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Hollywood may lose a favorite backdrop
Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News
Just as Michigan aims to become a major film location, it's losing its star attraction: the derelict Michigan Central Depot in southwest Detroit.
On Monday, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signs into law major tax incentives designed to dramatically boost the number of movies shot in Michigan. Yet one of the state's most popular film locations is taking a bow. The crumbling depot's reclusive billionaire owner has decided the old station has seen enough of Hollywood's spotlight.
Closed since Jan. 15, 1988, and thoroughly looted since, the decaying Beaux-Arts, neoclassical façade with its stories of broken windows can be seen in a current commercial for the Spike TV series "DEA." In "Transformers," one of two big-budget Hollywood movies recently shot at the depot, the film climaxes with the villainous Megatron chasing actor Shia LaBeouf through the graffiti-covered lobby and onto the tattered roof of the train station. "The Island," the other big Hollywood movie, featured a car chase roaring through the station.
"Every filmmaker from New York City or L.A. or anywhere, they ask to see the train station," said David Rumble, a film location scout in Detroit who has worked on several films at the station. "It doesn't matter if they are going to shoot there, they just want to see it because it's legend in the film industry. It's so beautiful and haunting."
Janet Lockwood, director of the state's Film Office, also appreciates the depot's ruined glory, saying: "For a post-apocalyptic backdrop, you can't do any better."
But now you can't do it at all. Just as Michigan is poised to launch one of the most aggressive film incentive packages in the nation, the train station's owner says the show won't go on.
"We've been told out of safety concerns," Lockwood said. "'Transformers' was the last film to use the interior."
State film officials say the decision was made by station owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, the billionaire transportation magnate who also owns the Ambassador Bridge. Repeated calls to Moroun's office were not returned.
On Monday, Granholm will sign into law measures that include tax cuts and credits, loans and production assistance to lure movie, television and digital media producers to Michigan. The film industry generated $4 million in economic impact last year, said Liz Boyd, Granholm's spokeswoman, when six films were shot in the state.
Boyd said similar tax incentives helped created $100 million film industries in Louisiana, New Mexico and Virginia.
By Thursday, the state's film office was reviewing 78 scripts for potential films to be shot in Michigan. There are 15 films with $10 million-plus production budgets considering shooting in Detroit once the new legislation is in place, said Al Fields, the city's deputy chief operating officer and head of the Detroit Film Office. Fields wouldn't say if any of those films wanted to shoot at the train station.
"It's a common request," Fields said, adding that he hopes Moroun can be talked into opening the train station to filming again.
"They're a very cooperative company to work with and pretty smart," Fields said. "I hope that they're thinking they don't want the location to be over-used and people would get tired of seeing it. So maybe it can reappear."
Location scout Rumble described the train station as "the most iconic dead building in the city."
And it may stay that way for years. Next week, the mayor's office is set to release a list of 50 commercial buildings it wants to see demolished. The train station is not on that list, and city officials were at a loss to explain why.Throughout the years, there have been a number of planned and failed renovation attempts, including a convention center, casino, shopping mall and lofts. A few years ago, there was talk of the train station becoming the city police headquarters
"The only real option for that train station is to tear it down, and I have no idea if that is going to happen anytime soon," said George Jackson, head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp, the quasi-public agency that promotes development in Detroit.
"That is one building, well, let me stop right there," Jackson said. "That is some building."