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Hillsborough will think small rather than give up on luring film productions

By Paul Guzzo
Producers of the film Live by Night recreated the Ybor City of Prohibition days in southern Georgia. They took advantage of the state's generous film incentives program. [Florida Times-Union]

TAMPA — The public incentives that helped lure major productions to Florida, as well as the infrastructure they helped grow, have faded away.

But there’s still money to be made on small-scale pursuits, people in the industry say — chiefly, commercials and independent films.

"Anyone interested in major motion pictures — this is not the place to live," said Tim Moore, chief executive of Tampa’s Diamond View production company, which has grown from three to 22 employees making commercials for clients such as YMCA, Purina and the University of South Florida. "There is plenty of commercial work here. We are busy."

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Florida is entering its fourth year without the state tax incentives that major productions insist upon, losing out on an estimated 50 projects and a billion dollars in economic impact, the trade association Film Florida estimates.

Production infrastructure went with it, fueling a decline in the state’s appeal as a location for major productions.

That’s the landscape that will greet the next head of the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission. Dale Gordon, who held the post since 2013, resigned last month and a search for her replacement is underway.

Commercials have always ranked above major motion pictures as a priority for the Tampa film commission, said Tyler Martinolich, interim director.

"We are not a feature film market," Martinolich said. "We are a commercial market and it is a reality we need to accept."

It can be a lucrative one.

In 2016, commercial productions spent at least $11 million in the county, Martinolich said, and likely much more.

"We only track those that ask for (production) permits, and if they film on private property they don’t need one," he said. "So that is a small sample."

Among the companies that have filmed here in the past three years are Ford, Louis Vuitton, Isuzu, and Budweiser, Martinolich said.

To help grow the market, the Tampa film commission — a branch of the county’s tourism board Visit Tampa Bay — will continue its own local incentive program to the tune of $500,00 a year. Production companies that spend at least $100,000 here on a project can receive 10 percent back in cash rebates from the fund.

The film commission has no intention of striking "film" from its title; lower-budget , independent films are eligible for the rebate, too.

"We’re not getting the Avengers with that," Martinolich said. "But it can be effective in bringing in commercials with budgets between $500,000 and $1.5 million or even independent films made for under $1 million."

Expectations have been lowered since the days Gordon was hired.

Back then, the state Legislature had just allocated $296 million in film tax credits for a four-year cycle, with more money expected. And the appeal of Tampa Bay was growing, in part because two movie stories arose from the area — the real-life international drug thriller The Infiltrator and the Ybor City, prohibition-era tale Live by Night.

Then private business incentives off all kinds fell from favor among state lawmakers as corporate giveaways.

The movies went away. Ben Affleck and the producers of Live By Night, for example, built a replica Ybor City in incentive-generous Georgia. Georgia also got much of Florida’s production infrastructure — crew, actors, the companies that rent cameras and lights.

"We are moving into the grieving stages of that aspect as so much of what was once Florida production has relocated to Georgia," said Gus Corbella, former chairman of the Florida Film and Entertainment Advisory Board.

The state’s former film incentive program provided up to 30 percent back in tax credits on the portion of a film’s budget spent in Florida. If the same scheme were to return, producers might have a hard time finding places to spend their money now.

"This makes it harder as the years go on to re-establish film here," the Martinolich said. "The solution is putting people to work."

Now, it’s up counties to pursue that goal.

Like Hillsborough, Pinellas has $500,000 to spend attracting film and television by offering 10 percent back on local spending.

Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville have similar programs.

"Counties are providing support," said Kelly Paige, owner of Level Talent Group in Tampa. "But if we want those big movie productions employing people for months and not just days, the state needs to help."

A new bill introduced in the Florida House takes a different approach to luring major motion picture productions.

Rather than tax credits, HB 341 would create a state program that provides financing at "attractive rates" with "early buy-out provisions" said Chris Ranung, founder of the Congress of Motion Picture Associations, representing businesses that support the film industry.

Productions would be chosen based on potential impact.

Details such as funding sources have not yet been released.

Meantime, Martinolich said, his office will continue to pursue commercials — while keeping the Hollywood hopes alive.

"We’re not giving up," he said. "If an opportunity presents itself to attract a major motion picture, we will go after it aggressively."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.