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Fake Ybor City stars in Ben Affleck's new film

Antique cars lend authenticity to the filming of Ben Affleck's "Live by Night"  along a section of Newcastle Street in Brunswick, Georgia remade to resemble 1920s Ybor City, Fla. (Florida Times-Union, Terry Dickson)
Antique cars lend authenticity to the filming of Ben Affleck's "Live by Night" along a section of Newcastle Street in Brunswick, Georgia remade to resemble 1920s Ybor City, Fla. (Florida Times-Union, Terry Dickson)
Published Jan. 3, 2017

TAMPA — Between scenes of gunfights, car chases and explosions, Ybor City shines in the trailer for the movie Live By Night, starring Ben Affleck and premiering worldwide Jan. 13.

Set in the gangster era of the 1920s and '30s, there are familiar-looking brick buildings with wrought iron balconies, five-bulb street lights that have become symbols of the Latin Quarter and men wearing traditional guayaberas. In one scene, a lector standing on a raised platform reads to workers in a cigar factory.

"That looks pretty authentic," said Richard Midulla, a regular at Ybor City's King Corona Cigars Bar and Cafe on Seventh Avenue. "It's Ybor."

Only it's not. It's a look-alike erected in Brunswick, Ga., 270 miles from the real thing.

Georgia offered the film's producers up to 30 percent in tax credits on whatever they spent in the state.

Florida offered nothing.

So even though the movie based on Dennis Lehane's book about a Boston thief's rise to successful Gulf Coast rum runner is set in Ybor, producers chose not to use the actual locale.

"It's sacrilegious," said Don Barco, owner of King Corona. "It's like making a movie about the Statue of Liberty in Wyoming."

In 2010, the Florida Legislature allotted $296 million for film incentives, but the money was spent by 2012. Requests to have the pot replenished were rebuffed and the program was allowed to sunset in 2016.

A study conducted by the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research showed the state lost almost $170 million on the $296 million it spent in incentives.

The report is accurate but misunderstood, say proponents of the incentives. The numbers reflect only tax receipts the government gets back and does not count private spending. Film Florida, a not-for-profit entertainment production association, says total expenditures by films that used the incentives was $1.2 billion.

John Lux, executive director of Film Florida, estimates the Tampa Bay area would have earned $30 million from the Live By Night production and thousands of Floridians would have worked on it.

Employment would have included production crew, actors, extras, catering and construction.

"I am going to have a hard time watching the film," said Dale Gordon, Tampa-Hillsborough film and digital media commissioner. "Every scene that takes place in Tampa will torture me knowing we should've had it."

With its early-1900's decor — a mix of authentic and recreated — King Corona's Barco believes his establishment would have been a contender to be used in the film. He knows from experience that could have meant big bucks.

"We had our patio rented out for a John Cena commercial filmed in Ybor last summer and made a small fortune," Barco said. "Most of Ybor did."

It's not just Tampa that lost out, said Tony Armer, a St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner. The trailer also showcases scenes on a beach that were produced on Jekyll Island off Brunswick's coast. Armer said those would likely have been filmed on his side of the bridges.

Appian Way, the production company for Live By Night, wanted to produce it in the Tampa Bay area, said Kelly Paige, a local talent agent and president of Film Florida.

In 2012 she met with Appian Way representatives in Los Angeles and brought them photos showing how similar today's Ybor is to its early-1900s version. In May 2013, Affleck toured the city on a location scout.

Paige says she remains optimistic. The movie kept the Ybor City name so the district will be promoted. She notes that Dolphin Tale made the Clearwater Marine Aquarium a tourist attraction.

"Live By Night can do that for Ybor," Paige said.

Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, said his tourism agency is already working on it. He has a team heading to New York and Great Britain to take part in Live By Night's promotion and will seek out opportunities as the film's popularity grows.

Meanwhile, Gordon, the Tampa film commissioner, is trying to bring Affleck here for a VIP screening before the film premieres to the world.

Not only would that shine a light on Tampa, but it would give her another chance to sell Affleck on the area.

After all, author Lehane has also written World Gone By, the sequel to Live By Night.

"Hey," Gordon said. "You never know."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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