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Sunday, 05 August 2012 18:11

Director’s cut: Compass College finds growth despite film industry challenges

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Director’s cut: Compass College finds growth despite film industry challenges PHOTO: Ryan Pavlovich
GRAND RAPIDS — They say in Hollywood that there's the movie you write, the movie you shoot and the movie that's left when all the edited clips have been swept from the cutting room floor.

Like that final director's cut, there's a large local audience waiting in line to see the final version of the Compass College of Cinematic Arts saga, which has taken more turns over the past decade than a Hollywood potboiler.

With an enrollment today of about 50 students, the boutique private college in downtown Grand Rapids was originally scripted to be a 501(c)(3) production company for non-profit organizations with a Christian orientation. That emphasis swung dramatically to education in 2008 when Michigan offered generous tax incentives for films produced in the state, and local students clamored to enter Compass College to learn the film-making craft.

Caught in a strong downdraft when the incentives were axed by the state in 2011, the college looked to redefine itself when the overheated demand for film-production personnel cooled in Michigan.

Now the Compass College story has entered the editing phase, and many think the result will be a West Michigan resource that serves not only film, but the multi-media industry — the convergence of visuals shown in movies, on TV, in digital games and over the Internet.

"You see TV converging with the web, and filmmaking merging with gaming," says Compass College President Keri Lowe. "There's this kind of cross-platforming. You're already doing it right now. You can already walk from room to room with your laptop and watch television."

Compass College hopes to offer a four-year bachelor's programs in film and media production in 2013, a far cry from its roots as a not-for-profit production company that was founded to give high school and college students some experience in film production. The college currently offers an associate degree in film and media production in 14 months.

With a board that includes influencers such as Betsy DeVos and Bill McKendry, the college offers an alternative in West Michigan to the film-making curriculums at Grand Valley State University, Calvin College and Hope College. Part of the college's allure is its downtown location at 41 Sheldon Boulevard SE, the former Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts building now owned by the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation that is also used for the hub of ArtPrize.

Location, Location, Location

When Karl Koelling first heard about Compass College, he was looking for direction.

Though the Michigan native already had a bachelor's in business and economics from Hope College, his true passion was telling stories through film. But at 37, with a wife and kids, Koelling couldn't just pack up for Los Angeles or New York to pursue his dream. He could, however, relocate from Traverse City to Grand Rapids.

"I really needed to figure out what I was doing," says Koelling, now a managing member of Taproot Pictures in Grand Rapids. "The [Compass] program was a little over a year and it was manageable."

Koelling completed Compass College's film production certificate program with honors in 2008 — the same year that Gov. Jennifer Granholm appropriated nearly $100 million for film industry tax credits for the upcoming fiscal year. After the incentive program was established, Michigan became a site for films that either starred or were directed by the likes of Clint Eastwood, George Clooney and Hugh Jackman.

Lowe says the film industry credits spurred huge interest from local students — about 35 percent of Compass College students were from Michigan in 2008, but that figure rose to about 80 percent during the years of the film credits. More students who graduated from the college remained in Michigan during the tax incentive years, she said.

"For an innovation age you need a creative class, so we are trainers of a creative class," Lowe tells MiBiz. "When the incentives came, the majority of students stayed in the state to work. They became taxpayers and worked with people who brought money to Michigan."

Learning from the Ground Up

Founded in 1997 as a not-for-profit production company in the basement of Bistro Bella Vita in Grand Rapids, Compass College was an offshoot of Hanon McKendry, a West Michigan-based advertising agency that specializes in socially conscious campaigns.

"Hanon McKendry has always been a company that does a lot of work with brands that advance humanity," says Bill McKendry, who founded the firm with partner Jim Hanon in the 1990s. "More than 50 percent of the work we've done has been for faith-based organizations and nonprofits."

Early on, the firm noticed certain "obstacles" that prevented its nonprofit clients from fully realizing their branding and marketing potential. "A lot of nonprofits could afford to work with us on ideas, but they couldn't afford to have us produce," McKendry recalls.

Commercials were especially cost prohibitive because they required renting a 35-millimeter camera and other equipment.

Hanon and McKendry devised a solution: a mutual benefit production company that would provide cost effective media production services for nonprofits and hands-on experience for high school and college students.

"We had a pool of donors around the country who were interested in putting money into advancing these organizations," says McKendry. "With those donors we created a 501(c)(3) production company. We started to take on students to help produce the work. It started out as a mentoring program, kind of a journeyman's school."

Rick DeVos was one of the first high school students to complete the Compass program. His experience was so positive it inspired his mother, Betsy DeVos, to volunteer for the board.

"A lot of the interest from the board members has been growing this education component for young people to learn how to tell stories (and) how to work in the film industry," says McKendry, who served as board chairman for the first nine years of the organization and is still a member. "Even though we had started it with one intention, it evolved and this greater purpose kind of came out of it."

