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Need to film scenes from Brooklyn? Chicago? Canada? Tampa Bay stands in for all of them

With its exposed brick and vintage look, the Station House networking and event space in downtown St. Petersburg will double as a Chicago skyscraper in the Hallmark movie Love in the Sun. [Times (2016)]
Published May 15

With scenes shot in Treasure Island, downtown St. Petersburg, Fort De Soto Park and Safety Harbor, Pinellas County has a starring role in the movie Love in the Sun premiering 8 p.m. May 27 on the Hallmark Channel.

Even scenes meant to depict the Windy City were shot here, at the Station House — the networking and event space at 206 First Ave S.

"With its exposed brick and older look, it fit perfect," said the film's location scout Guy Balson. "St. Pete became Chicago."

The Tampa Bay area's capacity to mimic places from around the world, without too much added movie magic, has boosted its appeal as a place for filming, leaders in the local industry say.

READ MORE: Lights, camera, action: Here's how St. Petersburg homes played a feature role in new movies.

"It's unique," Balson said. "You can drive the freeways through Thonotosassa and it looks Midwest, find Beaver Cleaver neighborhoods in Tampa, go to Fort DeSoto and recreate Panama."

Plant City has a rural look, he said, and Tarpon Springs can become Greece, not to mention the chameleon-like quality of all those gulf beaches.

As Tyler Martinolich, Hillsborough's film commissioner, tells producers, "Shoot anywhere, right here in Tampa Bay. We can become what you want."

Among Martinolich's examples: Ybor City was Brooklyn in a 2014 Louis Vuitton commercial starring Jaden Smith, Plant City doubled as a South American town for a NAPA Auto Parts commercial two years ago, and downtown Tampa at street level has stood in as Chicago for bank and tire commercials.

Tampa was to serve as Chicago in Love in the Sun but producers were already shooting heavily on the other side of the bay so they decided to stay there. Still, they filmed exterior waterfront B-roll in Hillsborough County.

Love in the Sun, the second Hallmark movie made in Pinellas County this year, is about an advertising executive who leaves behind her high school sweetheart and her life in Safety Harbor for a gloomy job in Chicago. Fate brings her back to her childhood home and, of course, the old sweetheart.

READ MORE: Another Hallmark movie is coming to Tampa Bay, and possibly eight more.

When she looks out the window of her faux-Chicago office, the Windy City appears via stock footage and green-screen technology, Balson said.

Rather than flying the production crew to Chicago, it made more financial sense to replicate it here, said Tony Armer, the St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner.

"That we offer so many diverse locations brings us added work," Armer said.

As another example, he points to Home Depot and the commercials the home improvement giant shot in Gulfport for its southeast market. Then Home Depot stuck around to produce spots for its Midwest market — using neighborhoods that looked plucked from the region that it found in Historic Old Northeast St. Petersburg.

"Where else can that happen?" Armer said. "Miami has bungalows, but not these old homes built by people in the Midwest coming down here."

Similarly, neighborhoods in Northeast Tampa doubled as Detroit for the movie Zola — about a stripper's wild road trip from Detroit to Tampa, said the film's location scout Elizabeth Tatro.

READ MORE: The Zola Twitter saga went viral. The 'Zola' movie is being filmed in Tampa Bay.

A few years earlier, the 2016 film Infiltrator starring Bryan Cranston was shot in Tampa — in part, because this was the site of the real-life story about an undercover agent who busted a financial institution laundering money for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

But after the director saw the diversity of the area's locations, he also filmed here for scenes from Nicaragua, Miami and Los Angeles. For example, with its authentic Caribbean decor — colors, art and foliage — the Ybor City Jamaican restaurant Cephas' Hot Shop became a place in Nicaragua.

What's more, Fort DeSoto stood in for Panama for several episodes during the 2007-2008 season of the Fox television series Prison Break and commercials for the Canadian market are often shot in the area.

"Find a lake house with a lot of land with no Spanish moss for Canada," location scout Tatro said. "It's cold in Canada and always snowing so they come here instead."

One directive Tatro often hears from national commercial productions is, "Make it look like anywhere but Florida."

It's not that palm trees and sunshine are undesirable, she said, but such the productions are looking for locations with an "anywhere USA" look that viewers around the country can relate to.

Hyde Park and Carrollwood fill the bill, she said.

Hyde Park also can double as a northern neighborhood, said Martinolich, the film commissioner, "because of its craftsman homes and canopy trees and because it has no palm trees."

One production company has recently looked at Ybor City for a commercial depicting Havana, Tatro said, and film commissioner Armer said he is in talks about turning a piece of the St. Pete-Clearwater area into a Virginia backdrop.

"Yes," Armer said with a laugh. "We can even fake Virginia."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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