Making movies? Florida wants you

Bradenton Herald – Florida’s fingerprints are all over the entertainment world. Its scenic sites have been featured in everything from commercials and television shows to film and music videos.

Statewide, the impact of such entertainment projects has been in the billions of dollars. Their value grew from $27 billion in 2003 to $29.2 billion in 2007, creating more than 207,000 jobs in 2007 alone, according to the Florida Film Commission’s most recent Economic Assessment of the Florida Film and Entertainment Industry.

But Florida’s draw in the industry has been threatened by state budget cuts that have slashed incentives to lure projects. Its $25 million incentive program was reduced to just $5 million, and production companies are turning to other states to find financial breaks.

State legislators, film commissioners and others who support the industry are determined to keep entertainment projects alive in the Sunshine State. Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed more money in next year’s incentive budget. A bill in the Legislature would create tax credits to lure entertainment entities. And the Sarasota Film Festival — which kicks off its 11th annual event Friday — has launched a new outreach program to help boost the number of projects that come here.

“So we’re fighting really hard to keep the business,” said Kelly Fores, Manatee County film commissioner. “Not to just keep it in the United States, but to bring it to Florida.”

Need for state aid

Florida’s film industry had been expected to flourish faster than any other field, with a projected growth rate of 20 percent, according to the commission’s report. Then came the budget crunch.

“We are already losing our resident work force as they are forced to follow the work to other states,” said Lucia Fishburne, state film commissioner. “That’s both the threat and the opportunity with this industry — the work force can be mobile. … The more production in-state means the more opportunity for growing and expanding brick-and-mortar businesses that service the industry as well.”

Gov. Charlie Crist recently proposed restoring $5 million to next year’s incentive budget for a total of $10 million. The additional funds, given as cash rebates, might help bring more production companies — but is it enough?

Past projects that have come to Manatee and Sarasota have not relied on any state reimbursement funds, according to the Florida Film Commission. But having state incentives in place has impacted whether some big projects choose to come here.

And Florida has more industry competition than it did a century ago, notes Shawn Bean, author of the nonfiction book, “The First Hollywood,” which highlights Jacksonville’s rise as the nation’s first film mecca.

Several states offer lucrative incentives, including Georgia and Louisiana.

“Post-Katrina New Orleans has been very successful in attracting business there,” said Bean, who will speak about Florida’s film history during a film festival panel series.

“The question I get more is, ‘Will Florida ever have a chance to rival Hollywood?’ And, without question, that moment is long gone.”

Yet Florida still has going for it what it had a hundred years ago: lots of sunshine and lots of location.

“Florida film will not only never go out of business,” Bean said, “it will continue to thrive.”

Bills propose credits

Fores and others in the film industry are pushing Senate Bill 350 and House Bill 47, companion bills that call for substantial tax credit incentives instead of reimbursements. The bill would provide corporate income, sales and use tax credits to qualified entertainment entities.

The legislation aims to give Florida more leverage in the industry, Fores said.

“SB 350 makes some significant modifications to Florida’s incentive program — Specifically in creating the percentage of incentives that certain types of productions can receive, and deleting the cap on the incentive amount,” she said.

Jeanne Corcoran, director of the Sarasota County Film and Entertainment Office, said tax credits are ideal.

“They are not generated until after a project has completed filming and spending 100 percent within the state,” she said. “Then it’s likely they will sell their tax credits at a discounted amount to another company that does business within Florida, meaning that the full tax credit amount will not be applied when used.”

The majority of projects that come to the state are filmed in Miami. Major projects, such as the USA network’s “Burn Notice,” greatly benefit from the incentives.

“Burn Notice” took more than $1 million in incentive reimbursements for 2007-08, its second season. Last year’s hit motion picture “Marley & Me” took more than $1.5 million in incentives. Then there’s “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” currently in theaters, which received $200,000.

Sarasota banking on outreach

Film crews use their budgets to buy food from area restaurants, rent cars, stay in local hotels and pay permit fees to government entities. And their projects provide short-term jobs and long-term contacts for area residents.

In all, they pump thousands of dollars into the area’s economy, said Fores. She doesn’t know an exact figure for Manatee County, because she doesn’t track each project’s budget. But Sarasota County, which does monitor the industry’s local economic impact, has brought in nearly $3 million in the past two years.

The Sarasota County Film and Entertainment Office, headed by director Jeanne Corcoran, has assisted nearly 300 entertainment projects since its inception two years ago. They include cable TV shows, international films and still photography. TV programs are the office’s big targets because they pump $15,000 to $50,000 into the local economy, said Corcoran.

Indie films generate the broadest spectrum of spending, with budgets ranging from as low as $500, to $75,000 and more.

“We’re hoping to see independent feature films drawn to our area more and more,” she said.

The Sarasota office, which has an operating budget of $200,000, was created after filmmakers complained that red tape and unfriendly officials made it difficult to bring projects to the area.

