Florida may get into the business of backing films again if state bills pass

Actors Jordon Bridges, left, and Sara Rue, who star in the upcoming Hallmark movie Garden Party, take a break during filming earlier this month in St. Petersburg. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Actors Jordon Bridges, left, and Sara Rue, who star in the upcoming Hallmark movie Garden Party, take a break during filming earlier this month in St. Petersburg. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published March 2, 2019

TAMPA — Even without the state incentive that lures productions to places like Georgia, the Tampa Bay area is experiencing an independent film boom as seven-figure budget flicks schedule shoots across the area.

Now, two different state programs have been proposed in Senate bills that could bring more film and television work here.

Neither has a House companion yet, as it must to pass, but local industry leaders believe one of the bills is inexpensive enough to pass even in a Legislature that's pulling away from government incentives for private industry.

The word incentive, in fact, never appears in the proposal. It suggests "grants," instead.

"Any major production hub within the state, including Tampa Bay, would stand to benefit from this proposed bill," Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said.

The measure, SB 526, sponsored by Florida Republican Party chair and Sarasota Sen. Joe Gruters, would provide grants to productions that schedule at least 70 percent of their filming days in Florida and with a workforce that's at least 60 percent Florida residents.

Producers could recoup up to 20 percent of what they spend in the state, with a cap of $2 million per project.

The proposal does not say how much money would be available for grants.

The Legislature's 2019 session opens Tuesday.

The other bill, SB 1394, is sponsored by Sen. Victor Torres, a Democrat who represents parts of Osceola and Orange counties.

Producers could recoup up to 35 percent of what they spend in the state under the Torres bill, with a cap of $8 million per project.

During the first two years of the program, production crews would need to be 50 percent state residents, rising to 60 percent after that.

As much as $36 million per year would be available as "incentives" in this proposal.

The last state film support program took effect in 2012, offering producers up to 30 percent of what they spend in Florida with a cap of $8 million.

Florida spent $296 million before the program was allowed to sunset in 2016.

Since then, according to non-profit advocacy group Film Florida, the state has lost more than 60 major productions to states with incentive programs.

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One criticism of the former program was that money was doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

That would not be the case with the new proposals.

Under SB 1394, projects would be chosen through discussions between the state and counties that might host a production. No specific criteria has been provided yet.

Local industry leaders are backing SB 526.

"It is the most fiscally responsible of the two," said Martinolich with the Hillsborough film commission.

Under this proposal, the state would create a Grant Advisory Board and productions would apply for grants before filming.

The board would use a metrics system to judge applicants with the highest potential economic impact. Those selected would receive their cash after filming and upon completion of an audit.

This system explains why the money would come in the form of a grant rather than an incentive, said John Lux, executive director of Film Florida.

"It is merit based," he said. "You're not just chosen because you handed in an application."

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Still, whatever the name, the approach is the same, said Skylar Zander, state director of the Americans for Prosperity-Florida.

"Special interests can try to rewrite the script, but it's corporate welfare any way you cut it," Zander said. "Government has no business turning Florida taxpayers into a bank for any industry."

Lux insists SB 526 is fiscally responsible.

"It has a very specific metric," he said. "How much will be spent? How many jobs will be created? Will it impact tourism by showing off our state?"

The tourism metric is why the Tampa Bay area stands to benefit more than other areas of the state, Martinolich said.

To gain a higher score, he said, story lines will likely be written to feature Florida locations. And when writers from outside Florida think of the state, he said, they envision cities like Tampa, Miami and Orlando.

What's more, a film or television series could apply for an additional 3 percent back if it is made in a region considered underused by production companies. Hillsborough and Pinellas are on that list. Miami-Dade and Orange counties are not.

"It is always nice to see one of our cities in the backdrop of a film," said Kelly Paige, owner of Level Talent in Tampa. SB 526 "will enable us to use our city as a character. We are going to benefit greatly from it."

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SB 526 could also help the Tampa Bay area build upon its growing independent film scene.

The cap of $2 million per production is more likely to attract smaller independent films than Marvel-sized studio blockbusters, Martinolich said. They're drawn more to a state like Georgia that offers 30 percent back and no cap.

Martinolich expects SB 526 would help boost a growing local market.

After a busy 2018, five independent films are scheduled to film in this area this year. And Garden Party, an independent film that will become a Hallmark movie in April, just wrapped production.

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Producers are drawn here by a skilled yet affordable crew and by diverse locations on both sides of the bridge, Martinolich said.

"Jobs are being created. That is a good thing."

Contact Paul Guzzo at or follow @PGuzzoTimes.