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Big budget films are recreating Tampa Bay elsewhere. It might get worse.

In July, the state dissolved its Office of Film and Entertainment, which brought productions to Florida.
 
Tal Zentmeyer, 2nd AC, snaps a slate for a scene for the film "Baked With a Kiss" in 2022 in Seminole.
Tal Zentmeyer, 2nd AC, snaps a slate for a scene for the film "Baked With a Kiss" in 2022 in Seminole. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 2|Updated Jan. 9

TAMPA — Sean Michael Davis spent the early part of his career as crew on big-budget movies in Florida. Locally, those included “Dolphin Tale” and “The Punisher.”

He next hit the road for eight years as a camera operator for “Cops” and “House Hunters.”

Seven years ago, wanting to be home more, Davis walked away from reality television and sought a return to feature films in Florida.

“But they just don’t exist here anymore like they used to,” said Davis, a Tampa Bay resident who authored “Shoot to Thrill! The life and times of a reality TV cameraman.” “There are not enough for steady work.”

If things had been different, he could have recently worked with Zachary Levi, Woody Harrelson, Chris Evans and Emily Blunt. Each starred in movies about Tampa Bay. But those productions recreated the area in Georgia, South Carolina and Malta because Florida lacks a state film incentive program.

Those who work in the industry expect productions will now shun the Sunshine State at a higher rate. That’s because, in July, the state dissolved its Office of Film and Entertainment, which brought productions here and then provided logistical support.

With the Hollywood strikes over, the coming year will show whether the lack of state support further impacts the film industry here.

Florida once ranked third in the nation for production work, but now it is not included on lists that document the top 20, said John Lux, executive director of Film Florida, a nonprofit that legislatively advocates for the industry. A lack of an incentive program for films and television series is the reason, he said.

Tyler Martinolich, head of Hillsborough’s film commission, Film Tampa Bay, worries that, due to a lack of a proactive state film office, it will now be nearly impossible for Florida to land any significant productions. “It’s the same thing as hanging a giant sign that says we’re closed for business as a state,” he said. “Or at least that’s the appearance we’re giving.”

No state film office

Florida is now one of five states without a state film commission office.

The others are Alaska, Delaware, Vermont and Wisconsin. “Places where productions typically aren’t interested in filming for a variety of reasons,” Martinolich said.

Florida’s state film office didn’t market just the state, but would pitch counties, like Hillsborough and Pinellas, to productions that might not realize Tampa Bay offers locations beyond beaches.

“A lot of people think Florida is just sand, swamps and Mickey Mouse,” Martinolich said.

It also had a Los Angeles liaison, a role that location scout Robert Sterrett said was “responsible for bringing in so many productions.” That’s who he went to when hired by National Geographic for “The Right Stuff” series, which was shot in 2019 and chronicles the first human spaceflight program in the U.S.

“I begged them to shoot in Florida,” Sterrett said. “I put them in touch with the Florida film commission and they worked to make it happen.”

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While most of it was made in Cape Canaveral, there were two days of filming in Hillsborough, where the production spent an estimated $528,000.

Sterrett moved to Tampa Bay in 2005 to take advantage of Florida’s then-burgeoning film industry. Three years ago, he returned to Los Angeles when film work here became hard to find. He hoped to return here one day, but now that there is no state film office, doubts he will. “I love Tampa Bay, but have to pay the bills,” Sterrett said.

The state film office’s “whole budget was under a half million dollars,” Martinolich said.

It had been part of the Department of Economic Opportunity, which was reconfigured and then renamed Florida Commerce by legislation in July. At that time, the governor’s office said it was part of an effort to “streamline and modernize Florida’s economic development agencies.”

Some programs were shuttered. Others had duties directly taken over by Florida Commerce. The film office sort of falls into that category, Martinolich said. “There is technically someone there to answer the phone and to answer questions, but … they’re not proactively going out and generating leads. There is really no marketing, no presence at festivals and tradeshows. They’ve largely left the conversation when it comes to courting new projects.”

In 2022, according to Film Florida, 2,221 potential productions contacted the state film office. That office then facilitated bringing 1,871 of those to the state, which were trickled down to the counties based on needs.

“The industry thrives on stability,” Martinolich said. “Who will answer those calls now, and will the overall number of leads drop?”

When asked by email to speak with someone from Florida Commerce about how the department supports the film industry, a spokesperson referred the Tampa Bay Times to Film Florida’s Lux, who is neither a state employee nor someone charged with that job.

This image released by Netflix shows Chris Evans as Brenner, left, Andy Garcia as Neel, center, and Emily Blunt as Liza in a scene from "Pain Hustlers." (Brian Douglas/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows Chris Evans as Brenner, left, Andy Garcia as Neel, center, and Emily Blunt as Liza in a scene from "Pain Hustlers." (Brian Douglas/Netflix via AP) [ BRIAN DOUGLAS | AP ]

Incentives

Of those 1,871 productions, most were commercials, Martinolich said, with the rest being “a smattering of indies, studio features, TV shows, shorts and documentaries. I’d guess that only a few were big studio films. Those types of films are becoming rare, mostly coming to film Miami and South Florida, which is incredibly difficult to recreate elsewhere, or just shooting necessary B-roll shots to establish where a film is supposed to take place.”

That was the case for “Pain Hustlers” starring Chris Evans and Emily Blunt. It shot for a few days in Tampa Bay in 2022 and spent approximately $100,000 here. But, despite the story taking place in an unidentified area of Central Florida, the bulk of the movie was filmed in Georgia, where productions can receive a state incentive.

“That was a $20 million-plus movie,” Martinolich said. “We should have gotten all of that. We would have gotten it if we had a state incentive.”

According to Georgia’s audit of its incentive program, Florida is one of 12 states without a statewide incentive program.

