More public money sought to keep eager producers filming in Tampa Bay

It’s only July, and Pinellas already has received $300,000 more in incentive requests than it has money available. In Hillsborough, the shortfall is $52,000.
A crew follows actor Sara Rue along Fifth Street S in St. Petersburg during filming in February of the Hallmark Channel movie Garden Party. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
A crew follows actor Sara Rue along Fifth Street S in St. Petersburg during filming in February of the Hallmark Channel movie Garden Party. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published July 5

Producers are tearing through the half-million dollars in television- and film-incentive money budgeted this year in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, so county leaders will be asked to add more to the pot for next year.

It’s only July, and Pinellas already has $300,000 more in incentive requests than it has money available. In Hillsborough, there’s a shortfall of $52,000. More requests are expected in the next six months.

Which productions actually receive incentive money will depend on when they submit their receipts and when they’re validated by county auditors. Those who don’t get funded before the money runs out this year can submit the same receipts for funding under next year’s budget.

Thanks to movies like Hallmark’s Garden Party and Love in the Sun, shot in the Tampa Bay area this year, demand for incentive money appears so great that the St. Petersburg-Clearwater film office wants to triple the budget next year.

The office has asked the Pinellas County Commission for $1.7 million, said film commissioner Tony Armer.

The figure, Armer said, is “based on our conversations with several larger films and Hallmark to get more of those films here.”

"Without the business development funds," he said, "those projects will not shoot here."

In Hillsborough, a budget request for next year still is under discussion but the incentive is “a significant tool in our tool box” for economic development, said county commissioner Ken Hagan, who has championed the fund.

Hagan said there are "several projects in the pipeline" for Hillsborough, but he would not elaborate.

"We should do everything we can to not only expand the industry but continue to encourage filmmakers to produce here,” Hagan said.

In its first three years, through 2018, Hillsborough handed out a total of $117,661 in county cash to three productions. During the same three years, Pinellas provided $614,200 for 20 productions.

Film offices in both counties have been offering the rewards to productions for infusing cash into the local economy, but major projects weren’t biting.

That changed during the past year; Tampa Bay is finally emerging as a hub of independent film.

Dan Myrick, director of The Blair Witch Project, and his business partner Kristian Krempel are opening a production center in Ybor City and credit the boom to the area's diverse filming locations and a strong economy.

Financiers, they said, are more willing these days to risk investing in film but they also go after the incentive money that has become the industry standard in competitive markets.

READ MORE: A piece of the proposed Rays stadium site in Ybor will become a film studio

Hillsborough and Pinellas each offer productions up to 10 percent back on what they spend in the county. To qualify for an incentive, Hillsborough requires spending at least $100,000 in the county. Pinellas has no minimum.

Both counties are in the process of reviewing producers’ receipts and no checks have been issued yet in 2019.

Hillsborough and Pinellas are using their incentives to fill the gap left by the elimination of a Florida film incentive.

The state used to offer producers up to 30 percent of what they spent in Florida, with a cap of $8 million per production.

Florida provided $296 million in incentives before the program ended in 2016.

If the local audits support the requests, Armer said, most of the incentive money allocated this year in Pinellas will be split between the two the Hallmark movies plus I See a Man with Yellow Eyes starring Katherine Heigl and Zola produced by Academy Award-winning A24.

Hillsborough would divvy up its allocation among the same four productions plus Bernie the Dolphin 2, Skyman directed by Blair Witch's Myrick, and National Geographic's Secrets of the Zoo filming here through October. Producers are expected to spend $5.5 million in Hillsborough this year, said film commissioner Tyler Martinolich. In Pinellas, the figure is $8 million — well over the $5.6 million Armer estimated earlier.

READ MORE: Small productions create big impact with hundreds of new jobs in Hillsborough, Pinellas

In 2016, the Discovery Channel spent $850,000 making 10 episodes of its Street Science series in Hillsborough. That earned the production an $85,000 incentive.

Tampa-based Spectrum Productions was behind that series and was contracted to make Secrets of the Zoo.

"There were multiple markets bidding on the project," Martinolich said. Spectrum was "able to show on paper how the incentive works and how much they would save, which got Secrets of the Zoo to Tampa.

“If we open the door and start the conversation, it will lead to repeat clients and more business over time."

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

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