Published in Economic Development
Students at Compass College of Film & Media in Grand Rapids. Students at Compass College of Film & Media in Grand Rapids. COURTESY PHOTO

Film education programs aim to increase industry access in West Michigan

BY Sunday, January 30, 2022 06:32pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Victor Williams describes the Grand Rapids Media Initiative and Film Incubator as a “dream space” that he wishes he had while growing up in Grand Rapids.

Williams runs the Grand Rapids HipHop Coalition and founded the incubator (GRMIFI) last year with Jazmyne Fuentes and Rodney Brown. The nonprofit film incubator recently moved into its first location at 1110 Wealthy St. SE in the Wealthy Theater Annex building. 

The GRMIFI aims to get more Black and brown people employed in film and media positions in Grand Rapids by offering free, professional training in film and multimedia, as well as access to equipment.

“What we’ve found over the past couple of years is there is an entire industry in Grand Rapids of video and media-related work, and the amount of Black and brown people involved in that is very small,” Williams told MiBiz. “There is a lot of money to be made, and Black and brown people are not part of that.”

Indeed, the proliferation of video and social media is driving demand for production services. Suzanne Zack, affiliate professor of film and video at Grand Valley State University, said West Michigan has maintained a fairly strong corporate and commercial film industry. GVSU at any given time has roughly 300 students majoring in film and video, Zack said.

“A lot of our students get internships, opportunities and jobs working for small production companies that are in the area to make videos,” Zack said. “It seems like there is an explosion of need right now. Everyone needs a video and pictures for their social media, so there are lots of opportunities.”

Increasing equity

Advocates and instructors like Williams are seeking more equity in the field as that demand increases.

Williams recently asked several large companies and organizations in Grand Rapids if they were working with any people of color for video or media production at their company. He said only 10 percent indicated that they were. The few companies that were working with a Black videographer were all using the same person, he added.

Less than 6 percent of writers, directors and producers of U.S.-produced films are Black, according to research compiled in a 2021 report by McKinsey & Co. For many people, breaking into the industry starts with a low or unpaid internship, which makes it a difficult career path for people with less generational wealth, including a disproportionate number of people of color. 

“We’re going to put an end to that and have an apprentice program at GRMIFI where we’ll bring in people and allow them to work under very qualified people we’re bringing in from Chicago, Los Angeles and New York,” Williams said. “Each one will have an apprentice from Grand Rapids that will be able to train and build up their resumes.”

The goal is to take on 20 people and launch the apprenticeships in mid-February, Williams said. 

“This is an issue of equity and economics,” Williams said. “You’re cutting literally an entire race out of an entire industry, not just in Hollywood but here locally in Grand Rapids — that’s where one of the greatest discrepancies is happening. We know people that are struggling and want to do the same work others are getting rich doing.”

Participants in the incubator program may also get connected to work opportunities through Grand Stand Pictures LLC, a film production company that Williams, Fuentes and Brown co-founded in 2018. The company also recently moved into the Wealthy Street Annex building with GRMIFI. 

Grand Stand Pictures is set to start filming a documentary in February based on the book, “A City Within a City.” Penned by historian Todd Robinson, the book examines the civil rights movement in Grand Rapids. Williams and his business partners hope the documentary will help share the important piece of local history with a younger audience.

Between Grand Stand Pictures, the documentary and GRMIFI, Williams and his business partners want to be “connectors for the community,” he said. 

“This is something I always wished was available for my community and me growing up here,” Williams said. “If I created a dream space for a young me, this is what it would be. It’s going to be a fun spot for everybody.”

Connecting international, local talents

Jay Greer, president of Grand Rapids-based Compass College of Film & Media, hopes to show current and prospective students the many filmmaking opportunities that do not always require moving to Hollywood.

“In the last five years, there are way more streaming services and more people doing marketing online,” Greer said. “Half of our students now want to stay in Michigan and go into the media side of the film industry. What happens if you’re not in the industry and you don’t know what all the job opportunities are? There are several hundred different job opportunities.”

The private, nonprofit college is in its 25th year and recently rebranded its name (from Compass College of Cinematic Arts) and logo to emphasize the offerings at Compass and the broader film industry. The college also plans to grow, and recently purchased the building at 41 Sheldon Blvd. SE for $2.15 million from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. Compass College previously shared the space with ArtPrize for about 10 years until the organization moved out of the space in December 2020.

A former ArtPrize meeting and event space in the building was repurposed into a state-of-the-art sound stage with high quality equipment. The college hopes to raise $300,000 to equip the theater and other parts of the building for professional shoots, Greer said. 

Compass currently has 75 students enrolled and an alumni base of nearly 900. Greer also plans to bring in a national distributor this year to give students and alumni an opportunity to pitch and sell their projects, he said.

“My goal is to start getting national industry people with Michigan people, students and alumni and invite them to network and build their career,” Greer said. 

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