Without any money, what is Florida doing to get movies made here?

The Infiltrator, filmed in various bay area locations  in 2015
The Infiltrator, filmed in various bay area locations in 2015
Published Feb. 2, 2016

PARK CITY, UTAH — In between sending emails and making phone calls from his hotel room surrounded by the Wasatch mountains, Tony Armer elbowed his way down snowy sidewalks in this city's downtown headed to his next meeting.

Armer, the film commissioner for Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, was in Utah only for the first four days of the Sundance Film Festival, but he had back-to-back meetings with filmmakers from all over the country nearly every day.

For nearly two weeks every January, the population of this quaint ski town swells to 40,000 as filmmakers, actors and moviegoers gather to participate in one of the most prolific film festivals in the country. Storefronts are rented out to festival sponsors like CNN Films and Airbnb, and turned into studio lounges. Fans wait in line for hours — often in the snow — for a chance to score tickets to a movie inside the city's famous Egyptian Theater.

Armer is tasked with getting the filmmakers who come here to consider warm, sunny, beachy Florida as the location for their next big movie. The problem is his state has no money left this year to sweeten the pot with tax incentives, while states like Georgia and Louisiana continue to outpace Florida by providing production companies with millions of dollars in incentives to shoot there.

Because of this, Armer has had to try a different strategy. He spends more time talking to young, up-and-coming filmmakers at the Slamdance Film Festival, which runs concurrently to Sundance, than the sometimes hard-to-reach names attached to bigger films.

"Most of these filmmakers are just getting into the festival world and want to make connections," Armer said. "This is where we try to build relationships and stay in touch, so they remember St. Pete-Clearwater."

But without the cash, he and other film boosters in Florida know they can do only so much.

These smaller-scale films don't get the nationwide releases big-budget Hollywood films get, which means they don't rake in nearly as much money, draw as much attention or employ as many people.

Florida hasn't had any state incentive money to dish to filmmakers since 2013, when a $296 million investment that launched in 2010 ran out.

Since then, a fake Ybor City was constructed in Brunswick, Ga., for a Ben Affleck film, Live By Night. And Dirty Grandpa, starring Robert De Niro, is set in Daytona Beach but was filmed in Savannah, Ga.

"When people think of Florida, they think of three things — Disney, Miami and retirees in trailer parks," Armer said. "A lot of people don't even know where Tampa or St. Pete is, so a big part of what I do is having to pitch what a great place this is, and share the big movies that have filmed here."

Tim Burton shot scenes of his latest film, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, in Belleair Bluffs and around Tampa Bay last year. The cast and crew stayed at the Loews Don CeSar. The hotel was also where filmmakers shot The Infiltrator, a $47.5 million Hollywood film starring Bryan Cranston, in April. These are the most high-profile movies to film in Tampa Bay since the Dolphin Tale franchise returned to shoot the sequel on Clearwater Beach in 2014.

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No other major productions that would film in the Tampa Bay area have been announced.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are able to offer smaller incentives to filmmakers. Film commissions in Pinellas and Hillsborough were able to provide $200,000 in local county tax incentives to Tim Burton's production. The Infiltrator received $250,000 in incentives from Hillsborough County and in-kind services from the University of Tampa, the Tampa Police Department and Port Tampa Bay, said Dale Gordon, executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission.

"Every opportunity you have to meet a filmmaker is potential future business," Gordon said. "That's why we go to festivals that showcase independent films. Tim Burton shot Edward Scissorhands here 25 years ago, and had such a positive experience, he wanted to come back."

That's what happened to director Robert Greene, who spent three weeks in Sarasota last year filming his documentary Kate Plays Christine, based on the story of a young television journalist, Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide on air in Sarasota in 1974.

"Our director had two other films screen at the Sarasota Film Festival in the past, so he already had a good relationship with the town," said Douglas Tirola, a producer on the film, which debuted at Sundance. "That's part of what inspired him to shoot this story."

While Greene and his team didn't receive any state incentives to shoot the film, the support from local film crews in Sarasota made location scouting and production move seamlessly, Tirola said.

Even without the state incentives, an organic support system for filmmakers is growing in Florida.

More than a dozen film students at Sarasota's Ringling College of Art and Design helped during the production of Dark Knight, a film by Tim Sutton, which is a dramatization of the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. It also debuted at Sundance this year.

The film was shot mostly in Bradenton and Sarasota, said Tony Stopperan, manager of the Studio Lab program at Ringling.

Ringling College has developed a production model that assists filmmakers who shoot in Florida. Students gain experience on sets at little to no cost to the filmmaker. In addition, the college is building a 30,000-square-foot sound studio and production facility in Sarasota, which will be available for use to filmmakers who partner with the school.

Even with that, Stopperan said incentives are needed to lure moviemakers here.

"Without that, they'll look past Florida to find someplace else that looks like it, or write Florida out of their script," Stopperan said. "But Florida has the opportunity to reinvent the wheel. We need to come up with a way to keep filmmakers here in Florida and develop an industry here instead of seeing them flee to others states and benefit other cities.

"A $20 million film can make a big splash on a local economy," Stopperan added. "So we need to come up with the infrastructure to support that."

Frank Patterson, dean of the college of motion picture studies at Florida State University, can't seem to persuade his alumni to return to Florida.

"There are so many other cities out there, like Austin, Texas, that have created innovative places for film, which have grown organically because of the community," Patterson said. "With the education and training opportunities we have in Florida, we could do that here."

The Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission is the only local commission in Florida that has its own lobbyist, Gordon said. She spent several days in Tallahassee last week to gauge the interest in Sen. Jack Lat­vala's proposed bill to replenish the state's film incentive fund this year.

Without it, Gordon says, their hands are tied.

"It's very tough to pitch to filmmakers when the first thing they ask is what kind of incentives do you have in Florida," Gordon said. "It's even worse when most of them already know we don't have any."

Contact Justine Griffin at Follow @SunBizGriffin.