DETROIT (Reuters) - An unmarked Detroit police car makes a screeching stop outside a downtown bus terminal and the homicide detective dashes out to search for a suspect.
Then the director yells cut, and actor Michael Imperioli and the dozens of extras posing as police and passersby for the new TV series “Detroit 1-8-7” saunter back into position to do it all again from another angle.
Welcome to Detroit, a half century into Motown’s decline and just months into a still controversial boom that has made it Hollywood’s bargain destination for filming.
Carolyn Tolley, who watched under a blue awning on a recent shoot for “Detroit 1-8-7,” credits Michigan’s rich tax incentives for movie production for keeping her working after jobs in advertising for the auto industry here dried up.
“I was leaving. I wouldn’t be here for sure,” said Tolley, a script supervisor who had been planning to move to Arizona before Hollywood came to her doorstep with a raft of projects.
Tolley points to the gypsy convoy of work trucks on hand for her shoot to argue that state tax incentives for production are succeeding in trickling down much-needed jobs and income.
“It’s about how this industry feeds so many other industries here,” she said.
Detroit’s population has dropped to less than half of its 1950s peak. Almost a third of the city is abandoned. One in six residents is out of work, and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is pushing a plan to shrink the city by encouraging residents to pull back into the healthiest remaining neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, a wave of films shot in the Detroit area and funded by a state program that refunds up to 42 percent of the cost of production is heading toward theaters.
Those include legal drama “Conviction” starring double Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, spy thriller “The Double” with Richard Gere and the robot action move “Real Steel” with Hugh Jackman.
In a city staggered by the long decline of the American auto industry, the effect of the sudden film wave has been to bring a dash of celebrity glamour to the prevailing gloom.
Doormen at the downtown Book Cadillac have had to deal with a gaggle of adoring fans hoping to catch sight of teen idol Miley Cyrus, when she was in town to shoot coming-of-age comedy “LOL.”
Gerard Butler (“Machine Gun Preacher”) and Demi Moore (“LOL”) surprised a crowd of regulars by turning up unannounced at a karaoke bar in nearby, working-class Garden City.
Some of the recent movies have capitalized on Detroit’s could-be-anywhere quality. A downtown street was made over as Wall Street at Christmas on a recent summer day for the sequel to comedy “Harold and Kumar, for example.
But the cast and crew of “Detroit 1-8-7” say the city’s fading glory and down-but-not out grit will be central to the TV crime drama that debuts on ABC on Tuesday.
“The landscape of this city tells a story. You can see what the city once was and what America once was and what it has been going through,” said Imperioli, who stars as Det. Louis Fitch. “It is a metaphor for a lot of what has been going on in our society today.”
Being in the city, he said, has also made it easier for him to play a Detroit cop. “The same thing went for ‘The Sopranos.’ I can’t imagine that show being shot in L.A.”
Michigan adopted the most generous film incentives in the nation in 2008. Spending eligible for the state’s incentive program is expected to top $300 million in 2010, up from $224 million last year.
About $27 million of that spending comes from “Detroit 1-8-7,” which has built out a complex in poverty-stricken Highland Park next to Detroit to shoot a dozen episodes.
The show’s complex in Highland Park, which also featured in Clint Eastwood’s 2008 movie “Gran Torino,” includes a made-for-TV police precinct, an interrogation room and a morgue for the show about Detroit homicide detectives.
“Whatever happens to our show — and we hope we last a long time there — there is a viable stage space right in the city that wasn’t there before,” said Jason Richman, executive producer of “Detroit 1-8-7.”
Critics say Michigan’s film incentives generate few full-time jobs and argue the funding would be better aimed at longer term projects or to support strained law enforcement, health care or education budgets.
With a new governor set to take office after a November election, the stakes are high.
“The evidence is overwhelming that the Michigan film credit has failed to produce any positive economic impact,” said Patrick Anderson, chief executive of the Anderson Economic Group and a sharp critic of the program.
Supporters point to spending on local actors and crew. Another benefit, they say, is that the incentives have made it possible to shoot low-budget independent films.
Director Rich Brauer just completed “Fitful,” a thriller that took advantage of the incentives to shoot in northern Michigan. “It gave my investor a much more warm and fuzzy feeling that he wasn’t going to lose all of his money,” Brauer said of the state support.
Meanwhile, with over half a dozen films shooting in Detroit recently, crews have struggled to keep track of the boom amid the roving camps that can spring up late at night in one part of the city and disappear by the next day.
“I actually went to the wrong base camp one night,” said Patrick McKee, a producer for “Detroit 1-8-7”, who has been in town since May to scout locations. “I think it was ‘Harold and Kumar.’”
Editing by Jill Serjeant