Featured Faces: Alan LaFave
Pictured above with Rikki Jarret (L) and Jennifer Glynn (R)
Photo by Stacie Lech
Interview by Gina Myers
October 27, 2009

Anyone who has attended Hell's Half Mile Music and Film Festival (HHM) has most likely run into Festival Director Alan LaFave. The near lifelong Bay City resident and Bay Arts Council member lived in Grand Rapids for a few years, where he completed a bachelors degree in advertising and public relations at Grand Valley State University.  In addition to his HHM involvement, he works full time as the Formal Wear Events Manager for Men's Warehouse, overseeing bridal show programs across the nation and in Canada.  Recently at the Steinhaus, LaFave found the time to discuss HHM, the Michigan Film Incentive, and Bay City's potential.

GM:  When did you start HHM and what was the impetus for creating such an event?

AL:  We started planning the festival a year before the first one happened, which was in 2006. In fall 2005, I was down in Ann Arbor with a bunch of friends and we were watching Pinback.  We kept saying, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could see shows like this in Bay City or Saginaw?' We kept talking about how great the show was and began discussing what we could do in the area, and we took the idea a little further and thought it would be great to do a totally arts related event with sculpture, food, and everything. We really went overboard with the idea. I talked to a friend who was in ArtServe at the time, and she suggested we dial it down to one thing and do that one thing really well, so I thought, 'Okay. How about two things?' So we started gathering people who thought it would be an interesting idea, and I was asked to be on the board of the Bay Arts Council, so it was great timing. We were able to bring the idea to the council and run it through there, which made us elgible for grant opportunities, and there would be a little more administrative structure there that we could utilize, like the office stuff and the checking account.

GM:  With that first year, did you run into any problems with the festival?

AL:  Well, the first year, we didn't actually know how to run a film festival. How do you get a hold of films? How do people do it? So I went to the East Lansing Film Festival, met people there, connected with the festival director, Susan Woods, and just started asking her how we should start. She was awesome and gave us a lot of great ideas. From there I went to the Traverse City Film Festival and the Waterfront Film Festival. I started seeing how festivals were produced, and I took the ideas that I thought would best fit Bay City.

The thing that was an issue was trying to find funding. People didn't really understand what a film festival was, so there was an educational aspect built into it. And we needed to decide where to show films—how many locations would we need? Do we build it big like the size of festivals that already exist and expect that audience to come? We did that and we sort of have tightened it up over the past couple of years. We initially built it for a much larger audience, and our audience has been growing over the years, but it's not yet to the level where we can sell out every theater. We're doing 30 to 40 screenings, and that's a lot.

GM: So over the years you've scaled back some and you've seen the audience grow. Have you seen anything else change over the years?  Has the original vision stayed intact?

AL:  I think the original vision has stayed intact. The core idea was to do something that nobody else was doing.  So if we were going to offer music options, we were not going to repeat anything that was happening in the local bar scene already. You can already see a lot of good cover bands, a lot of blues, folk stuff, and metal out there, so we wanted to look at the alternative scene and find bands that don't make it any closer than Detroit. Funny thing is, when we began looking we found bands from around here who were playing Detroit but not here, like the Esperantos. So that idea, offering something that no one else is offering, has stayed true, but we adjusted some things.  Instead of four bands a night, we went to three bands a night, and instead of two nights of music, we now do one night. We're kind of adjusting it based on the size of where we are at right now. But the core of it is still there.

GM:  This year's festival recently concluded. For you, what is the best part of it all?

AL:  I love the interaction with the filmmakers and the audiences, and I love hearing the audience react the same way that I did when I first saw the films, and sometimes their reaction is even greater. They absolutely adore some films that I had thought, 'Oh, this is a pretty good movie.'  Connecting the filmmaker and the film with the audience is the absolute best thing. I love the q & a and the panel discussions. I had so much fun moderating the panel discussions this year and last. It was a blast.

GM:  It seems like the directors, producers, and actors have a lot of fun here, too. Do you think they are helping spread the word of the festival?

