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Pinellas film commission seeks $500,000 incentive for a movie, commercial hybrid

‘A Taste of Love’ will be a 90-minute Hallmark-like romance that promotes Pinellas tourism.
The Hallmark filmed "Love in the Sun" in St. Petersburg in 2019.
The Hallmark filmed "Love in the Sun" in St. Petersburg in 2019. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Jan. 14

ST. PETERSBURG — A Taste of Love, a 90-minute Hallmark Channel-like romance movie, will be shot throughout Pinellas County later this year, filmmakers say. The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Film Commission says the film will double as a commercial for Pinellas tourism.

Based on its value as a marketing piece, Pinellas film commissioner Tony Armer is asking the County Commission to approve a $500,000 “enhanced incentive” for Digital Caviar, the Tampa-based production company shooting the project.

Large scale county tourism marketing videos on both sides of the bridge are usually outsourced and include a request for proposal process for transparency, and to find the best suitor. In this case, Digital Caviar is the only option presented.

Armer and Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, under which his commission operates, says this project exists in a grey area that doesn’t call for such a process. It will be up to the county commission to decide if they are correct.

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The money would come from the film commission’s $1 million annual pot to incentivize movies to shoot in Pinellas. That program offers production companies up to 10 percent back on what they spend in the county.

The enhanced incentive would be equivalent to 60 to 100 percent of Digital Caviar’s $500,000 to $800,000 estimated budget because it is based on marketing value and not local spending, Armer said.

Such a 90-minute commercial, Armer said, is worth more than $2 million, according to Milwaukee-based Birdsall, Voss and Associates, the ad agency the county commission contracted to market area tourism.

“A movie like this is a marketing campaign that lives on in perpetuity,” Armer said. “It could show on Netflix, Hallmark, Lifetime, wherever else, and that gives you so much more bang for your buck than a 30- or 90-minute commercial spot.”

Digital Caviar will not receive the incentive if the film does not find a viewing outlet.

Armer expects most of the budget to be spent locally. “There is no set amount but a big part of this is the fact that it must support the local community,” he said.

Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater will also receive 12.5 percent of the movie’s revenues.

To be eligible for this enhanced incentive, Digital Caviar had to give the film commission and tourism bureau creative control over their script.

They did not rewrite the plot that follows an aspiring Food Network star who returns to her hometown to rediscover herself and rekindles a relationship with an ex-boyfriend, Armer said. Instead, he said, they added locales the tourism bureau wanted to promote and dialogue that doubles as commercial.

“I was a little hesitant because when I hear that a movie is going to be a commercial, from a creative perspective, a million red flags go up,” Digital Caviar’s director of operations Mike Brown said. “I think where it landed is just right.”

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Movies sell the area in which the story occurs, John Lux, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Film Florida, said.

“A 2013 Visit Florida survey showed 22 percent of domestic tourists in Florida said something they saw on film or television contributed to their decision to visit our state,” he said. “In the decade since Dolphin Tale was released, attendance at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has skyrocketed from less than 200,000 per year to a peak year of nearly 800,000.”

Armer said that Pinellas has enjoyed recent tourism returns on films that received the county’s 10 percent incentive.

The Hallmark Channel movie Love In The Sun, shot in Safety Harbor, has brought visitors to the city. But A Taste of Love will have a larger economic effect than the Hallmark movie, Armer said, because it has marketing campaigns written into it.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO Steve Hayes said the movie will be like a “90-minute infomercial” for the county. Still, Hayes admitted, a marketing video with a $500,000 county budget would typically be outsourced to Birdsall, Voss and Associates.

“They’d go find the talent to pull something together,” he said.

Their county contract is up for bid every five years via an RFP, according to Hayes.

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Across the bridge, Visit Tampa Bay chief marketing officer Patrick Harrison said they use a handful of private agencies for videos not handled internally.

“If an outsourced video is over $50,000,” Harrison said, Visit Tampa Bay would consider an RFP for “transparency purposes.”

Because A Taste of Love is a movie first and commercial second, and the money comes from the film incentive pot, neither Armer nor Hayes believe an RFP is required.

What’s more, they said, RFPs are for government-funded contracts. Digital Caviar must fund and complete the movie to be eligible for the enhanced incentive.

Digital Caviar met with Armer to discuss the 10 percent incentive and was then presented this “unique opportunity,” Brown said.

“I’ve had this idea for years,” Armer said. “I was waiting for the right time and project.”Due to the coronavirus pandemic, local movie production has come to a near halt. The $1 million film incentive pot will not roll over if it goes unused, Armer said.

Digital Caviar’s movie was the right project, Armer said, because the production company has a track record of completing feature films and signing distribution deals, most recently for the locally shot Bernie the Dolphin and its sequel, both starring Kevin Sorbo.

Other production companies with a similar resume can apply for an enhanced incentive of their own.

“There is an evaluation process,” Armer said. It includes proof that the production company can fund the movie.

But wouldn’t such an incentive make it easier for a production company to come up with the budget knowing nearly all of it could be paid back with county dollars?

“I’m sure it would,” Armer said. “But that is the case in any film.”

The financier “will always want to know there will be an incentive of some sort before agreeing to fund the movie. That’s the business.”