Since becoming a full-time, full-service organization two years ago — equipped with a detailed Web site to help attract business — projects have come “fast and furious,” said Corcoran.

But the state budget cuts have also hurt here.

“We continue, always, to pursue big budget projects and major studio connections, but those are the most difficult to attract as our Florida filming incentives have been almost nonexistent since 2007’s cuts,” Corcoran said.

They recently lost a bid for an MTV project that was looking to film in North Port. Producers changed their minds because state incentives were not strong enough, Corcoran said. The show took its production to Los Angeles.

Manatee finding scenic voice

Compared with Sarasota, Manatee has only an estimated 40 such projects during 2007-2009. But Fores wants to make Manatee more film-friendly, providing a one-stop shop for entertainment projects.

Her immediate goal is to develop a list of residents interested in offering their talents, homes and businesses to production companies that come here. It will help her better market Manatee to the masses, she said.

Manatee has hosted several memorable films: “Palmetto,” starring Woody Harrelson, “Great Expectations,” featuring Robert DeNiro, Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow — both 1998 films — and 2003’s “Out of Time,” starring Denzel Washington and Eva Mendes.

When watching the director’s commentary for “Out of Time,” Fores discovered the project almost went elsewhere. The film studio wanted the crew to save money by filming in Canada. But there was no way to re-create Florida in Toronto.

Such cost-cutting ideas have become a recurring threat.

Fores has served as Manatee County’s film commissioner for two years under the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Larry White, executive director of the visitors bureau, said the film commissioner’s office has a budget of $50,000 with $18,000 toward Fores’ salary. The rest goes to travel expenses and membership fees for Film Florida, which helps market Manatee to industry leaders.

Fores, who also serves as vice chair of Film Florida’s film commission council, is also paid $6,000 as a publicist for Manatee’s Powel Crosley Theatre and works as the marketing director for the Banyan Theatre in Sarasota.

As a film commissioner, Fores does everything from making sure crews get the proper permits, to scouting for talent and locations. Since she was hired, the county has been the backdrop for music videos, TV commercials, indie films and photo shoots.

Many of the entertainment projects that have landed in the Manatee County Film Commission office have small budgets. They find their way to Fores through contacts who have worked here before, Film Florida or through the state office liaison in California.

Some projects come from the other side of the world. A British film crew shot the county’s islands, downtown Bradenton and the Village of the Arts for a travel/relocation show called “A Place in the Sun, Home and Away.” It focused on what Manatee has to offer in recreation and real estate.

One of Florida’s draws is that it can be used to recreate other areas around the world, making it a versatile filming ground where local residents can cash in if their home or business fits the desired destination idea. Fores recently found a vacant field so SweetBay could recreate Kansas for a commercial. Another popular filming spot has been Airport Manatee, a tiny air strip near Ruskin, which has been the setting for various car stunt scenes, Fores said.

Manatee perfect for video

No marketing or incentives were needed to get Atlantic recording artists Shinedown to film a video for its chart-topping single “Second Chance” last year. The Tampa-based rock group came knocking on the Manatee film commissioner’s door after Tom Fennesey, of the Los Angeles-based Collaboration Factory, visited his parents in Bradenton. He thought the location would be perfect for the group’s video.

Filming took place on Anna Maria’s white shores, a Cortez fishing market and a private home near the beach. The project used local residents.

“It represents Anna Maria so beautifully,” Fores says of the video. “It’s very romantic. A sad kind of piece. And the video is really different than the other kinds of videos they do.”

The “Second Chance” video features a daughter, played by Parrish resident Alanna Massey, who runs away to find follow her own dreams.

The video has been a top pick on msn.com, where it debuted. It is also on VH1.

Everyone involved — from the homeowners to the extras — said they were paid lucratively by the Hollywood production team.

“They paid before they left town,” said Annette Breazeale of Sarasota, who was promoted from props to art director. “It was a very professional rate of pay.”

Fennesey, whose company has shot music videos for the Foo Fighters, India Arie and Finger 11, said Breazeale was one of the best things to happen with the project.

“She literally knocked it beyond our expectations,” he said.

Another bonus: Breazeale was able to build Hollywood contacts that will further help beef up her resume.

“It’s just marvelous,” Breazeale said. “It really allows people from L.A. to see the level of professionalism we have here.”

Home-grown fix

To build on what the area and its talented residents can offer the industry as a whole, the Sarasota Film Festival recently created its year-round Florida Film Consortium. The non-profit will serve as an educational outreach to students. It will also support independent films and filmmakers with networking events, workshops and film development needs, says Tom Garrett, the festival’s director of special initiatives.

Garrett hopes investing time and energy in current and future filmmakers will help create more Florida-based film projects and, in turn, more jobs and revenue.

“We’re creating our own home-grown artists and filmmakers,” said Garrett, a film producer and film professor at the University of Tampa. “Right now we’re at a crossroads.

“We’re hoping that since we’ve built it, they will come.”

January Holmes, features writer, can be reached at 745-7057.

published March 22, 2009

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