AL:  Definitely. I was talking to one of the filmmakers who presented here two years ago, and they were at a film festival in Ohio, and someone was telling them about a really great film festival in Michigan that they should look out for, and they were like, 'Yeah, we know one too,' and they both were talking about Hell's Half Mile.

Gorman Bechard, who directed Friends (With Benefits), was talking about his previous film You Are Alone, and was saying that the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, AL, was the festival for that film, and by the end of HHM, he said, this so far was the festival for this film.  And, they got the accolades, they won the Fest Best award, which is the top audience award.  And he enjoyed it so much, he is considering bringing his next film production here.

GM:  I talked to Gorman about a week after the festival, and I had said, “I hope you had a great time in Bay City,” and he said, 'Yeah, we’re still talking about it.'  Kenneth Hughes had said something about that too.  Having the directors come here and see what is available may be another draw for the area.

AL:  Absolutely.  When I was at the Traverse City Film Festival this summer, they had the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council meeting, which I think they do every couple of months.  It's Michael Moore and several other filmmakers, like Hopwood Dupree who is head of TicTock Studios in Holland, MI, and also runs the Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck.  So these people were all present, and I was able to ask what as a Michigan Film Festival am I able to do to help promote filmmaking in Michigan, and the resounding answer was 'Bring the directors here to see it.'  And that's what we're doing.  That's one of our biggest expenditures: travel and hospitality for the filmmakers.  We totally believe that the most interesting thing about the festival is we get to meet the filmmakers and hear their stories—the stories about their productions, the mishaps, and all the great things about it.

GM:  It sounds like that is an expenditure a lot of the film festivals don't make—is that true?

AL:  Yeah, I was surprised.  And that's the interesting thing about not being in the industry and not being a part of another film festival is we're just going by what sounds good to us, and what sounds good to us is to have the filmmakers here as much as we possibly can.  I was surprised to find out that filmmakers will fly themselves to festivals.  I mean, we've had people do that—we can't afford to fly everyone in.  We have a certain budget and once that's met, we're done.  If other people want to come, it's on their own dime, but we still try to pay for them as much as possible—pay for food, maybe hotel accommodations or at least getting them a good rate if we can.  We do a lot of that, and we're finding out we do a fairly high percentage of the filmmakers compared to other smaller independent festivals, so I think that is something we can promote.  We started promoting it some this year at withoutabox.com where we put out our call for submissions. We did a shared spotlight ad blast that just had us and one other film festival, and we got to write a lot of the script for that. One of the things we put in there was that we pay for hotel and travel for several filmmakers, and I think that is what got us this huge blast of submissions.

GM:  So once you receive all of these submissions, what is the process of narrowing them down?

AL:  We have approx 10 to 12 people on our programming committee.  We have senior programmers who have been around for the last couple of years, and we also have new Associate Programmers.  We initially thought we would divide up into three different groups and then have each film screened by at least two groups, but we kind of went back to our old ways, which meant sometimes we would split up, sometimes we'd watch them together, with the idea that it has to be watched by at least seven people from the group. We have a rating system from 1 to 5.  Anything that has a 3 or higher rating is in consideration, so we look back at those films.  Some films that may have gotten a 3.5 could beat out something that got a 4 because we are trying to look at the whole program and say, 'Okay, do our three documentaries cover music.…'  We try to make it, not to be everything for everyone, but something for as many people as possible.  So having something edgy and something more commercial.  We try to get a balance.  

I was excited to talk to the filmmakers who came and other filmmakers who didn't attend who said how great they thought our program was.  And that is coming from people who were accepted into the program, of course [laughs].  But it is great to see people really thought highly of how we were programming the festival, enough that we see people come back.  Kenneth Hughes has been in the festival for three years now—he had a short film this year, a short film last year, and a feature film three years ago.  He came back to do a free workshop—that's awesome.  Scott Storm from Official Rejection is coming back next year to volunteer.  He says, 'I don't care if we have a film for the festival or not, I'm coming to volunteer.'  And that means a lot to us.

