Documentary producer, Sue Marx, was making great films in Michigan long before the rest of the world. Born and raised elsewhere, she moved to Michigan after meeting her husband and fell in love with the place. Uncertain of what she ultimately wanted to do, her graduate work in sociology at Wayne State University, led to a job in television working on a local series called Profiles in Black. She produced the series for about 8 years before opening her own company.
Sue Marx Films has produced over 200 films, videos, and television spots since its inception in 1980, many of which have garnered significant awards. Among the most familiar is Young at Heart, which earned Sue an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1987. In addition to her award-winning work, she has also served on the State of Michigan's Film Advisory Commision for the past six years, and shared her thoughts with us about the state she loves and it's blossoming new industry.
BMN: How do you think moving to Michigan and living here has impacted your life and your career?
SUE: Oh well I really think I grew up in Michigan. I don’t think of my life in Indiana as anything particularly remarkable and it wasn’t until I moved here and met people and found myself that I really connected with Michigan…Detroit to me was heaven and it still is. I’m a city girl and I like city living…I think Detroit is an amazing city. I think Michigan is ABSOLUTELY gorgeous. I was just up north near Elk Rapids. It’s a stunningly beautiful state with lots of variety in both people and thinking, and I think we’re very gifted here, we just need to know it.
BMN: Funny you should mention Elk Rapids, actor Judy Greer mentioned that small town too, although in her case it was about the pie!
SUE: I was up in Saugatuck last year for the film festival and there’s a pie place near there, where all the berry farms are, that does homemade pies. I tell you never have I had a pie like theirs. There’s good stuff going on. In fact there was a bakery in Traverse City that had something like an olive bread, I mean I’m not that much of a connoisseur of baking, but those things really turn my head.
BMN: What are some of your other favorite places to visit around the state?
SUE: Interlochen. I love Interlochen. Whenever I’m up north I try to get there because I think it’s one of our treasures. The museum (DIA) here and the symphony obviously are very very special. MOCAD, the new art museum is wonderful. I love the Henry Ford. I like the Science Center. I like going to Riverwalk--I think that’s cool.
BMN: Let’s talk about how your career developed here in Michigan. What was the Wayne State experience like for you?
SUE: Wayne was good. When I started to do my graduate work I didn’t know what I was going to do it in…but Wayne was great for me. I had kids and was working on a graduate degree and they made it easy. I really like Wayne. In fact, we just finished doing a film about a wonderful summer math program that happens on campus that is getting a lot of attention…There are a lot of great stories about Detroit. This is one of them and I decided they needed to have a film so I raised money and made it.
BMN: Was the idea of making films always in your mind or did it just happen?
SUE: I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was a photographer. I started out doing modeling and then I went on the other side of the camera and learned to use it and I became a photo journalist. From that I got involved in politics and storytelling…for various magazines…I was working with somebody at the time and we had a PR company, a very haphazard PR company, but we were doing stories that interested us. Out of that grew a job offer at Channel 4 to produce a series for television called Profiles in Black. I did that for about 8 years and then started my own company.
BMN: So you didn’t just grow up dreaming of winning an Oscar?
SUE: I learned. I left that show and started my own company. I was writing grants, baby grants. I thought I would tell stories about working artists in Michigan who had received an Arts Foundation grant and make the Arts Foundation look good and the artist look good…and then I formed my company and started getting hired to do work.
BMN: What advice do you have for kids who are dreaming of an Oscar of their own or a career like yours?
SUE: They need to write. They need to learn to write. All these kids that have story ideas, they need to learn to write. I get resumes that are poorly written or correspondence that doesn’t really speak from the heart…I don’t know that they have the passion. I think they’re star-struck. I’m not sure if they haven’t interned with the right companies or haven't learned enough from their internship. A lot of kids who want to be in the business don’t have what they need. That doesn’t mean I know what they need, but I’ve interviewed a lot of them in the past and many don’t have the personality that can grab you or look you in the eye…it’s not all about the resume. I think passion has a lot to do with it and energy.
BMN: Your passion and success have led to a role on the Michigan Film Advisory Committee, so what do you think the impact of the state's film tax incentives has been?
SUE: It’s like a gold rush now. I think it’s fabulous. It’s only going to get better and grow. We’ve only started less than a year ago. We’ve had like 283 script proposals, 162 applications, and 80 approved and that was last year. That’s phenomenal! I went to a screening the other night of a little short feature film and he had a very fancy party…everybody that worked on the film was there and it was almost standing room only…it’s great and it makes you feel great. You know the stars that have been to town and are continuing to come here now that the weather is getting better…whether it’s on Lifetime television, as many are, or in the theaters, it’s going to continue to happen and it’s a shot in the arm for a state that needs lots of shots in the arm… It’s wonderful and it’s an exponential growth.
BMN: It seems as though a lot of states have offered film incentives which can lead to a temporary increase, but now that studios are being built, with actual capital investment, that changes everything.
SUE: You’re absolutely right and then there’s all kinds of new programs cropping up to teach the carpenters or people that have been working at other factories that have lost their jobs to be retrained to enter the film business in some part. They’re teaching and it’s great. It’s kind of a win-win for Michigan.
BMN: What recommendations do you have for people looking to shift their skills toward the film industry?
SUE: They should contact the Michigan Film Office because they have various departments that can help them. They can get jobs, but what they need to do is get trained enough. Even if they’re not in the union, a lot of these lower budget films that are being done here will accept an employee to work on film that has some training already. The big Hollywood producers are not going to hire anybody unless they know what they’re doing. They can only do that by taking some classes and getting hired and eventually getting into the union…it’s going to take time. Young people coming in have to either have had training somewhere else or get some training here and then they’ll be ready to move into the industry.
BMN: What do you think about our campaign and the importance of buying locally?
SUE: The Buy Michigan Now campaign is so great…These are tough, tough times. We’re going to have to be patient and wait it out a little longer and not leave because everybody can do so much. I think your initiative is something everyone should get involved in because the stronger we are, the better we all do. There’s nothing complicated about that. The stronger we are, the better off we’ll be. Doing business within Michigan is what we should be doing. I applaud the stores and the companies that are pushing us to do it. I’m a Michigan producer--I don’t go out of state to make movies.
BMN: You mentioned that there is so much that all of us can do. What would be an example of that within your industry?
SUE: As the Hollywood movies are getting made here, one thing that’s happening is that in spite of the incentives, when it comes to post-production a lot of them are going back to their comfort zones and back to New York or LA to edit because their editors are there. We have great editing facilities here and it’s up to all of us to try to convince the studios that come in for production that they get a tax break on post-production if they post here. That’s really critical to the success because the production houses are facing diminished advertising dollars and their editing facilities are not as busy as they could be.
BMN: What Shout Out do you have for your fellow Michiganders?
SUE: Push and be patient. Keep doing the best you can. I’m always asked “why didn’t you go to Hollywood?” I like it here. This is a great beautiful place with four seasons and beauty everywhere. Detroit has it all. It’s just that we’ve got to have a better opinion of ourselves. We have to love ourselves.