1. Opinion

Editorial: Film industry advocates in Hillsborough should bide time for better days

Hillsborough County is keeping its toe in the video production waters with a new, scaled-down emphasis on encouraging the making of commercials here.

That's a far cry from five years ago when advocates of Florida's film industry, flush with success from the major motion picture Dolphin Tale and the attention it brought Pinellas County, were pushing to replenish the $296 million dollar pot of state money that helped land the production.

But this humble new approach by the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission, as reported by Paul Guzzo of the Tampa Bay Times, recognizes political reality. The pot ran dry and was tossed aside by leaders of the Florida Legislature who profess opposition to subsidizing the private sector with public money.

The new approach also allows the publicly funded film commission to bide its time. These political leaders won't be around forever. And the appeal of film and digital production, a growth industry with jobs any local community would welcome, will endure — especially for a colorful state that produces a steady stream of its own story lines.

Making the most of this industry, as with any industry, requires establishing a critical mass — a volume of production large enough for a region to attract personnel, support businesses and overall expertise on a permanent basis.

But there appears to be no magic to this process. California gave birth to the industry and owned it for decades. It still does, considering all the facets of film and digital production, but other places have lured away significant segments. Visual effects have moved overseas. And in an annual study by the agency Film L.A. Inc., Georgia emerged as the production location for more top 100 domestic feature films in 2016 than any other. Next in line were the United Kingdom, Canada, California, Louisiana and New York.

One thing these locations have in common: They all provide some form of public incentives.

That idea doesn't sit well with many critics in Florida. Why hand taxpayer dollars to fat-cat tycoons in an industry whose scions have included the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein?

First of all, most incentives don't involve handing over cash but cutting expenses. Georgia has made a science of using a tax credit of up to 30 percent to lure productions, even allowing recipients to trade in them. The state reported spending about $600 million in 2016 — about the price of a new Major League Baseball stadium — to attract $2 billion in production spending.

What's more, the Hollywood tycoon is fading as the symbol of an industry that has grown to include independent films, television series, commercials, music videos, animation and game development.

If Florida decides it wants to be a center of this industry, it has a good shot. Makers of the recent major movies Live By Night and The Infiltrator reluctantly did most or all the production on their Tampa-based stories somewhere else.

Leaders of the GOP-dominated Legislature don't want this industry, though. And their ideological opposition rings of hypocrisy.

Georgia, which sees film and digital production as a powerful economic driver, hasn't voted for a Democrat in the presidential race for 20 years. And Florida is no stranger, nor should it be, to offering incentives as a means of attracting new jobs to the state. Incentives have helped land Tampa companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Citigroup and USAA.

It's curious that the legislative opponents of film incentives are actually leading the drive to hand government cash to one of their own private-sector darlings — for-profit school management chains. These companies stand to benefit as the state shifts more public money away from traditional public schools run by elected local school boards toward privately run charter schools held to relatively little account.

With the right accountability measures baked into any deal, film and digital production is a good investment for Florida. Meantime, the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission should test the waters, keep its shingle up, and stay ready for a day when more open minds see new possibilities for the state.