When filmmakers who go to other film festivals are telling other filmmakers to submit to us that means a lot.  We get a lot more submissions and a lot more choices, but it winds up being similar production value, quality of film, quality of story as what we've had in the past, so it keeps building every year.  

And it was nice to talk to Gorman afterwards too because I try to do an impromptu survey with as many of the filmmakers as I can asking, 'What made you choose us to submit your film?'  And he said, 'You had the word music in your festival.'  And although music is a smaller part of the entire puzzle, it is interesting that people will choose us because of that.  Or the name.  Ken Hughes, when he found us, he said the name was funky; it was cool.  It sounded intriguing. I wanted to learn more about it.  And that's what we're trying to be—just a little bit different.  We could have been the Bay City Film and Music Festival, but it just doesn't have very much cache to it.  It's not very sexy.

GM:  It seems like a lot of people see potential in this festival. What do you see as the future of the festival, or what do you hope to see happen?

AL:  Audience development is going to be a big part of what we do in years to come as far as trying to get more people to fill seats.  Every year we become more recognizable and that helps, and I think that helped this year because we had fewer dollars to promote with, a lot less, and our audience was almost equal to last year's, which was just phenomenal.  We set the bar pretty low this year.

Besides building the audience, I would like to bring people into the festival who really have the mind to grow it. Certainly we're not going to be Waterfront of the Traverse City Film Festival, but we can become significant and relevant to both audiences and filmmakers and I think that  is something that is worth while.  So bringing people in  who can help grow the workshops, the educational aspect of it. I want to connect more with local filmmakers and connect more with other Michigan festival directors.  One of the things that Traverse City is doing next year is they are going to invite other Michigan festivals to come to Traverse City and get a firsthand look at how they do things, which is really cool because just about three weeks before, I was talking to Doug Stanton, who is one of the co-founders of the Traverse City Film Festival, and I suggested, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could all get together and share ideas and help promote and share audiences,' and he said that was something he could definitely get behind.

With HHM, we've discussed creating our own non-profit for the festival so we can exist on our own, still working with the Bay Arts Council on a number of things, but also finally coming into our own and really being identified in the community as a free-standing event instead of just something produced through the Bay Arts Council.  There are benefits both ways, but we think it's just about time we put our big boy pants on.

GM:  Besides the work for the festival, how are you involved with the Bay Arts Council?

AL:  For the past three years, I've been the programming chairperson for the Wednesday in the Park concert series.  I will not be the chairperson for the 2010 series, but I will be on the committee.  We've got a number of new people involved, and I think after three years, it is nice to be able to sort of hand it over to someone else to manage.  But with that, I am also involved with a number of other things.  I am working on some ideas for public art, and outside of the Arts Council I’m working on the grant review committee for the Bay Area Community Foundation community initiative fund. 

GM:  Have you always been involved with the arts?

AL:  [Laughs] No, no, not at all.  I have no artistic talent whatsoever, but I always seem to surround myself with people who do.  Life is more interesting with them around, whether it's writers or musicians or filmmakers … although I did do some film and video in college.  I took a few classes in video production, so I have some experience. I just didn't follow  through with it.

I knew a couple of people who were involved with the Bay Arts Council, and I was trying to get involved in the community a little more.  I was involved with the area soccer association for awhile.  I did some fundraising with them when they were trying to develop their own soccer complex—I wasn't hugely involved with that, but I touched on it a little. I had coached for a number of years and been involved with a few other things with the soccer association. From that, I transitioned to the arts council, but I had no prior association with the arts.

GM:  You are also involved with something called the Bay City Film Initiative. Can you tell me a little about that?

