11 of the Most Memorable Movies Ever Filmed in Michigan

Michigan was a favorite movie location, until the incentives stopped

On the set of RoboCop
••• Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Nearly 150 motion pictures have been filmed partly or wholly in Michigan since the dawn of the talkies. Some of America's best-known movies were shot in this Hollywood of the north, from the iconic "Anatomy of a Murder" and the films of the high-grossing "Transformers" franchise to the documentaries of outspoken filmmaker Michael Moore.

Moviemakers came to Michigan for Detroit's gritty locations, for the Midwestern serenity of Michigan's smaller cities, for the beauty of the state's protected white sand beaches on Lake Huron and the verdant inland landscapes, for the plentiful in-state supply of creative film crews and for Michigan's relatively low costs. 

In 2007, under former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the state legislature passed a film incentives package, which reached its zenith in 2010, with $115 million worth of incentives awarded, the "Detroit Free Press" reported. 

The ensuing governor, Rick Snyder, worked to decrease expenditures...MORE on film incentives. Then on Dec. 21, 2011, the Film and Digital Media Production Assistance Program, as the incentives program was known, transitioned from a tax credit program to a cash-rebate incentive program administered by the Michigan Film Office.

As of July 10, 2015, a new state statute eliminated that cash rebate program and the Michigan Film Office was no longer permitted to approve new incentive applications. The law left the Michigan Film Office intact, but only to assist movie productions taking place in the state.

Some lauded the move as a cost-saving measure. They may have been thinking of a Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency report in 2010 that concluded "each dollar spent on what was then refundable film tax credits generated only about 60 cents worth of private sector activity, and each job directly created by the program cost taxpayers as much as $186,519 to create," according to the "Detroit Free Press."

"Scholars across the spectrum agree that subsidizing filmmaking is a waste of taxpayer dollars," James Hohman, assistant director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank, told the "Free Press." But this does not take into account intangibles like staunching the outflow of Michigan creatives to the coasts and elevating Michigan's national image.

Because location costs play a huge role in where films are shot, the end of film incentives is expected to depress the Michigan film industry substantially. Other states seemed to quickly pick up location shoots that might have gone to Michigan, the "Free Press" noted.

Still, no one can take away Michigan's substantial contribution to the country's filmography. If you'd like to see where some of the greatest were shot, Circle Michigan organizes days-long tours of notable movie locations and surrounding tourist sites. For the armchair traveler, there's "The Ultimate Michigan Movie Tour" of 30 notable films on Michigan's MLive.com.  

Here, in chronological order, is a sampling of some of the most memorable films partly or wholly shot at Michigan locations. Some are Indies; some are major studio blockbusters. All are famous players in American filmdom.

  • 01 of 11

    In this courtroom drama, James Stewart stars as the lawyer of a US Army lieutenant who is accused of murdering a bartender. The officer says he suffered temporary insanity, arguing that he killed the bartender after he learned the man beat up and raped his wife. But there is no physical evidence of rape and Stewart sets about reconstructing the events to save his officer client, according to IMDb.com. This iconic film, nominated for seven Oscars, was directed by the great ​Otto Preminger. ​​

  • 02 of 11

    In this road movie, Max (Gene Hackman), a brawling ex-con drifter hits the road in California with Lion (Al Pacino), a happy-go-lucky homeless ex-sailor, as they head east together. Lion is headed to Detroit to see the child born while he was at sea; Max, to Pittsburgh, where he intends to open a car wash. In Denver, they land in jail for a month, where Lion is nearly raped by an inmate who savagely traumatizes him. No longer the amusing scarecrow of the movie's title, Lion turns morose. Max becomes his protector, and in Detroit, when the vindictive mother of Lion's child lies that the child died at birth and will have no soul, Lion is at first manic then falls into catatonia. Max helps him to a psychiatric hospital, where he vows he will return to help. The film was co-winner of the Grand Prix at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival.

  • 03 of 11

    'Somewhere in Time' (1980)

    This film is a romance starring Christopher Reeve, who plays a Chicago playwright experimenting with a discovery that he can use self-hypnosis to travel back in time. He lands in the early 1900s at the luxurious Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island. There, he meets beautiful stage actress Jane Seymour, and they fall in love. But their star-crossed paths don't meet for long. He dies in the past of an apparent broken heart; she lives on, still searching for him.  The movie was nominated for an Oscar.

  • 04 of 11

    In a futuristic, dystopian Detroit, a mortally wounded cop played by Peter Weller returns to the force as a powerful part-human, part-robot cop haunted by hazy memories of a family. This cyborg, unveiled as Robocop, becomes the force's most successful crime fighter and the target of Detroit's super villains. This Oscar-nominated film was directed by the great Paul Verhoeven.

