Three years ago, Pinellas County decided to get into the production industry.
The idea was to partially fund and help make productions that double as tourist videos by including plots, locations and dialogue that promote the area. So far, there have been mixed results.
“Life’s Rewards,” an Amazon Prime series with two seasons funded with $775,000 in Pinellas money, has brought visitors to the area, according to the county’s tourism agency, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.
But, 18 months after the movie “A Taste of Love” wrapped using $500,000 in county money, it has yet to find a distributor.
For comparison, a production company led by former Clearwater Aquarium CEO David Yates has shot 15 movies in the last 16 months in Tampa Bay. All have secured distribution. And, last year, his company received $510,000 in county production incentives, but that was split among five films.
“There has been interest,” Steve Hayes, president of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, said of “A Taste of Love.” “I fully expect it to find a distribution source.”
He did not know when that would happen.
Pinellas allocates $1 million annually for production incentives. The amount given to a project is based partly on its local spending and partly on whether it promotes the area by highlighting tourist spots and providing cast and crew testimonial videos endorsing the county.
“A Taste of Love” was funded through that program but needed County Commission approval because it took half the pot. “Life’s Rewards” was funded through a separate incentive approved by the County Commission.
Further separating these projects from others that receive incentive money is that the county was part of the production process, which is why those projects got bigger grants.
Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater and its film commission office helped with the scripts and chose the locations to be highlighted. The idea to produce content that doubles as tourism videos was born when the state tourism agency, Visit Florida, offered to partner with a county willing to do so.
Visit Florida kicked in $275,000 and the Pinellas County Commission approved another $275,000 for season one of “Life’s Rewards.”
Sarasota-based Odyssey Studios was then brought on to help make the first season, which follows the exploits of a high-profile wealth manager’s privileged son. He loses everything and is forced to live off the only two assets he has left — his charisma and a cache of hotel points that allow him to stay for six months at the Don CeSar on St. Pete Beach. He also visits the area’s tourist spots.
The county justified the incentive by pointing to a 2013 Visit Florida survey saying that 22% of domestic tourists in Florida said something they saw on film or television contributed to their decision to visit.
Hayes says that “Life’s Rewards” backs that survey.
The Don Cesar attributed $372,000 in revenue between March and July 2022 to tourists booking rooms there after watching the series, Hayes said.
And, according to Odyssey Studios’ economic impact report on the first season, the eight 10– to 15-minute episodes were viewed around 342,000 times for nearly 50,000 hours. When those numbers are combined with social media engagements and advertisement impressions, the report says, season one was equal to a $20 million tourism advertising campaign for Pinellas.
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The county greenlit a second season at the cost of $500,000, according to Hayes, and Visit Florida says they provided another $375,000.
Now streaming, it focuses on a bartender and friends who start a food truck.
“A Taste of Love” is also a food-centric story.
Featuring Martin Kove of “Cobra Kai,” the film is about an out-of-work television chef who returns to her hometown to find her family’s multigenerational restaurant is up for sale because it can’t compete with contemporary cuisine.
During filming in July 2021, the county billed it as a 90-minute Hallmark-like romance that promotes the area.
Todd Yonteck, CEO of area production company Digital Caviar — which partnered with the county on the film — said they are still in talks with Hallmark and other distribution outlets.
Yonteck is confident the movie will have a global audience but said he feels the pressure to succeed soon due to the incentive that helped fund it. His company also feels internal financial pressure. The $500,000 incentive accounted for a quarter of the budget. Digital Caviar raised the rest.
“I’m told that we should have something in the next couple of weeks,” Yonteck said. “I’m hoping to have some good news or at least updates.”