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Tampa Bay film industry wonders when it will recover from the coronavirus shutdown

All projects scheduled for 2020 are suspended indefinitely.

TAMPA — Watching his six-part miniseries Preach come together was surreal for Tim Register.

“The first day on set there were 80 people working because of something I made up in my head,” Register, of Lakeland, said. “It was a boyhood dream.”

Register, 55, will always remember the story about a Depression-era preacher seeking redemption in a small Georgia town as his screenwriting and directorial debut.

The local production industry will remember it differently: Preach was the last large-scale production shot in the Tampa Bay area before all such projects were shut down to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

According to their film commission offices, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties enjoyed a record-breaking 2019 when productions infused a combined $30 million into the local economy. Now industry leaders wonder how long it will take to recover from the shutdown, even after they get the greenlight to resume work.

“It is going to be tough,” Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said.

Still, he said that the county wants to maintain Tampa Bay as a filming destination when the crisis has passed.

The area emerged in 2019 as a national hub for independent films with productions such as Fear of the Rain starring Katherine Heigl and two Hallmark movies shooting here.

The trend continued through early 2020 with Justin Long directing his Lady in the Manor locally.

Then came measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

In mid-March, Hillsborough stopped issuing permits to shoot in public places.

Safer-at-home policies went into effect later that month, shutting down all non-essential businesses that could not follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines.

Related: All local filming halted. Michael Keaton and Hallmark had spring dates.

Pasco County did not issue a safer-at-home order, allowing Register’s miniseries, filmed at the private Pioneer Florida Museum and Village, to finish production and wrap on March 26.

But Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1. It expires on April 30, but Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees recently said social distancing could be the new normal until a coronavirus vaccine exists.

“You can’t social distance on a busy film set,” Seminole producer Joe Davison said.

Dan Myrick, best known for directing The Blair Witch Project, would have been filming his Black Veil web series in Tampa this month. He shot one episode in January.

He vows to film again once government guidelines allow it and when he feels it is safe to do so. Responsible producers, he said, will follow the same self guideline.

“The craft service table alone is a textbook vector for any virus,” said Myrick, who is self-isolating at his home in Bainbridge Island, Wash. "In addition, how do you convince an actor to hop a plane to do a production in a different city? It may ultimately take a vaccine for this industry to fully recover.”

Related: ‘Blair Witch’ director vows to complete his Tampa web series when coronavirus passes

Among the other projects slated to come to the Tampa Bay area this year is a film starring Michael Keaton, which was scheduled to turn part of the Museum of Science and Industry into a movie set. And Hallmark wanted to make as many as another four movies here this year.

"Every project in the queue has been pushed indefinitely,” Hillsborough film commissioner Martinolich said. “If we are in that same situation in August, that probably becomes a cancellation.”

Related: Another Hallmark movie is coming to Tampa Bay, and possibly eight more.

The production industry is on hold nationwide. There will be a rush to create content once work starts back up, Martinolich said. And big-name actors might attach themselves to big-budget studio films — the type shot in California and Georgia.

The Tampa Bay area, on the other hand, is home to seven-figure independent movies.

“Finances for those movies are often predicated on what actors are attached,” Martinolich said. “The actors might move on to another project, leaving that movie back at square one without an investment.”

Actress Emeraude Toubia acts in a scene for the Hallmark movie "Love in the Sun" shot last year at Fort De Soto State Park. [ Times (2019) ]

Seasons — or Florida’s lack of them — could impact whether the Hallmark movies come to the area, St. Petersburg/Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer said.

“Hallmark makes 100 movies a year with two premieres a week,” he said. “They make seasonal movies during the right seasons. So, when they get to the Christmas season, we’re not conducive.”

Related: More public money sought to keep eager producers filming in Tampa Bay

And then there is the money.

Seminole producer Davison was to meet with his investor to finalize his next project this month.

“He pulled funding,” Davison said. “Investors are scared. No one knows what the economy will look like when this is done.”

Martinolich worries that could become a norm.

“Even in the best economy, independent films are a high-risk business venture," he said. “A certain segment of those films might be furloughed for years, depending on what the economy looks like.”

Michael Brown and his Tampa-based Digital Caviar produced Lady in the Manor. He said they have “three projects on soft hold right now," one of which was to begin principal photography in July.

“There is a chance these films won’t happen,” Brown said. "There are a million moving parts just to get a movie greenlit — the actors’ availability, funding, access to resources. If you remove one component, it can have a trickle-down effect on those who want to make the film.”

Still, Brown remains confident that when filming starts back up, “we will have our ducks in a row and will be the ones who immediately roll back into production.”

Related: A Michael Keaton movie might be coming to Tampa

New Tampa’s Rob Sterrett can only wait.

A location manager, who in 2019 worked on projects like National Geographic’s television series The Right Stuff that filmed in Tampa, Sterrett said he “made more living in Florida last year than pretty much ever.”

“I was going to work on the Michael Keaton movie next," he added. “And then the bottom fell out.”

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