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Michael France, screenwriter and Beach Theatre owner, dies

Published Apr. 14, 2013

ST. PETE BEACH — Hollywood screenwriter and Beach Theatre owner Michael France was discovered dead at his St. Pete Beach home Friday morning after an extended illness, his sister said. He was 51.

In recent years Mr. France struggled with diabetes that impaired his left arm and right leg. Nine months ago he was found comatose at his residence by his sister, who also discovered his body Friday.

"He didn't look that bad on Thursday night," his sister, Suzanne France said when contacted at home Saturday. "He was sick, but I didn't think he was as bad as he was the last time or I would have just called an ambulance.

"He was sitting up, he had good color, he was making jokes. Just sitting there on the couch with his dog."

Suzanne France, who lives only a few houses away, took over soup and zero-calorie soft drinks Thursday, leaving her brother around 8:30 p.m. The two swapped text messages for another couple of hours, about Mr. France's nausea and groceries she would pick up for him Friday morning.

Around 10 a.m. Mr. France hadn't responded to text messages from Suzanne or their mother. Using a key she kept as a precaution, Suzanne entered his home to check on him.

"I went in, and I thought maybe he was just unconscious so I called 911," she said, sobbing. "They had me doing chest compressions on him but by the time the ambulance got there it was too late."

Mr. France was one of Tampa Bay's most successful movie industry figures, starting with his screenplay for 1993's Cliffhanger starring Sylvester Stallone. That was followed two years later with a story credit for GoldenEye, reinvigorating the James Bond franchise with Pierce Brosnan. Mr. France also did uncredited work on the script for another 007 adventure, The World is Not Enough.

His final three produced screenplays were among the first Marvel Comics adaptations to the screen: Oscar winning director Ang Lee's 2003 version of Hulk, Fantastic Four (2005) and a co-writing credit on The Punisher (2004), filmed around Tampa Bay.

Last month at the Gasparilla International Film Festival, Mr. France presented a career achievement award to The Punisher star Thomas Jane, celebrating the movie's 10th anniversary of its local filming. Before the presentation, Mr. France and Jane met for the first time on the red carpet in Ybor City — not uncommon in a business where screenwriters generally aren't involved much when shooting begins.

In 2007, Mr. France purchased St. Pete Beach's landmark Beach Theatre for $800,000 cash, prolonging the survival of a decades-old, single-screen venue where he watched movies as a child. For five years, he presented classic, independent and foreign films generally unavailable at multiplexes, along with current hits to "pay the bills," as he often said. Eventually the bills couldn't be paid.

Beach Theatre closed its doors to business in November, 2012, after Mr. France claimed attendance had declined and efforts failed to obtain not-for-profit status that would reduce tax liabilities. Mr. France also faced the necessity to convert the theater's projection system to an expensive digital format, in order to continue showing new releases as Hollywood phases out film distribution.

Around the same time, Mr. France was sued by local small-business owner Brenton Clemons, who alleged he defaulted on a loan with the theater used as collateral. That case is still pending, as are divorce proceedings between Mr. France and his wife Elizabeth that he told the Times thwarted his bid for not-for-profit status.

"He wanted to reopen the theater, wanted to start writing again," Suzanne France said. "Obviously he didn't think he was as sick as he was. I have seen him at his sickest, and I did not see anything that indicated in any way that he would die in his sleep.

"Obviously nobody knows what's going to happen now."

Suzanne France called her brother "my best, my closest friend," especially after the death years ago of their younger brother Andrew, from hypothermia while attempting to rescue a friend from drowning.

"Mike was an extraordinary friend. He was kind. He was hilarious, and he was so good with my son," she said. "They used to watch the same kind of (television) shows because I'm such a wimp that I couldn't watch them: The Walking Dead and that one with the guy from Malcolm in the Middle, Bryan Cranston. (Breaking Bad)."

Suzanne France said her brother hadn't changed much from the boy who used to keep comic books stacked floor-to-ceiling in his room.

"If you went into his house... there's a giant Hulk toy and remember Lost in Space? He had the 'Danger, Will Robinson' robot. That's what is sitting around. Everybody else would have coffee table books; he had movie posters and the Lost in Space robot.

"Mike was a big kid. A big, intelligent kid."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow him @StevePersall or Twitter.

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