Message from Producer/Director Sam Katz
I have spent my entire professional life engaged in cities: as an undergraduate student in urban affairs; as a graduate student in urban policy analysis: as a staffer for the Lindsay Administration in New York; as a program analyst for a Philadelphia Civic Organization; as a political campaign manager; as a municipal financial advisor; as a candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia; as a CEO for a business/civic organization; and as a documentary filmmaker. The opportunity to tell the story of Detroit’s descent into fiscal crisis, and through its historic and unprecedented bankruptcy, was one I did not want to miss.
While serving as Chair of the Board of Pennsylvania’s Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority - a state-created body with responsibility for oversight of Philadelphia’s finances - I began monitoring the fiscal distress that was making bankruptcy a real possibility in Detroit. I had spent 25 years of my professional career as a financial advisor to state and local governments across the country, while serving as CEO
of Public Financial Management (now The PFM Group). I had advised numerous cities that were undergoing fiscal distress, but never one that was a bona fide candidate for bankruptcy. When bankruptcy emerged as a serious option in Detroit, I began thinking that a documentary film could be fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening. After seeing The Big Short (2015), which made sub-prime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations into an entertaining and engaging story, I felt strongly that the Detroit bankruptcy would be a terrific subject for a documentary.
Commencing in 2016, I made contacts with many of the people who had played a significant role in the bankruptcy proceedings. I knew we needed to engage the professionals who participated in the adjudication of the bankruptcy case, as well as Detroiters who had lived through the city’s decline. I was fortunate to assemble a terrific team of experts and production professionals.
Detroit has long been "America’s city." It was our nation’s most significant center of industrial production. Its music and culture gave America its soul. Important developments in organized labor, the rise of Black political power, the creation of middle class, suburbanization, and deindustrialization were all Detroit exports. The historic bankruptcy and its long-term effects are but another in a series of events that make Detroit a bellwether for urban America.
In this bankruptcy, the state of Michigan assumed control of the city’s government, operations, and finances through the appointment of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Then, Detroit borrowed the powers of the federal government to impair contracts and restructure the city’s finances and operations. One participant described the bankruptcy as “asset-less,” but in fact, Detroit owned at least one extremely valuable asset: the Detroit Institute of Arts. Through an ingenious plan to infuse the city with a pool of fresh cash from philanthropy, the art museum, and the state of Michigan, Detroit saved its cultural identity with minimal impact to its pension obligations, first responders, and civilian retirees. The exit from bankruptcy occurred in 17 months. “Kicking the can down the road” finally ended. Complex negotiations involving thousands of creditors required the collaboration of unlikely heroes, who made previously-impossible choices, in a political environment made possible only in bankruptcy.
Today, Detroit is alive and aspiring. It is a reflection of the heart and determination of its people, and a courageous compromise among major stakeholders. The outcome - the survival of Detroit and an ever-widening sense of possibility for the city’s future - was indeed a grand bargain.
We are very excited to share this story with a national audience.