From St. Pete to Cannes: Web series showcases Pinellas filmmaking with zero state money

Director Christian Cashmir and Cinematographer Scott Sullivan film a BTS Scene of Lucius Baston at Litewave Studios in St. Petersburg. [Litewave Studios]

Director Christian Cashmir and Cinematographer Scott Sullivan film a BTS Scene of Lucius Baston at Litewave Studios in St. Petersburg. [Litewave Studios]
Published April 28, 2017

Created and recorded in St. Petersburg on a shoestring budget, BTS is a wacky web series about an indie film company where staff meetings generate ideas ranging from bad to terrible.

"It's Waterworld meets the Muppets," says a character in the first episode, offering up his ridiculous pitch for a new project. "Five samurai, and they're all looking for Kanye West," says another. One character sings a song about her promiscuous cat.

In terms of film and TV production in Tampa Bay, it's way more serious.

The eight-episode comedy exemplifies the kind of online digital video production St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer wants this area to specialize in.

When BTS creator Christian Cashmir and Armer go to France for the Cannes Film Festival next month, the show will fit yet another definition: a commercial for St. Petersburg-Clearwater as a filmmaking destination, screening alongside one of the film industry's premier events.

BTS, which stands for "behind the scenes," gets its world premiere Sunday at the Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg. At Cannes, running May 17-28, it's part of a 10-movie Sunscreen showcase at the Short Film Corner.

It isn't part of the prestigious festival competition, but the Short Film Corner serves as a marketplace and networking melting pot for filmmakers and distributors around the world.

Florida's film incentives program ended in 2016, meaning there's no state money to lure movies and TV shows. That's forced Armer to be creative.

With online series and YouTube channels continuing to gain traction, he's focusing his attention there.

"We have half a million dollars every year set aside for marketing grants for projects. Music videos, web series, shorts, smaller stuff, digital stuff, whatever we can," he said. "Since the state doesn't have a program, this is our local program. We try to keep projects here."

Digital video productions tend to have much lower budgets compared to traditional TV and movies, meaning a smaller incentive from the film commission goes further, Armer said.

Cashmir received a $7,000 grant from the commission to produce BTS at his 3,200-square-foot Litewave Studios in the Gateway neighborhood. The crew, and most of the cast, were locals.

"For a show with a $50,000 budget, which is what their budget was, the economic impact was a lot. It was a $250,000 impact on the local economy," Armer said. "Plus the marketing value we get for the area when it's at Cannes and other places. We'll get thousands if not millions of views."

Part of the terms for such grants are that the film commission can use images from the productions to promote the area.

It was a similar marketing opportunity that persuaded Armer to award the Clearwater Marine Aquarium a $45,000 grant last year for its web series Rescue Clearwater. It has been viewed on YouTube and the aquarium's website around a million times.

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A $10,000 incentive lured the Toronto-based YouTube series Running With Violet to Pinellas County, where it shot its first-season finale, and will shoot four episodes of its second season. The black comedy web series Barry Baker: Aspiring Serial Killer received $3,000 in incentives. Several episodes shot in the area are available on Amazon Prime, with more to come.

Both had budgets topping six figures, and each represents more than a $100,000 impact on the local economy, Armer said.

There's always hope of snagging a bigger-budgeted production — a $100,000 grant persuaded Tim Burton to film parts of the 2016 film Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children in Tampa Bay, Armer said.

Armer's time at Cannes will be the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Film Commission's biggest push yet to market the area to filmmakers, with a tent set up to showcase Pinellas County.

"There have been other American film commissions that have had a presence at Cannes, but none have had a major presence like we will this year," Armer said. "We're in the pavilion, right next to Norway and Panama and Sweden. We're right there, competing with entire countries to promote this destination."

Cashmir, 36, who moved to the Tampa area after film school, said going to Cannes is a "lifelong dream" come true. Shot in a mockumentary style, he describes BTS as part The Office, part Entourage.

"The short-term goal is to sell (BTS), or part of it, to someone, like Machinima or Amazon Prime, someone who's doing short form web series right," Cashmir said. "But I also want to keep the production (in St. Petersburg)."

As for that wacky scene from the first episode of BTS, he said it's not far off from reality at his small production studio.

"That pitch session came straight out of real life. We took a lot of things from real life and gave them a twist," he said. "One of the things we pulled directly from what we've produced was a Game of Thrones, medieval-style dentist commercial. We actually made that for a client, but then we ended up putting a line in the show about it."

Also premiering at Sunscreen and that Cannes showcase will be Tiny Bacteria, a seven-minute short featuring St. Petersburg actress Eugenie Bondurant as Martha Gellhorn, the famed war correspondent and third wife of Ernest Hemingway. It was directed by Tampa-based filmmaker Victoria Jorgensen.