Florida's Hollywood dreams all but died five years ago when the Legislature declined to continue a tax incentive program and quit competing with other states for big-budget productions.
But targeting smaller independent films and their six- or seven-figure budgets has proven successful in the Tampa Bay area, with a busy local filming schedule in 2018, five high-profile projects planned in 2019, and the promise of more announcements in the coming months.
"It does feel like we are having an indie film boom here," said St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer. "We had a busy 2018 and 2019 will be better."
That goes for both sides of the bridge, Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said. "There is a trend developing. Indie films are finding that we are a great place to film."
Among the high-profile indies that filmed in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are the psychological horror Not Alone; Skyman, directed by The Blair Witch Project's Dan Myrick; the family adventure movies Bernie The Dolphin parts one and two; and the semi-biographical Zola about a stripper's crazy and nearly deadly weekend in Tampa.
In 2019, the Steinbrenner family's Pinstripe Productions will make two feature films and a web series in Hillsborough that will drop a total of some $5.4 million locally.
In addition, the production company Dance Crusader will shoot a movie with a $3 million budget in Pinellas, with much of that being spent locally, Armer said.
Titled Dreamer, it is about an undocumented gay immigrant teen living under the threat of deportation as he seeks to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional dancer. It is based on the South Florida childhood of director Marcos Davalos, but he chose Pinellas as the backdrop.
"I received such a wonderful and warm reception by everyone there," Davalos said. "I decided it is the perfect location."
What's more, Armer said, he has confirmation that another seven-figure production will film in Pinellas in early 2019. He said he will disclose specifics later.
In Hillsborough, Martinolich said he expects more independent production announcements in the coming months, too.
"They are going to employ people, rent hotel rooms, make purchases, and promote the area," he said. "That's the bottom line."
For a number of business reasons, the two film commissioners said, Tampa Bay area makes financial sense for smaller independent productions.
At the top of the list, each county has $500,000 a year in incentive cash to dole out to productions. Applicants can get back 10 percent of what they spend locally.
That pales in comparison to Georgia's state incentive of 20 to 30 percent back. But that program has drawn so many Hollywood productions, Georgia has little need for the independents, Armer said.
"I tell filmmakers with $2 million budgets that there is such a backlog of films waiting to get incentive money in Georgia that they will wait two years to get their money," he said.
Locations, crew and rental equipment are also more expensive in Georgia because of the laws of supply and demand.
“Crew can make $600 a day on a big budget movie," Armer said. "They are not going to work for half on an indie."
Also helping propel productions in the Tampa Bay area is the advent of the streaming era.
Once deemed too risky for financiers, productions distributed via the internet now are competitive thanks to on-demand services like Netflix.
The first Bernie the Dolphin movie, for example, is available for rent on YouTube and Amazon Prime and soon will reach audiences in more than 130 countries. The sequel, scheduled for release in 2019, should enjoy a similar broad distribution, Armer said.
As long as 20 years ago, people in the industry began predicting that the future of independent production would be online.
"We're finally there," Martinolich said. "Platforms that bypass traditional cable broadcast and movie theaters have opened the door for new productions to find a voice and a home.” He added, “The filmmakers are benefiting, and our area is benefiting."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.