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

The Blind Side’s Quinton Aaron stars as Santa Claus in the comedy Elfette Saves Christmas, now filming in the Tampa Bay area. [Courtesy of Skylar Junebug Photography]
The Blind Side’s Quinton Aaron stars as Santa Claus in the comedy Elfette Saves Christmas, now filming in the Tampa Bay area. [Courtesy of Skylar Junebug Photography]
Published June 8, 2019

Independent films and commercials are flocking to the Tampa Bay area, and the payoff is more than good publicity.

They are creating jobs too.

A few years ago, there was a brain drain of local film crew and actors as they moved to places like Hollywood and Atlanta where work is plentiful.

But now, local industry professionals say, the talent is staying put.

"A year or two ago, a lot of people left town and it was hard to find people to work on a movie here," said Tampa filmmaker Christian Cashmir, 38, who is directing the comedy Elfette Saves Christmas.

It stars The Blind Side's Quinton Aaron as a Santa Claus kidnapped by the mafia because his free gifts hurt their toy company's bottom line.

"Now, there are a lot of fresh people on the scene. It is a great time to be making movies here."

Through the first six months of the fiscal year, as of March 31, seven independent productions have spent $3.1 million in Pinellas County and 10 have dropped $3.3 in Hillsborough County, according to the latest numbers provided by the counties' film commissions.

For the 12 months of the previous fiscal year, the totals were 15 films and $660,000 in Pinellas and four films and $32,000 in Hillsborough.

Commercial productions are up through March, too. Pinellas has hosted 29 that infused $1.6 million into the economy compared to 55 for $2.5 million all of last year. Through March, Hillsborough has already topped last fiscal year's totals — 45 for $3.9 million compared to 42 for $2.9.

A large portion of the money has been spent hiring residents as cast and crew.

Productions in Pinellas have hired 1,155 county residents through March of this fiscal year, nearly matching last year's total of 1,786.

The Hillsborough County Film Commission doesn't track job numbers for every production. Rather, it only does so for those that apply for its incentive of 10 percent back on local expenditures.

In Hillsborough, the film, Zola hired 138 in Hillsborough and Hallmark Channel's Love Blooms employed 18. Zola is produced by A24, the company behind the Academy Award-winning Moonlight. In Pinellas, the same two productions also hired 50 people and 70 people, respectively.

Also in Pinellas, a Publix commercial made in January employed 70 local people.

Hillsborough film commissioner said Tyler Martinolich said that a national clothing line recently shot a commercial in his county that employed around 400.

The film commissions have not yet tabulated the financial impact of two major productions that did filming locally in April and May — Saw a Man with Yellow Eyes starring Katherine Heigl, and Hallmark's Love in the Sun.

But Pinellas film commissioner Tony Armer estimated that together, they added $2.5 million to the county's economy and hired 140 residents.

According to its application for an incentive payment in Hillsborough, I Saw a Man with Yellow Eyes estimated it would hire 107 county residents who collectively would earn $1.4 million. The production predicted it would spend a total of $2 million in Hillsborough.

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Work began to dry up locally following the state Legislature's decision in 2016 to eliminate film incentives that paid millions back to major productions. But in the past year, Hillsborough and Pinellas have tried filling in the gap locally by launching their own incentives for smaller productions — up to 10 percent back from an annual budget that's capped at $500,000 in each county.

Jay Palomino said he had all but packed his bags for Georgia.

The self-proclaimed "proud third-generation Tampeño" works as a transportation coordinator and driver for productions and was tired of hearing how colleagues in Atlanta were so busy they turn down jobs.

But this year, he is signing on locally with independent films.

"I worked on almost all of them," said Palomino, 72 — including Zola, two Hallmark movies and I Saw a Man with Yellow Eyes. "I am going to stay."

Actor Steve Heinz, 68, of Sarasota, said he long ago accepted that his resume would not include steady feature film work. On occasion, he drives to Miami to try out but prefers to stay local.

"I don't even like going to Orlando for auditions," Heinz said. "It's a tank of gas and two hours both ways."

But he welcomes his recent drives north to Hillsborough and Pinellas, where he was cast as a featured extra in both Hallmark movies and Zola. He also recently auditioned for A Brother's Honor. Produced by Tosca Musk, the sister of Elon Musk, it will shoot in St. Petersburg this summer.

READ MORE: Filmmaker Tosca Musk, sister of Elon Musk, to make her next movie in St. Petersburg

"It's been encouraging with everything going on," Heinz said.

The excitement has spread to the University of Tampa's film program, associate professor Aaron Walker said.

In past years, Walker said he felt like a talent exporter. He would teach students their craft only to see them leave for markets that had jobs waiting.

Now, Walker said, students are sticking around and some who left have returned.

What's more, UT is earning a reputation as a school that can get its undergrads onto a film set.

Ten students interned on each Hallmark movie and others hope to find work on The Blair Witch Project director Dan Myrick's Lost Ybor web series, shooting in Tampa this summer. The production has budgeted $20,000 to hire 10 students orrecent graduates, according to its application for a Hillsborough incentive payment.

READ MORE: Blair Witch Project director will turn Ybor City into a horror hotbed

"Students want to be on a big set," Walker said. "Up until recently, it was difficult."

Lucas Schatzberg, 22, graduated from the Art Institute of Tampa's digital filmmaking program last year.

He couldn't find film work so figured he'd head to Atlanta.

Now employed as an editor, Schatzberg is among 50 locals working on Cashmir's Elfette Saves Christmas.

Tampa seems more likely to remain home, Schatzberg said.

"There is a general feeling of excitement," "Schatzberg said, "especially among the people who have been here for years, that the film industry is finally building up around here."

Contact Paul Guzzo at or follow @PGuzzoTimes.