AL:  The idea behind the group is to find people who will help put the 'Open for Business' sign out for Bay City as far as film production goes.  With the Michigan Film Incentive, there is a lot of attention focused on Michigan right now.  What we want to do is refocus that attention on Bay County, so that we're under consideration.  Drew Barrymore did a bunch of stuff for Whip It in Birch Run. That's the closest we have gotten to a major production.  We're just trying to get people's attention and make it easy for professionals to do business here: identify resources, put together buildings and homes of people who are willing to have films shot in their locations, and so on. With having the film festival, we're able to introduce some of the filmmakers, whether it's directors, actors, producers, or writers, to the area, and it's great for them to see the area and think, 'Yeah, I can see myself doing something here.' But how do they know it is a community that is welcoming to them?

GM:  From talking with some other people in the industry, I have heard that people thought the incentive would make a huge impact overnight, but that isn't the case because we are lacking the proper infrastructure as far as production companies go and even lacking things like businesses to provide catering for film sets ...

AL:  Yes, absolutely.  Infrastructure is a big part of it, and it's having the resources such as the equipment and experienced crew, too.  I think we're only able to produce 2 to 3 productions at a time with the crew that we have in the state, and it might not even be that high.  Red Dawn is shooting in Warren right now, and for films like that, they have to bring in the specialized crew because we don't have that here.  What we do have are sound stages and some production facilities. I have met some guys who have a sound stage in Manistee, MI, out in the middle of nowhere, and they're focusing on the independent films, which is awesome.  I hope I can introduce people to them and they can do some things for us for the festival as well. But yeah, I mean a lot of the money still goes out.  We were listening to some numbers last night … I went down to Pontiac for the rally to preserve the Michigan Film Incentive.  A couple of other states did this research that hasn't been done in Michigan yet since we are still new to the industry, going from $1 million in 2007 to over $100 million the next year. It's just amazing.  In New Mexico, I think it is, for every dollar the state puts out they get $1.50 back; in New York it's $1.90; in Louisianna, it's $6.00.  And that was when they had their incentive at 15%, and now they are up to 30% because they saw the potential for that business to have money circulate in the state.  As we build our crews and we get more sound stages, production facilities, lighting companies, and sound companies, the money is just going to stay here because that is product being rented here; that means caterers taking care of the business, and carpenters, limo drivers.  All of it.  And we want to bring some of that to Bay City.  It may not be to the level of a Clint Eastwood movie, but wouldn't it be great if 3 or 4 productions or more a year at any level were shot here, whether they have a $50,000 budget or a $50 million budget? 

I've got posters that I am going to put up around town that say, 'I am working because of the Michigan Film Incentive.' The people I met last night were working because of this.  There was a guy there who just moved from L.A., moved his video-gaming company to Detroit, because he and his wife were tired of L.A., and the area reminded him of his home in upstate New York. Now he lives in Farmington and is going to have 100 employees in the next year or so. That's awesome.  The only reason he came here is because an agent who lived in Monroe, MI told him he should check it out, and he visited, and within 72 hours he bought a house.  Tell me what other industry is doing that in Michigan right now.  The research in battery power and solar energy is going to do that too, but that's the technical aspect of it.  This is the creative aspect end of it.  You need both.

The Michigan Senate has already passed legislation that messes with the incentive.  You know what that says after only 18 months to all of Hollywood?  'I can' trust that these people are going to commit to this, so why should I spend my money here if they are going to keep changing their incentive?' Hollywood is not going to take us seriously, and I think we only have one chance for them to take us seriously.  I think there are some things they can do to make the incentive better to Michigan companies, but that isn't exactly what they are doing.  Although they are doing one cool thing—they are increasing the infrastructure incentive from 25% to 32%— but that's not going to mean anything if we're not going to be taken seriously, and no one brings their film here to be produced.  

So they should wait two or three years, let it run, get the industry set up, and then they can finesse it so it makes more sense, but let's not do it in this time where it is in desperation to balance the budget.  It's a small drop in the bucket, which I know they're looking for a lot of drops to make a bucket full of change … but I don’t know.  It's something people are getting excited about, like this solar energy development.  Are they going to change any incentives for that?  Yeah, the mega credits are in place for that; they understand that.  Are they going to change it? No, they are asking for more money for that.

© Gina Myers, 2009