CHICAGO — Less than a year after opening, Michigan’s largest film studio reportedly is in danger of missing its Feb. 1 debt service payment.
If the studio can’t cover the payment, the state’s pension fund system, which backed the bonds, will have to make it.
Local reports quote anonymous sources warning that the studio does not have enough money to make its upcoming payment. Default is unlikely, as the bonds, which were privately placed, carry the state’s backup pledge.
A state spokesman would only say that the borrower, Raleigh Studios, is obligated to make the bond payment and if it is unable to fully do so, the Michigan Retirement Systems would cover the balance, which is about $420,000.
The state has not yet received any notification from the bondholders’ trustee, U.S. Bank NA, that there is a shortfall.
Raleigh Studios, which describes itself as the “largest independent studio operator in the country,” did not respond to requests for comment.
Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm crafted one of the nation’s most aggressive tax- incentive programs for film and television companies, offering a tax credit of up to 42%. It attracted production studios from across the country.
It was under that program that Raleigh Studios opened in an abandoned General Motors warehouse in the troubled Detroit suburb of Pontiac in March 2011. The $80 million project was expected to create thousands of jobs and benefitted from generous tax credits, exemption from most property and income taxes for 15 years, and up to $4 million in federal funding.
Documents associated with the sale in 2010 of $28 million of recovery zone facilities revenue bonds touted the flourishing industry and noted that film expenditures in Michigan nearly doubled from 2008 to 2009. Revenue projections showed steady growth for the studio, with gross profits reaching $14 million annually within the next decade.
The studio for much of 2011 was rented by the Walt Disney Co. to film “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” according to Michelle Begnoche, spokesman for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which runs the Michigan Film Agency.
But business has now stalled.
Gov. Rick Snyder, who took office last January, gutted the incentive program by placing a $25 million annual cap on tax benefits. The move has prompted a slowdown and decline in projected revenues for Raleigh and other studios.
“In 2010, we awarded more than $115 million in incentives, and now we have a hard cap of $25 million, so certainly you’re going to see an impact on production,” Begnoche said.
The industry could see some recovery under recent legislation that would allow the state to exceed the $25 million cap, and offers other incentives.
“We’re confident that we can attract good projects here,” Begnoche said. “Michigan has a lot to offer above and beyond the incentives, like a skilled workforce and great infrastructure.”
The Oakland County Economic Development Corp. was conduit for the bonds, which were sold in three series. The largest, for $18 million, has an unconditional guarantee from the state’s retirement systems. The bonds do not have backup pledges from the county or Pontiac.
Raymond James & Associates Inc. privately placed the $18 million series with a handful of large institutional investors.
The rest of the debt, a $5 million series and a $4.8 million series, were purchased by affiliates and family of the borrower.
A reserve fund was not required until several years after the sale, said Bob Schwartz, a partner at Clark Hill PLC, bond counsel on the original transaction.
Bond documents warned that the film incentive program could be changed at any time, Schwartz noted. “There were no promises on anyone’s behalf that the credits would continue, though no one expected them to go quite as quickly as they did,” he said.