Quick: What do Detroit and Los Angeles have in common? Give up? Homelessness and Hollywood. The first issue might be easier to wrap your head around. Along with New York, Detroit and L.A. account for about 20% of the total homeless population in the U.S. according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But native son Jonathan Rayos believes the Motor City’s got plenty of star power, too. And as CEO of Michigan’s FilmEmerge , he’s building a celluloid bridge to Hollywood with hopes of revving up the flagging local economy--and helping the homeless in the process.
FilmEmerge’s co-founder and CTO Jason Waterman tells Fast Company that after the devastating collapse of the auto industry, economic development efforts turned to film production to get people back to work. "It has been the one glimmer of hope for much of the last two years," he says.
Indeed, since Michigan began offering movie producers a 42% tax rebate during the heart of the recession, the state’s been the backdrop in 110 productions including Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino and Transformers 3.
(L-R, Sound Mixer David Johnson, Sound Boom Loren Bryant, DP/Director Rich Brauer and 1st AD Laura Anderson Burnell on set of Deadrise. Courtesy Joahna Carol Photography)
FilmEmerge has been a steady engine during that time of growth, offering visiting producers a web portal to access more than 4,000 local equipment providers, services, and production professionals. Waterman admits that it wasn’t too difficult to get the site started from a tech standpoint, given his background working with Los-Angeles-based movie marketing firm Motive Entertainment.
Their biggest challenge, both Rayos and Waterman assert, was to bootstrap the business on a very slim monetization plan. Most of the information FilmEmerge provides is available for free Rayos says, but now that the company’s passed its second year, the two are working on strengthening the revenue stream by offering paid subscriptions and improving functionality to lure indie filmmakers on the festival circuit.
Meanwhile, the two founders also want to give back to the community. What began as Rayos’ effort to screen uplifting movies in homeless shelters became a full-fledged nonprofit in 2009. The FilmEmerge Foundation  is focused on assisting young filmmakers and retraining displaced workers in collaboration with other state initiatives, explains Rayos.
He’s particularly excited about the prospect of creating incubators at homeless shelters. "We can help these people get back on their feet with jobs in film," he says, "Because a good portion of them are educated."
Rayos says he’s approached local businesses for support and he’s almost ready to announce the names of three high-profile Hollywood producers who’ve committed to donating one percent of gross income from movies their filming over the next two years. "We can’t say who they are yet, but this is going to be big."
Will it be big enough to change the state’s fortunes? Waterman speculates that: "While Hollywood North will never provide the economic impact that the auto industry brings to our region, it can provide incentive to keep our creative class from leaving and to build a nationally-recognized creative community right here."
The challenge right now, notes Rayos, will be to stem the tide of depressing images and story lines that continue to come out of Hollywood. He says having an office in downtown Detroit gives him a front row seat to see the extent of the urban decay. “Some of those buildings are never coming back.” And it doesn’t help that some productions come only to film their explosion scenes or showcase an abandoned site as the scene of a crime. “We’re getting these images that are counterproductive,” says Rayos.
So the FilmEmerge Foundation will take this problem head-on, too. Rayos says they're in the process of identifying film projects that tell stories of hope and revival, in order to assist with funding. Stay tuned for more on that as it develops.
Meanwhile, Waterman remains upbeat. "I believe that the PR from Hollywood North will help all of Michigan’s industries by promoting the state and attracting new businesses and people."
Before too long, could Detroit once again be ready for its close-up?