Ready, Set, Shoot?


Tampa Hillsborough Film Commissioner Dale Gordon. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Tampa Hillsborough Film Commissioner Dale Gordon.

The city of Tampa may soon play host to the largest Hollywood film production in its history.

But unless the Legislature builds it, they — the producers — may not come.

“It” is a tax incentive program — one that would offer dollar amounts large enough to lure Hollywood film and television productions back to the Sunshine State. Florida actually does have such a program, but its coffers have been barren for several years now. The bill that the entertainment industry is pining for is a state Senate measure sponsored by Nancy Detert (R-Venice) that would provide $300 million in tax credits through 2020, beginning with $50 million in the next budget year. Some don’t think that amount is nearly large enough, but it’s the best offer possible at the moment.

The movie that may be made here if incentives are on the table is The Infiltrator, a $47.5 million production that tells the story of former DEA agent (and Tampa Bay resident) Robert Mazur, who helped take down the infamous cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. It’s set to be directed by Brad Furman, who helmed 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer with Matthew McConaughey, an adaptation of Tampa novelist Michael Connelly’s 2005 bestseller.

“The bottom line is, if they get state incentives, they will come,” Dale Gordon says flatly about Good Films Ltd., the producers of The Infiltrator.

Gordon was hired last summer to be head of the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission, a position and an agency whose inadequacies were exposed in a CL report in 2010.

That story detailed the frustrations of local actors (like Ricky Wayne, of the well-known local improv duo Hawk & Wayne) with the agency. It also quoted the executive producer of the A&E series The Glades, Gary Randall, who said that he’d originally wanted to produce the South Florida-based drama in Tampa, but hadn’t received enough support from the film commission.

“We were totally ready to stay in Tampa and make it there,” Glades told CL in 2010. But “the area just doesn’t have the experience.”

Those comments reverberated, and the agency slowly faded away. But after two dormant years, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan thought it was time to see if the office was worth reviving. So the tourist agency that formerly housed the film commission — Tampa Bay and Company — hired consultant HCP to conduct research about its viability. That study, coupled with the success across the bay in Pinellas with Dolphin Tale, Spring Breakers and Magic Mike (which filmed in both Pinellas and Hillsborough), was enough to convince the county commission and Mayor Bob Buckhorn to revamp the office. The county appropriated $500,000, with the city chipping in for half of Gordon’s and her coordinators’ salaries.

At the time of the upheaval, Gordon was director of film and digital media development for the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission (where she worked from 2001-2009), and was well aware of the issues in Tampa. She says when she interviewed for the job last year she wanted to make sure that there would be support from the powers that be.

“Every single concern that I had, they addressed and had a plan for,” she recalled last week. “So what they said to me is, ‘This is what we have done. This is the direction that we hope to go. Now we need for you to create the vision and implement it.’”

That was a year ago, and Gordon says nothing has happened since then to make her doubt their sincerity. In fact, Hagan recently sprung a last-minute request on his commission colleagues for a $250,000 grant for The Infiltrator, saying that it would be an important sign of the county’s commitment. He got it approved without much debate, prompting Commissioner Al Higginbotham a moment later to hit up his colleagues for another $50,000 for a Bollywood production. That was approved as well.

While Gordon has received all the support she could ask for from local elected officials, without tax incentives she will likely be unable to meet her goal of bringing more major film productions to Hillsborough.

“It used to be location, location, location,” says Traci Danielle of the Brevard Talent Group. “Now it’s all about incentives, and perception is reality. And the reality is, they’re not coming to Florida to film, unless they absolutely have to for a location.”

There are exceptions of course, none bigger locally than Dolphin Tale, the 2011 flick inspired by the true story of Winter, the bottlenose dolphin rescued off the Florida coast and taken in by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The sequel is scheduled to be released this September. Danielle jokes that if there had been a way for the producers to take Dolphin Tale to the Atlanta Aquarium, they would have, but they couldn’t — the star, Winter, lives in Clearwater, and she wasn’t about to travel.

But location is rarely so crucial. Take the adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2012 crime noir novel Live By Night, which is based predominantly in Ybor City. Actor-director Ben Affleck purchased the rights to the novel and scouted Ybor for locations last year, indicating that he’d like to film the story here. But all indications are that unless the incentive package is passed in Tallahassee within the next week, Affleck and company will go somewhere else where the incentives are profligate.

