Detroit’s Diversity Supports A Growing Film Industry

Detroit’s Diversity Supports A Growing Film Industry

Viewers watch Prayers for BobbyAffirmation’s Community Room was filled to capacity for the premiere of
Prayers For Bobby with Sigourney Weaver.

On January 24, 2009 at 9:00 PM, the eyes of Detroit turned to the Lifetime Television Network, searching for familiar places and faces in the background of the feature film Prayers For Bobby. Starring Sigourney Weaver, it drew 3.8 Million Viewers During Its national Premiere on Lifetime Television.

Prayers For Bobby portrays the tragic struggle of a gay teen in a conservative Christian family and the family’s attempt to “heal” him. For four years before his death, Bobby’s religious mother encouraged him to “cure” his homosexuality through prayer. Bobby Griffith’s four-year struggle with being gay and trying to live a Christian life ended on Aug. 27, 1983.

Several Detroit-area locations  hosted the filming of Prayers for Bobby in the spring of 2008.  It was one of the first productions to take advantage of a new tax-break program signed into effect by Governor Jennifer Granholm in April of 2008 aimed at luring filmmakers to the state.

The production brought together hundreds of men and women from the local gay community who volunteered as background extras. Affirmations, the Ferndale-based community center for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people and allies, played an important role in getting extras for the shoot, particularly on June 17, 2008 when over 200 people packed Washington Avenue in Royal Oak for a fictitious gay pride parade. They also hosted the area’s premiere viewing of the feature, packing the community room to capacity with over 100 excited viewers.

Deborah Holbrook of Ferndale took part in filming three scenes. She watched the giant projection screen carefully to see if her face made it into the delegation at the beginning of the parade, as a funeral attendee, and as one of the onlookers in the closing scene of the movie. “I can’t wait to show people how it turned out with everyone coming together” Holbrook said before the show. “The director and other people working were very patient with everyone. It was a fun experience.”

Local ExtrasLocal extras huddle after shooting a scene in Prayers for Bobby.

Though filmed under the overcast skies of Royal Oak, the Prayers for Bobby story takes place in San Francisco, CA.  It is based on the life of Mary Griffith whose homophobic religious attitude and behaviors drove her gay son to suicide, and the changes within her heart that followed.

“It was great to see the local gay community coming together to welcome the film industry to Michigan,” said Affirmations Communications Manager Cass Varner.  “We’re especially happy that one of the first big productions was one that brought so many important issues facing the LGBT community to the surface.”

Volunteer Aaron Watkins was given the opportunity to host an Affirmations information booth as part of the action of the pride parade scene. Though in the final cut none of the individual booths are distinguishable, the volunteers felt it was a worthwhile experience.

“It was weird,” Watkins said. “They had all the floats and signs and balloons like a real Pride parade. But instead of having everyone march down the street like a normal parade, they just had them go about ten feet. Then they’d say ‘cut’ and the whole thing would have to back up to the same place and go again. It was the same thing all day long. I’m lucky I got to be one of the ones sitting behind a booth and not out in the cold street moving back and forth twenty-some-odd times.”

For many this was their first Hollywood-like experience. But for Affirmations regular Esper French, Prayers for Bobby was a second brush with fame. Esper was in the final crowd scene for the 2002 feature film Super Sucker, which was filmed near Jackson, MI.

“I hope to get my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card so I can be in more movies, but it’s expensive.” Esper said. “I’ve got a nice memory though. They gave us these little Pride flags and I took mine around and had a bunch of the other extras autograph it.”

Brandon Reeves of Royal Oak has some great memories too. “I was in a club scene that was in Royal Oak, and in a shot where I was walking down the street when the actor playing Bobby drives by. I got to meet Ryan Kelley, who played Bobby. He came right up and introduced himself, shook everyone’s hand.”

The only downside, well known to most film professionals, is the wait in between shots. “They held us a long time before they used us,” Reeves said.  “It was about eight hours.  It gave me a chance to make friends at least.”

Even I got in on the action and became a big fan of the process. I have landed three more movie gigs a result of volunteering. I only went because I wanted Affirmations to be represented in the movie (I am a member of the Affirmations Speakers Bureau). But once I got there I was hooked by the process. I never even thought of acting until I went to Prayers for Bobby. Just shows the value of putting yourself out there I guess. Hopefully I’ll get a glimpse of myself in other Detroit-area productions like High School and The Prince of the Motor City!

Crystal Proxmire is a free lance writer and PR consultant providing solutions to small businesses and non profits.  For more information see