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  • 05 of 11

    This weird buddy movie stars Robert De Niro as a bounty hunter who locates a former Mafia accountant who jumps bail, played by Charles Grodin. De Niro must transport Grodin from New York to L.A. in order to pocket a fat fee. But the trip is made difficult by the Mafia, a competitor and the FBI, and the two form a kind of friendship along the way. The movie was nominated for two Golden Globes.

  • 06 of 11

    A thriller based on an acclaimed Elmore Leonard novel, this movie stars George Clooney as a career bank robber who breaks out of jail and heads to Detroit with a buddy (Ving Rhames) to carry out a final scam. A US Marshal, played by Jennifer Lopez, is on their case but finds she's attracted to Clooney's character and has second thoughts about bringing them in. The Oscar-nominated film was directed by the great Steven Soderbergh.

  • 07 of 11

    This is a semi-autobiographical film starring Eminem. He plays a young rapper based on his own struggles with poverty, violence and an alcoholic mother (Kim Basinger) to make it big. Surviving in the crime-infested ghettos of 8 Mile Road, which runs along the northern boundary of Detroit, the rapper has an opportunity to show his extraordinary natural talent at rapping, and he takes it. This Oscar-winning film was directed by the great Curtis Hanson.

  • 08 of 11

    This Motown musical, which originated on Broadway, stars a dream team of musical stars from Jennifer Hudson to Beyoncé and A-listers like Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy. It loosely chronicles the rise of the Motown sound, its founder Berry Gordy and the famous girl groups like the Marvelettes and the Supremes who helped forge Motown Records' star-filled future. Foxx plays the founder, and Murphy is a 1960s R&B performer who uses Foxx's Dreamettes girl group as a backup. The girls soon outperform him and get their own act, in the process crossing over from soul to the pop charts. Hudson's character, a full-throated big girl, is treated badly and quits the group, opening the way for Foxx to take the girls to the mainstream top. This Oscar winner was directed by the great Bill Condon.

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  • 09 of 11

    In this social drama, disgruntled Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, is a tough, prejudiced old man who can't stomach the changes in his Michigan neighborhood. He sets out to reform his neighbor Thao, who tries to steal Kowalski's prized possession, a 1972 Gran Torino, under gang pressure. The old man is drawn into the life of the boy's family, who are proud Hmong people from the mountains of Asia, and conjures ways to protect them from the plague of gangs in the area. The great Clint Eastwood also directed this Golden Globe-nominated film.

  • 10 of 11

    In this dark drama, Ben Affleck, as a power-phobic Batman, is pitted against Man of Steel Henry Cavill. Future Batman fears that Superman has been left unchecked, and the citizens of Gotham are beginning to be concerned about his presence on Earth. Batman takes him on while criminal mastermind Lex Luthor makes his own attempt at containing Superman. Meanwhile, the world struggles with deciding which superhero it really needs.

  • 11 of 11

    The Transformers franchise of science fiction action films has been good to Michigan, where portions of the 2007 first film, the 2011 third film, the 2014 fourth film and the 2017 fifth film have been shot. It has cut a wide swath through Michigan film locations since 2006 when shooting was carried out for "Transformers," the first film in the series. Franchise director Michael Bay took on a number of locations but nearly always came back to Michigan for these very profitable big-budget films that are dense with action sequence after action sequence. It's an incredible achievement for a franchise that's based on a toy line by Hasbro. These are the Transformer films with scenes shot in Michigan:

    • "Transformers: The Last Knight" (2017). As we begin the fifth film of the Transformers franchise, humans and Transformers are at war and Optimus Prime is gone, frozen in space. Mark Wahlberg helps Bumblebee find the hidden history of Transformers on Earth, which is key to...MORE the humans' future on Earth.
    • "Transformers: Age of Extinction" (2014). In this fourth movie of the series, a struggling inventor and mechanic played by Mark Wahlberg buys an old truck, which turns out to be Optimus Prime in hiding. While a bounty hunter seeks the Autobots, Optimus Prime and his remaining gang turn for help to the inventor, his savvy daughter, and her backstreet racer boyfriend.
    • "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (2011). In this third movie of the Transformers science fiction series, partially shot in Michigan, the Autobots and the Decepticons learn of a Cybertronian spacecraft hidden on the moon. They quickly become involved in a dangerous race between the United States and the Russians to reach it and learn its secrets. As usual, Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky character comes to the help of his Autobot friends.
    • "Transformers" (2007). Partially shot in Detroit's abandoned train station, Michigan Central Depot, this first film in the franchise introduces us to two Cybertronian races, the heroic and noble Autobots and the evil, manipulative Decepticons. When their ancient struggle comes to Earth, we learn that a teenager (Shia LaBeouf) holds the clue to the location of the Allspark, a talisman that grants unlimited power to its possessor.