MOSI the favored site as Hillsborough takes steps to establish film studio

The County Commission has set aside $2 million for the project as the Film Commission studies the demand for it.
The main exhibit center at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa once stirred the imagination with dinosaurs and stars. Now, it's empty, but on the verge of rebirth as a movie studio.
The main exhibit center at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa once stirred the imagination with dinosaurs and stars. Now, it's empty, but on the verge of rebirth as a movie studio.
Published Sept. 20, 2019|Updated Sept. 20, 2019

TAMPA — Visitors once walked among dinosaurs and took trips to the stars at the Museum of Science & Industry’s main exhibition center.

The 400,000-square-foot hall — hit by hard times and now empty, except for the hurricane supplies stored there — might teem with wonders again.

This time, through the magic of movies.

The Hillsborough County Film Commission is studying whether there’s demand for a large-scale production studio in the area.

If so, the MOSI building is the top choice, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said at a commission meeting Wednesday. The county owns the 70-acre MOSI campus along Fowler Avenue as well the buildings.

The County Commission last week set aside $2 million for a studio project from the county’s BP Oil Spill Settlement funds while it awaits results from the study, expected next month.

“My goal is to make Hillsborough County the premiere location for film and digital media,” Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times. “This studio will be the last ingredient we need to reach that goal.”

County administrator Mike Merrill said it is too soon to estimate how much space the studio would get if the MOSI site is selected.

The studio would be part of a larger plan to redevelop the 70-acre MOSI campus along Fowler Avenue, across the University of South Florida, into a research village that would be a “live, work, play sort of development," Merrill said.

Requests for proposals from potential developers will be sought in a next year or so, he said.

Facing costs pressures amid declining attendance, MOSI left the main exhibit building behind and reopened in the smaller “Kids in Charge” building nearby. The nonprofit’s board of directors has expressed interest in relocating downtown.

More cameras have been rolling in the Tampa Bay area in recent years as producers are introduced to the variety of locations available here — among them, urban, rural, beaches and historic structures, said county film commissioner Tyler Martinolich.

“But we cannot grow past this point without additional assets,” Martinolich said. “We need a suitably sized studio.”

In its study, the Film Commission is asking local, regional and national production companies if they would use a studio in Hillsborough.

The study is also looking at potential sites in the Channel and Westshore districts, but Martinolich called MOSI ideal.

“A studio needs to be sound tight and to build a studio of appropriate size would be cost prohibitive,” he said. “MOSI was built as an exhibit hall so it is more or less sound tight."

Even if the building doesn’t work out, Hagan said, the MOSI campus is still the best spot because its proximity to USF creates partnership opportunities — a film institute, for example.

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Hagan said he met several times about a film institute with recently retired USF President Judy Genshaft, but hasn’t discussed it yet with her successor Steven Currall.

Any such partnership, Hagan said, would require approval from the state Legislature.

The study is looking at several business models, including a county-run studio and a public-private partnership, Martinolich said.

“If the county does it by itself it would be much more than $2 million,” he said.

But $2 million might be enough of a carrot to lure in a private partner.

Hagan’s announcement on Wednesday came six weeks after he confirmed he’d consider helping an Ybor City production company turn its 12,000-square-foot warehouse into a soundstage through a $1 million public-private partnership.

The company, called The Power Station, is led by The Blair Witch Project director Dan Myrick.

A studio at MOSI would not necessarily sink the idea for Ybor City, Hagan said.

“The feasibility study will report whether these two conflict or complement each other."

He believes there’s room for both.

One local company that seems likely to show interest in a Tampa film studio is Bluewater Media, which operates a 34,000-square-foot studio in Clearwater.

Bluewater CEO Andrew Latimer could not be reached for comment.

“I cannot confirm Bluewater is interested in the MOSI site specifically,” Martinolich said. “But we have been working with Bluewater to identify possible spaces to look into for a new studio expansion.”

A private partner might be asked to rent its soundstages to locals at a “deeply discounted rate,” Martinolich said, so they could compete against production companies elsewhere, bringing more business to the county.

“I love the idea of putting a film studio into MOSI,” said Kelly Paige, owner of Level Talent in Tampa.

“It means bigger productions and digger dollars for the economy.”