'Spring Breakers' gives sexy, violent image of St. Pete Beach

Spring Breakers, written and directed by Harmony Korine and rated R, was largely filmed in Pinellas County.
Spring Breakers, written and directed by Harmony Korine and rated R, was largely filmed in Pinellas County.
Published March 9, 2013

A half-century ago, a hit movie convinced a generation of spring break revelers that Fort Lauderdale was Where the Boys Are.

After the upcoming movie Spring Breakers, vacationers may think Pinellas County's coastal community is where the gun-toting drug dealers are.

Mayors, police chiefs and community leaders along Gulf Boulevard aren't pleased with that possibility. Several were surprised by the movie's explicit red-band preview trailer too hot for theaters to show. It's all about gunplay, drugs, profanity and sex, drenched in lurid hues and backed by a throbbing techno beat.

"I hope it doesn't put ideas in anybody's head that this is what coming to Florida is like for the next generation of 18-year-olds coming down," Treasure Island police Chief Tim Casey said after viewing online the 2-minute sneak peek of a movie filmed in his town.

"It does give a wrong impression, that this is what spring break is all about."

Spring Breakers opens in limited U.S. release Friday, and in Tampa Bay theaters on March 22. But the movie already made a splash in Europe in late February at premieres in Paris, Rome and Madrid where fans crowded around red carpets to glimpse teen idols Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson. One of the world's most influential film magazines, Cahiers du Cinema, recently featured the bikini-clad trio on its cover.

Spring Breakers was principally filmed in Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach and Gulfport in 2012, with a cast featuring Disney starlets and the new wizard of Oz. That could lead some to believe it's similar in tone to Dolphin Tale, the PG-rated hit about Winter, the dolphin with the prosthetic tail. That film has drawn tourists to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where it was largely filmed in 2010.

But writer-director Harmony Korine (rhymes with "machine") never made family-friendly entertainment before and hasn't started now, as evidenced by the movie's R rating and racy trailer. Korine's career began with his screenplay for 1995's Kids, about an HIV-positive teenager spreading the virus to virgins.

Spring Breakers stars James Franco (Oz the Great and Powerful) as a dreadlocked drug dealer named Alien, who enlists four vacationing students (including former Disney Channel stars Gomez and Hudgens) in a plan to eliminate his competition.

"When I heard the content of the movie, of course I said no way that I would support it or even be involved with it," said St. Pete Beach Mayor Steve McFarlin, who met with a production representative before filming began. "He did explain that this was going to be the dark side of spring break. I was just not interested in it at all.

"That movie appeared to me to be just a bunch of thugs. Hopefully the movie does not highlight St. Pete Beach whatsoever, because that's not representative of us."

However, at one point the trailer clearly shows marked St. Pete Beach patrol cars, used to transport the arrested students to jail (which is actually Gulfport's detention facility). St. Pete Beach disbanded its police force in January, turning over enforcement to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

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Gulfport police Chief Rob Vincent hosted four days of filming at his holding facility, which was unoccupied since the Sheriff's Office now handles such matters. Vincent refused to allow Korine to identify the location as Gulfport, use his patrol cars or put his employees on screen.

"They seemed to want to portray Gulfport as kind of a shady neighbor to the beach cities, and that's absolutely not the case," Vincent said. "We've worked very hard to make Gulfport kind of a destination here. I wasn't going to support anything that challenged that.

"I think the way it's going to be portrayed in the movie is that the entire (setting) is St. Pete Beach. They party in St. Pete Beach, they commit their crimes in St. Pete Beach (although Treasure Island is also used in those scenes) and then they are arrested in supposedly St. Pete Beach but in fact it's Gulfport."

Even if viewers don't recognize Gulfport's jail or glimpses of landmarks like St. Pete Beach's Corey Avenue and Treasure Island's John's Pass, the film's general setting will be identifiable: In photos taken on the set, Franco's character sports a Florida map tattoo adorned with the 727 area code and a star marking Tampa Bay.

Could tourists be attracted to or repelled from Pinellas beaches after the wanton criminal behavior displayed in Spring Breakers? D.T. Minich, CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the local tourism board, doesn't think so.

"All in all, this movie is not going to be a signature movie affiliated with our destination," Minich said from Berlin, where he is attending a trade show.

"People who know us know we're a family beach destination," he said. "This is just a fictional characterization of a spring break gone wild or whatever. People who know us are not going to put this movie in context with our destination."

None of the law enforcement officers interviewed was concerned that Spring Breakers might encourage rowdier behavior than usual among Pinellas beach visitors.

"(The movie) doesn't depict reality, obviously," Vincent said. "I think most people will get that whether they're from here or St. Louis or wherever. Spring break, generally speaking, is college students, and I don't think they're going to want to go on vacation so they can join organized crime."

Casey agreed that real-life spring breakers generally have less dangerous stunts in mind.

"Yeah, the kids come down and, yeah, they drink and, yeah, they do stupid things," he said. "But they're not shooting people, they're not involved with drug dealers. Typically, if they end up in jail it's for some dumb thing they did during the night and they'll get out the next day."

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365.