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Film industry says Pinellas is no star

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Pinellas County may be missing out on millions of television, commercial and film dollars that Hillsborough and other counties pull in because they are set up to woo production companies, industry officials say. When a company wants to come to Pinellas to shoot, officials say, it often gets tangled in the county's web of municipalities. Unlike many other counties, Pinellas does not have a single person designated as the county's liaison to the industry.

"There are people over there that say, "Oh, well, I do that, I do that.' They think they are, but they're not," Tampa film commissioner Patricia Hoyt said. "I've had people say to me, "I don't want to shoot in Pinellas County.'

"Pinellas is really hurting because it doesn't have a film commissioner."

Last year, production companies budgeted $300-million to be spent in the state, said Ben Harris, director of the Florida Film Bureau. Depending on the project, as much as 85 percent of a budget is spent on-location.

Production companies spent $30-million in Hillsborough, mostly on commercials, said Hoyt, who is paid by Tampa but who works throughout the county.

No one keeps up with how much or what production goes on in Pinellas or how much money is spent, said Harris and Clearwater film commissioner Jennifer Parramore.

Budgets for known Clearwater projects totaled $150,000 in April and $76,600 in May, said Parramore, the only film commissioner in Pinellas.

For six months, Parramore has divided her time between film commission and public information duties. There has been talk of expanding the Clearwater job countywide, Harris said, but other cities would have to help pay the bills.

"When we go into Pinellas County, Jennifer tries to help," Harris said, "but she works for Clearwater. So if it's something in St. Petersburg, she's out of her jurisdiction."

The personal touch

Cities land projects two ways, said Matt Herman, head of production for Stephen J. Cannell Productions, a Los Angeles company that produced Wise Guys and created The A-Team.

"A producer will seek out an area because that might be conducive to the project he is involved in," Herman said. Or, "the region will have an agency that will go out and try to convince the producer to come to them."

The Florida Film Bureau and its 38 film commissions work to draw business into the state, Harris said. The Keys, Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando, Polk and Osceola counties and the Tampa Bay area are popular production areas.

But when a producer comes looking for something specific _ a two-story house with gables and a detached garage, for instance _ state officials must turn to their local contacts.

"We don't live in Pinellas County, so we don't know all the locations," Harris said. "If someone from the area is sending us photos and videotapes, you have a better chance of getting a company in."

A local volunteer helped St. Petersburg get Cocoon, Harris said. "He found a house with a swimming pool that fit just what they needed and persuaded the owner to let them build a roof over it."

Robert Doudell, unit production manager for Cocoon, said having someone local keeps the production company from wasting valuable time.

"The particular location you might be looking for they can find immediately," Doudell said. "We were looking at Miami originally."

Although Doudell said St. Petersburg officials and residents were friendly and cooperative, Miami got Cocoon II. And though Cannell Productions considered Pinellas for series pilot Thunderboat Row, Miami got that, too.

Miami is known as the state's filming mecca and the home of its most experienced technicians, said Clearwater resident Guy Balson, a free-lance production manager and location scout. Although Tampa Bay's crews are talented, Miami has the reputation, and reputation is everything in the business.

"You work to bring the business into the area," Tampa's Hoyt explained. "Then you work to make sure everything goes smoothly so they go home and tell all their friends."

Having two counties catering to producers, widening the pool of locations and building up the area's image and experience would multiply business in Hillsborough and Pinellas, Hoyt said. The two look so different they wouldn't compete.

Cooperation

If a producer finds the perfect location, lack of a liaison won't stop filming, said Sam Tedesco, a free-lance location manager from Pompano Beach.

"The only thing that usually doesn't work out is (the city's) understanding the urgency of getting decisions," Tedesco said. "They don't realize how quickly you need answers and how soon you need to finish shooting.

"We have a tendency to get the weather report and go out. It means doing a lot of things off the hip."

Cities will cut through red tape for long-term, high-profile projects such as films and television shows, said J.P. Turnbull, president of the Tampa Bay area chapter of the Florida Motion Picture and Television Association.

But often producers of commercials, videos or other small projects will fly in in the afternoon and plan to shoot the next morning.

"Where we have a problem is the little, quick shoots," Turnbull said, "where you want to shoot on the beach and the guy doesn't call you back for two or three days."

In January, Bruce Buck, a still photographer from New York City, spent a week in Pinellas parks and beaches, shooting fashion layouts and covers for Women's World magazine.

"We wanted to shoot in several areas and all different jurisdictions," Buck said. "I'd call and the person I needed to talk to was on vacation. I'd call another, and he'd be at lunch and I'd have to call back. You start calling one person and they say, "It's not my jurisdiction,' so you have to call another person."

Buck called in a Miami scout to work through the Pinellas process.

"It set us back by a couple of days, which by New York standards is a really long time," he said. "We're used to getting things done in a couple of hours."

"I would rather go somewhere it's easier to shoot," said Buck, who works in Florida, usually Miami, about five weeks each year. He said each weeklong project has a budget of $20,000 to $30,000.

From 75 percent to 85 percent of production budgets is spent near the shooting sites for small projects, Parramore said. Large projects don't leave as large a percentage of their budgets, but they usually have larger budgets to begin with, so they can end up leaving more money in the local economy.

