is insane for one weekend,” she said. “We have thirty directors attending. It’s great.” At times, though, she has looked at the event a bit ruefully. “There are days when I can’t believe that I have to do this,” the former freelance producer contends, “[and] that I live in a city that doesn’t have a film festival I can just go to.”
Detroit is a city with a lousy track record as far as film festivals are concerned. “They don’t stick around,” said Janet Lockwood, director of the Michigan Film Office. “The city’s just never gotten a film festival that’s lasted.” Ironically, though, this has probably worked in Walny’s favor. When she started the festival in 2002, she thought it would be little more than a showcase for the documentary work of her friends. But a call for entries on filmfestivals.com generated a huge response, and Walney’s small-scale vision quickly grew into a weekend-long event that has generated a generous and impressive dose of attention. Detroit Docs may be new, but in a city where the competition is thin, it’s already being seen as a major source of hope. Walny welcomes the encouragement, but admits to being slightly overwhelmed by the venue’s sudden success. “It [has] turned into a bigger thing than I had expected.”
In addition to putting on the festival, Detroit Docs has partnered with the Woodward Film Society, an organization based in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham that sponsors local film events, for a monthly documentary screening series that began in April 2003. The focus of the series has begun to shift from documentaries in general toward “more cause-related events,” Walny said. “We’d like to partner up with other nonprofits and use these films to help people get their messages out. Documentaries do that so well.”
Walny has said that ultimately she would like for Detroit Docs to function as a resource center, providing information on grant research, funding ideas, and crew support, but that she will be patient with the process. “It’s in the works in the board’s mind.”
One city, ten screens
Phoenix Theaters Bel-Air Centre would be exceptional in most cities. It’s an independently owned multiplex—a ten-screen theater owned by partners Cory Jacobson and Charles Murray.
In Detroit, it’s even more exceptional. It’s the city’s only first-run movie theater.
Like many of Detroit’s former residents, the city’s movie theaters have made their way to the suburbs over the last three decades. For Jacobson and Murray, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The two bought and refurbished the dilapidated theater in 2001, and renamed it after the mythical bird that rose from its own ashes. They have done well enough that in May 2003 they were able to purchase a second nine-screen multiplex in the suburb of Farmington Hills.
The facts of its ownership aside, few independent films ever make their way to the main screens at the Phoenix. With the dearth of competition, Jacobson can pretty much get any film he wants, and says family films, comedies, and action flicks attract more of an audience than art films ever would, though a handful of local filmmakers have held screenings there.“[It’s] fun when people come along and have enthusiasm for their work,” Jacobson says—and film crews working in the city often use the forty-seat screening room to view dailies.
Where the local film scene is concerned, Jacobson said, “There’s a very natural connection.”