Building momentum

When Lowe came to the school in 2008, the board had already decided to "flip the switch" and prioritize education over production. But they needed help, says McKendry; the school was "struggling" when Lowe arrived.

Under Lowe's leadership, the school increased its operating budget from $440,000 to $1.4 million, became accredited and more than doubled its enrollment, moving from about 20 students to its current cohort of 48 students.

Lowe brought 25 years of experience in PR, marketing, entertainment and counseling to the College, and in just four years has helped the school grow from a 16-week course to a degree-granting institution.

Lowe also led the push for Compass College to gain access to federal student financial aid programs — good news for students pursuing an associate degree at Compass: Tuition and fees for the 14-month degree cost about $32,000.

The college has six instructors and a total of 12 staff members. While the burgeoning multi-media, multi-sensory and multi-disciplinary industry will change the way the world does business, says McKendry, it's already changing how Compass College educates its students.

"This is an industry where you are a corporation of one," he explains. "There are all these technical experts that come together for a 60- or 90-day period, but in reality they are all independent businesses. Honestly, I think that's a model for the future of businesses."

To prepare students for this brave new industry, Compass College has elevated the internship to a capstone course. Through an advisory board that includes Hollywood heavyweights like Ralph Winter, who produced movies in both the "X-Men" and "Star Trek" series, Compass students are virtually guaranteed an internship on a Hollywood production, says McKendry.

But it wasn't always that way. Initially, many Hollywood producers were concerned that Compass College students, many of whom are Christians, would react negatively to things like on-set profanity or shooting risqué scenes. The movie moguls were soon converted, when they realized that Compass "kids work hard, don't get drunk and show up on time."

"Now Compass kids are the hottest kids you can get in Hollywood," McKendry says proudly.

Faith and film

Unfortunately, the relationship between the church and filmmakers of faith has not always been as positive.

"Many times you struggle as a person of faith," McKendry admits. "I struggle with this in the ad business."

Compass does not require that students sign a declaration of faith (all faiths are welcome), nor does it "force Christianity down students' throats," says McKendry. But the college does seem to provide a ministry to Christians in the film industry, who have a history of being marginalized within the very communities of faith they belong to.

Even people like John Loeks, an early Compass board member whose father Jack Loeks brought the multiplex to Michigan, were not exempt from criticism. Loeks runs Loeks Theatres Inc., which operates Celebration! Cinema locations.

"When I asked (John) to be on the board, I had no idea what his family had gone through," recalls McKendry. "He graciously accepted and shared with the board that he was very moved to be there. (John) grew up feeling bad about the church and the industry he was in. His dad, Jack Loeks, was in Grand Rapids at a time when churches didn't accept movies, (so) he wasn't accepted."

Christian filmmakers who managed to escape criticism for pursuing a career in the seedy and secular entertainment industry have often been pressured to restrict their storytelling to explicitly Christian themes.

"The world's best art used to come out of the church and they accepted the controversy that came with it," says McKendry. "And then (art) became 'bad.' I don't know what happened."

But things are starting to change. Since Compass opened its doors in 1997, McKendry has witnessed a revival of storytelling within the Christian church.

"Now I'm seeing that the church is really understanding the power of this medium," he says. "The arts are alive and well."

A major difference between now and then is that churches, and filmmakers themselves, have stopped expecting filmmakers of faith to transform the entertainment industry into a machine for Christian propaganda. Instead, Christians who work in the industry — and work and study at Compass — increasingly choose to honor their faith through ethical business practices, on-set integrity and cultivating their talent for storytelling through film.

"We want our students to be, first and foremost, trained as well as anyone in the country about the art of filmmaking," says McKendry.

Incentive to stay

Compass students and graduates have built a reputation for integrity and responsibility around the world. Graduates have worked everywhere from Hollywood to Zambia, produced viral "tech porn" videos for Microsoft, and many have even started their own companies. So in a state where creative class members have left in droves, the big question is: where will these highly sought after cultural creatives go?

In the case of one Compass graduate who started a successful lighting company — "he turns down jobs every day," McKendry says — the answer is Louisiana, a state known for extremely generous tax incentives.

Michigan's own tax credits, which started out uncapped, dwindled to a $25 million in 2012, another casualty of the tax reforms last year. And even though Gov. Snyder doubled 2013 fiscal year appropriations to the Michigan Film Office, which is now part of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the damage may have already been done.

"The now-we-have-it-now-we-don't doesn't send the message that people in Michigan understand the industry," says Lowe, referring to the tax credit flip-flop. "We're rebuilding the trust in Los Angeles and Hollywood."

Read 4768 times Last modified on Sunday, 05 August 2012 22:44

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