Florida once had one that was available to lure movies, television series, music videos and video games. During the last iteration, spanning 2012-2016, the state doled out $296 million in incentives to productions before letting the program sunset. Through tax credits, the program offered up to 30% back, primarily on in-state expenditures, with an $8 million cap per applicant.

Advocates like Lux point to the $1.2 billion spent in the state by those that received a portion of that pot.

Opponents counter that incentives benefit only a select part of the private sector at the expense of all taxpayers. Citing a study conducted by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, Skylar Zander, Florida director of conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, said that the last incentive program “brought in a measly 43 cents in returned tax revenues for every dollar the state spent. ... Florida taxpayers should not be on the hook for handouts to the film industry.”

The state still has a program that provides a sales tax exemption for certain production needs, like location rentals and equipment. In 2022, according to Film Florida, 1,077 were granted that exemption, which totaled $38 million. They spent nearly $1.7 billion. But Martinolich reiterated that only a few of those productions were big-budget movies.

Over the last five years, due to a lack of a state incentive, Film Florida estimates that Florida has lost over 100 major film and television series that would have spent up to $2 billion.

“When you look back historically at the markets that have been most successful, there have been incentives,” said Brad Meriwether, chief marketing officer for Vū, which has studios in Nashville, Las Vegas, Tampa and Orlando, each with a wraparound LED screen to create virtual locations.

The Tampa studio remains busy with commercials, but it was their Las Vegas spot that was used in 2022 for “Sympathy for the Devil” starring Nicolas Cage and Joel Kinnaman. That was due in part to Nevada’s incentive program, Meriwether said. Nevada offers tax credits of up to 20% back, mostly on in-state expenditures.

“The state of Nevada has been feverishly working to try to open up more incentives for filmmakers to come into Las Vegas and Nevada,” he said, “and it’s starting to work.”

Woody Harrelson poses for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Triangle of Sadness' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 22, 2022.
Woody Harrelson poses for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Triangle of Sadness' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 22, 2022. [ (Courtesy of Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP) ]

Tampa Bay, Georgia?

Atlanta has become the home for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that regularly produces movies with nine-figure budgets, primarily doing so through an incentive program, which, since 2008, has offered 30% back through tax credits. There is neither a cap on what a production can receive nor what the state can dole out.

“I live in Atlanta, and it’s no coincidence that the state of Georgia has seen the rise that it’s seen over the last 25 years in film,” Meriwether said. “The initial domino that fell was incentives.”

The arguments for and against that program echo those in Florida.

Proponents point to the $4 billion being spent in the private sector in 2022 in return for around $1 billion in incentives while opponents argue that the state recoups just 19 cents per tax dollar spent, all numbers cited in the recent state audit of the program.

“Because Florida has a lot to offer ... I’ve heard some in Florida say we don’t need the best incentive package in the country,” said Kurt Wenner, senior vice president of Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit government watchdog research institute. He said advocates are “not looking to do something to outdo Georgia,” but believe “we just need something to help get productions to the table.”

Georgia has a history of cinematically becoming Tampa Bay. In 2015, it became Ybor City for “Live by Night,” written and directed by and starring Ben Affleck. The same year, it stood in for St. Petersburg for “Gifted” starring Chris Evans. Though Florida’s incentive program was still active then, the pot was empty.

Other states with similar incentives have become Tampa Bay too.

In 2022, South Carolina became Clearwater for “Suncoast” starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Linney. The movie is based around the true story of Terri Schiavo, the St. Petersburg resident whose irreversible persistent vegetative state sparked a nationally followed legal battle between her husband and parents over whether her feeding tube should be removed.

“Florida has a lot going for it,” Wenner said. “But so do other states and when you have a state that’s right next to you that has a lot of the same benefits and that offers huge incentives, it does make it difficult.”

Zachary Levi arrives at the world premiere of "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" on Tuesday, March 14, 2023, at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Zachary Levi arrives at the world premiere of "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" on Tuesday, March 14, 2023, at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP) [ RICHARD SHOTWELL | Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP ]

The local level

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties offer their own modest incentives based on the productions hitting benchmarks that market the area.

In 2023, Hillsborough doled out $202,000 split among four movies that spent nearly $2.4 million there and Pinellas dispersed $1.5 million split among 12 that spent $7.5 million, according to each county’s film commission.

“As a state, we’re doing mediocre at best,” Martinolich said. “We could be doing so much more. Without a state incentive, our area cannot go after productions that are over $2 million even when they are written for here. It just doesn’t make economic sense for the industry.”

In 2023, Zachary Levi and Josh Duhamel filmed “Not Without Hope” in Malta. The movie is based on the true story of a University of South Florida football player who survived 43 hours off the coast of Tampa Bay after his boat capsized. Producer Rick French said via email that they would have preferred to shoot the movie in Florida, but tax incentives are key to those decisions.

A lack of a film office might make it more difficult to sell Tampa Bay’s incentives, Martinolich said.

When productions come here, they typically shoot in both Hillsborough and Pinellas and sometimes visit other counties, too. But rather than dealing with all the film commissioners, the state film office served as the production’s liaison.

“That’s asking a lot of producers to research and find contacts for permits and logistics every time they move to a different county or municipality,” Martinolich said. “They want a centralized point of contact to connect the dots for them, similar to their expectation and experiences in 45 other states.”

Davis, the camera operator, has found steady work close to home, primarily at WWE’s production facility in Orlando. And while he sometimes misses working on large movies, Davis said, at least he had the experience.

But he has advice for Floridians who want their own big-budget movie experiences.

“Pack up, sell your house,” Davis said, “and move to a different state.”

Correction: “Suncoast” was filmed in South Carolina. Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story named the wrong state.