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Hillsborough wants a “large-scale” film studio to lure blockbusters

A study says the ideal film studio would be at least 60,000 square feet. MOSI site is a candidate for a location.
Diamond View studios CEO Tim Moore poses with the screen at Vu, a virtual production studio at Rithm at Uptown, former University Mall. The studio is a "wonderful asset," Hillsborough film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said, but the area still needs a large studio for traditional physical sets.
Diamond View studios CEO Tim Moore poses with the screen at Vu, a virtual production studio at Rithm at Uptown, former University Mall. The studio is a "wonderful asset," Hillsborough film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said, but the area still needs a large studio for traditional physical sets. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Mar. 4
Updated Mar. 4

TAMPA — Area film, television and commercial production leaders say Hillsborough County has almost everything needed to become a national hub for their industry — diverse locales, qualified crew and warm weather.

But they say Hillsborough is hurt by the lack of a major film studio in the county.

There is a now push for one to be created through a public-private partnership. Last year, the county film commission funded a study on the matter.

The county sent the study to industry professionals throughout the state for feedback last week. Input is due by March 18 and will influence a request for proposal for a public-private studio partnership.

The call out could be issued by May 1, according to Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, with responses due by June.

“The industry has been telling me for years that we have a need for a large-scale studio and that it would be an overwhelming success,” Hagan, a production advocate, said.

According to the study, large-scale studios should measure greater than 10,000 square feet. Miami-Dade County has “at least eight” such studios, says the study, Orange County has “at least five” and Pinellas has one — Bluewater Media’s 34,000 square foot studio in Clearwater.

“Tampa is at a stark disadvantage when it comes to competitive studio space,” says the study, conducted in part by interviewing 20 local industry professionals and surveying what it describes as 463 “qualified respondents” from throughout Florida.

Released in October, the study says Hillsborough has no large-scale studios. Since then, Diamond View Studios constructed a 10,000 -square foot production studio named Vū inside the former University Mall, now Rithm at Uptown.

But that studio, which boasts the same technology used to shoot The Mandalorian series, is primarily for virtual productions and not a place where traditional physical sets are built.

“The advanced nature of Vu’s capabilities are a wonderful asset to our market but does not necessarily answer our need for more physical studio space,” Hillsborough film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said. “Additional space is needed to continue to meet growth.”

Director Dan Myrick, left, looks through the camera of Cinematographer Nick Matthews while on the location set of "Black Veil" in downtown Plant City in January 2020.
Director Dan Myrick, left, looks through the camera of Cinematographer Nick Matthews while on the location set of "Black Veil" in downtown Plant City in January 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Using a county incentive that provides 10 percent back on local expenditures and is capped at $500,000, Hillsborough has become a destination for productions with six and seven figure budgets.

But a lack of a major studio contributes to a “resource leakage,” says the study, meaning movie and commercial productions shoot some scenes here but then move to a market that has the studio space they need. That costs the area between $2,000 and $39,000 per production day lost, depending on the project’s budget.

Major Hollywood productions typically seek robust state incentives that provide millions of dollars. Florida does not have such a program. That’s why Ben Affleck’s 2016 Live By Night built a fake Ybor City in Georgia instead of filming here.

There is an ongoing effort to create a state film incentive.

But “even if the region were able to attract larger budget productions and money into the area,” says the survey, “there are no large studios to be able to house these productions in Hillsborough County.”

The ideal studio, says the study, “should maintain around 40,000 square feet of workable shooting space with another 20,000 square feet of modular studio space to be segmented for smaller projects ... accommodate parking for between 60 and 100 vehicles” and be close enough to Tampa International Airport to provide “convenient access for travel, but not so close that the sound of the airport inhibits production.”

Hagan also wants the studio to have a film school or educational component, perhaps in a partnership with Hillsborough Community College, the University of South Florida or the University of Tampa.

He said the “MOSI location is the best from a synergy standpoint and a location standpoint.”

The county owns the 70 acre MOSI campus and along Fowler Avenue as well the buildings, which includes the 400,000-square-foot hall. The County Commission has set aside $2 million from the county’s BP Oil Spill Settlement funds for a possible studio project there.

If MOSI is not part of the chosen proposal, Hagan said, he does not expect the county to support a studio at the site.

The Museum of Science & Industry, MOSI, is located 4801 E Fowler Ave, in Tampa.
The Museum of Science & Industry, MOSI, is located 4801 E Fowler Ave, in Tampa.

The study cites the 20-acre Austin Studios as an example of a successful public-private partnership. Located inside six hangers in the now-closed Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, it has been used by movies such as Friday Night Lights, Star Trek and The Rookie.

But the study — conducted by HCP Associates, whose managing partners Sean Coniglio and Eric Polins are filmmakers and founders of the Gasparilla International Film Festival — cites unsuccessful public-private partnerships, too. Digital Domain in West Palm Beach and Sanborn Studio in Sarasota both shut down despite government partnerships.

Hagan has not settled on a specific type of public-private partnership, but said the ideal situation might be the county covering part of the “capital outlay but the company operates” the studio. “I don’t see us wanting to get into — I’m just throwing out a number here — a $500,000 operational budget item that we have to do every year.”