To attract those dollars, film liaisons stand between government and the production, quickly arranging city permits or locating hard-to-find items.

Manatee County film commissioner Ardath Melton has been called on to find 18-foot pythons and motorcycles with sidecars. To clear just about any project, she said, she only has to call the necessary members of her advisory council. The council is made up of 56 city and county officials.

"Within 10 minutes, I can get approval for anything," she said.

Of course, she said, she doesn't jump at everything that the companies offer.

She drew the line when an insurance company filming an industrial video wanted to blow up a car at a working gas station. "Palmetto blown off the map? Get real!"

Hillsborough is certified "camera ready" by the state film bureau so that it has a "shoot first, ask questions later" policy, said Turnbull of the motion picture association.

"If I'm out shooting stills _ in Tampa, if I see a police car, it's my friend," he said. "In Pinellas, I see a police car and it's my enemy."

Parramore said she hopes to have Clearwater camera-ready by the end of the year, and she is compiling a list of contacts in Pinellas cities so she can help production crews get permission to shoot outside her territory.

"It would be a lot easier for me to help them in Clearwater," Parramore said. "The fact is that we have roughly 800,000 people and 24 municipalities in Pinellas County. That's a lot of bureaucracy to get through."

Counting the benefits

Free-lance production manager and location scout Mark Robinson of Clearwater said the cities' restrictions aren't unreasonable. They just vary widely.

"Each municipality is different," Robinson said. "There's so many gray areas that for someone to know each and every one of them is a big job. To put someone in an office to find the correct channels would be very helpful."

Production companies coming into the area don't want to jump through hoops.

"If it's a toss-up, you're going to go with the area where someone is saying, "Come on in! We're going to help you!'

" Harris said.

Areas known for cooperating can count the benefits.

Location manager Tedesco's current feature film _ Folks, starring Don Ameche and Tom Selleck _ spent three weeks shooting in Palm Beach, Dade and Broward counties.

Out of a $12-million budget, the moviemakers left about $2-million in the tricounty area, said Broward film commissioner Elizabeth Wentworth.

In April, a Martin Scorsese film, Cape Fear, starring Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange, wrapped up six months of shooting. Wentworth estimated that $10-million of Cape Fear's $34-million budget was left in South Florida.

Even a more rural county like Manatee can identify about $4-million poured into its economy in 1989, the latest figures Melton had available. Most of its projects were commercials shot on beaches, a big lure for productions.

Pinellas' situation reminds location scout Balson of a Green Acres episode. The town folks were standing around, Balson said. "One says, "How do we bring big money into Bug Tussel?' Another one says, "Well, they filmed a movie in my cousin's town.'

"Even these nitwits realized the potential," Balson said. "And here we are."

So you want to make a movie . . .

The process of getting permission to shoot in Pinellas varies from government to government. For example:

In Dunedin, the city manager would look at the company's plans, then assign them to another official, said Kevin Campbell, director of planning and development services.

That official would discuss the plans with the company, then make up a committee from city departments. For instance, if the company needs to build something, the building department will issue the permits; if the company needs to blow up something, the fire department must be there; if a city street or public right of way would be blocked, the police department will be involved.

In St. Peterburg Beach, a representative from the company would need to fill out a one- to six-page special events application. Sandy Chandler, occupational license inspector, said the more completely the form is filled out, the less holdup in permission.

"Basically, we do whatever we can to help the production proceed quickly," Chandler said.

Tarpon Springs requires a $100 deposit and a $50 application fee, said Marie Bender of the city clerk's office. The application then has to go through five different city departments.

"I would allow at least 60 days in advance," Bender said.

County parks program coordinator Monte Alfonso handles requests to film on county beaches and park land. "We'd like them to contact the park department," Alfonso said. "Give us a call and we'll set up a meeting to discuss what they want to do, or we'll do it over the phone."

The applicant should bring a story board, know how many people will be involved and show proof of insurance, Alfonso said.

The department approves most shoots, he said, and can do this within a few hours "if they can get all their ducks in a row."

In St. Petersburg, Linda Campbell of marketing and public information said no one is designated as the city's liaison to the production industry and that applicants should go to the departments that would be involved.

However, Gretchen Tenbrock of leisure services was the liaison between the city and the Cocoon production team. She said inquiries often are referred to her, and Rich Hickman, director of marketing, also handles requests.

"We don't require anything special," Tenbrock said. "We just like to know they're here so we can assist them."

Belleair Beach doesn't have a formal process, said Amy McLean, acting city clerk. The applicant needs to submit a full proposal to the mayor, including what, when, where, "the whole nine yards." The mayor can approve small projects himself, but if the plans are extensive, he would have to take them to council members in a regular or special meeting.

The applicant also needs to have an occupational license, a policy that industry officials object to, pointing out that the company doesn't actually do any business or earn any money in the city.

"It seems like such a hassle for something that simple _ people coming in to take a few pictures," McLean said. "But the county and the municipality have discovered that it's better to do it only through permitting. They lop off a branch here, a branch there. Then they leave town and your public works people end up running around for days."