1. Life & Culture

Florida's starring role fades without incentives

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Published Jan. 31, 2014

By Steve Persall

Times Movie Critic

Dale Gordon knows why Florida's entertainment industry needs money to lure productions to the state.

She heard the consequences straight from the mouse's mouth.

Gordon, serving as Tampa-Hillsborough film and digital media commissioner, listened last year as Disney's vice president for production, Mary Ann Hughes, spoke in Orlando.

"She stood up and said: 'As a company I am not even allowed to consider the state of Florida as a filming destination. It is fiscally irresponsible for me to consider,' " Gordon recalled.

Gordon paused to let that sink in, adding: "If Disney can't work in the state of Florida, I think we have a really big problem."

Florida has an incentives system in place but it's tapped out, having distributed its allocated $296 million. Gordon's agency is feeling the loss, with at least one feature film, The Infiltrator, hesitating to shoot in Tampa unless incentives are available.

"Their number one question (is): What can we do for them, both as a community and as a state, to incentivize this project?" Gordon said.

Since its inception in 2010, the Entertainment Industry Financial Incentive Program paid tax credits to 297 film, television and video productions that qualified, chiefly for hiring Florida-based workers and vendors.

In return, those projects pumped nearly $1.6 billion into Florida's economy, mostly in wages, lodging and rental fees. More than 190,000 temporary jobs for actors and crew members were created.

Incentives were vital in attracting such high-profile film productions as Dolphin Tale, Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain, the TV series Burn Notice and Magic City, and the Madden NFL video game. The lion's share was paid to productions set around Miami (175 total) and Orlando (87), with Tampa Bay (25) a distant third.

Film Florida, a coalition representing the state's entertainment industry, is aggressively lobbying the Legislature in support of a $200 million replenishment. That amount is based on incentive budgets of competing states, intending to extend Florida's program through 2020.

Their efforts peak March 26 with the annual "Rally in Tally," when supporters converge on the state Capitol to press their case.

At least one Florida legislator believes the incentives plan will be replenished in 2014 but not to the level Film Florida seeks.

"The chances are probably 80 percent that something will be placed in the incentives pot," said Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. "The chances of a $200 million pot are probably less than 5 percent. I think the number's going to be $50-75 (million), which will still be huge."

Even at the higher amount, incentive money isn't likely to last long.

"The money we put in there in years past has gone in minutes, not even hours," Bean said.

With the incentives fund depleted, interest in Florida has noticeably declined. Other states including Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina remained competitive with consistently funded incentives programs, leading to a steady flow of productions generating jobs and revenues.

"It has definitely put us in a disadvantaged place from a marketing perspective," Film Florida president Leah Sokolowsky said by telephone.

Even the sequel to Dolphin Tale that recently wrapped production in Pinellas County wasn't greenlighted until Alcon Entertainment was guaranteed an amount equivalent to the original's $5 million tax credit. The money came from the state's general revenue fund, a decision made due to the first movie's impact on tourism.

That type of exception isn't possible for most projects, including a movie Gordon is attempting to attract to Tampa.

In February, Gordon will host representatives of Good Films, the London-based group producing the true-life crime thriller The Infiltrator. On paper it's a slam dunk, since the movie is based on a book largely set in Tampa, written by former federal undercover agent Robert Mazur, who lives here.

Yet without incentives to offer, an independently financed project like The Infiltrator — reportedly budgeted under $50 million — isn't likely to use Florida's entertainment infrastructure.

"I would say the chances would be slim to none," Sokolowsky said. "(It) goes against the current business model in this industry."

A statement released by Good Films echoed that conclusion:

"Florida is, of course, the producers' first choice for the location, given the integral meaning it has in Mr. Mazur's original book. . . . That said, as with all independent projects, financial factors ultimately control the creative elements, and how the money comes together will inevitably determine where the production is shot."

Another movie project with Tampa ties — the now-delayed Ben Affleck vehicle Live by Night, based on Dennis Lehane's novel — is reported to be focusing on Savannah, Ga., taking advantage of that state's incentives and the city's passing resemblance to Ybor City, where Lehane's mob drama unfolds. Gordon continues to be in touch.

"Productions want to come here," she said. "They want to work here. We have a great product to sell. It just all comes down at the end of the day, to whether they're going to get those incentives."

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter @StevePersall.