Two of the biggest players in film incentives are Florida’s neighbors, Georgia and Louisiana.

The numbers from the Peach Tree state are stunning. In the fiscal year that began last July, 142 feature film and television projects were produced in the state with a total economic value of nearly $934 million. Seven years ago the total was $132 million. Since 2008, more than 80 film-related businesses — equipment, lighting, catering, trucking — have relocated or expanded in Georgia, among them 11 film and TV studio facilities.

Incentives to film and TV companies have hit astronomical levels in the past decade. According to the New York Times, as of the end of 2012 the industry received $1.5 billion in state and local tax credits per year, putting it just behind the manufacturing, gas and oil and agricultural industries. That’s prodigious, considering that as recently as 2002, only four states offered tax incentives to film companies. Now 44 do.
But with such financial largess comes scrutiny, some of it critical.

The nonpartisan Washington-based think tank the Tax Foundation states flatly that film tax credits do not pay for themselves. In 2010, a foundation report said that while some benefits accrue to in-state filmmakers and suppliers, on the whole the profits represent a net transfer from taxpayers to out-of-state production companies. “The sheer magnitude of the amounts that various states are spending to lure productions makes it very difficult for any state to gain a lasting competitive edge over the others,” states the report, which also notes that two of the most generous states (Michigan and New Mexico) recently scaled back their programs.

No state has enjoyed more Hollywood love over the past decade than Louisiana, the first state to offer such incentives, and the location for two of the biggest artistic successes in the past year with the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave and HBO’s True Detective. The nonprofit FilmL.A. announced that Louisiana led the nation last year in feature-film production – making more movies than even California. Chris Stelly, executive director of Louisiana’s Office of Entertainment Industry Development, says the state has a lot of things going for it.

“We have a great, deep skilled workforce, an infrastructure that continues to mature.” While he acknowledges that the incentive program is expensive, he says, “it pales in comparison to some of the other exemptions that we’ve seen debated in this state.”

Two years ago, the nonprofit Louisiana Budget Project released a report saying the state’s film tax credits were costing the state about $60,000 for each direct job they create. Stelly downplays that report, claiming it was inaccurate, and insists that the entertainment industry in his state brings in $5 in economic activity for every $1 invested.

One of the albatrosses the entertainment industry in Florida has to contend with is the case of Digital Domain, co-founded by Avatar auteur James Cameron. Less than a year after going public, the Port St. Lucie digital production company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection — costing the state $20 million in the largest jobs incentive failure in state history.

That debacle has poisoned the well in Tallahassee, along with the fact that while Miami and Orlando have traditionally been the most attractive markets for filmmakers, much of the rest of the state hasn’t seen much of that bounty, leaving lawmakers with much less of an incentive to offer up such benefits.

Talent agent Traci Danielle thinks there’s a mistaken perception that it’s just the “1 percent” Hollywood types that are looking for a tax break. “They don’t realize what this does for so many businesses, from drycleaners, to hotels, to restaurants, to Ace Hardware stores.”

“There’s this belief that big productions come in and don’t impact enough of the state for some representatives,” says Miami Dade Democratic state Senator Dwight Bullard, referring to legislators who represent more rural communities.

Bullard is co-sponsoring the Detert bill in the Senate, but he and other supporters are less than pleased with an amendment inserted by Detert that would force counties to come up with cash to lure productions.

The bill now requires counties in which film companies have claimed the most tax credits to come up with a 10 percent match of the tax break; so-called “underutilized” counties would have to cough up 5 percent. Senator Bullard calls it a “pay to play” scenario, which he says is untenable for many counties in the state. “It’s almost a disincentive to get involved,” he says of the new measure.

Dale Gordon says she’s trying to get the language in the bill changed, because in its current form it equates Hillsborough with Orlando and Miami in terms of how much business it has brought in — when in fact there has been very little here, while those two markets have swallowed up 79 percent of the film credits offered by Florida. In the meantime, she says she’ll accept the bill as is — and get it cleaned up a year from now, when it becomes obvious those counties won’t be able to bear their share.

Meanwhile, Oldsmar-based actor Ricky Wayne has never been busier – mostly outside of Florida, with the occasional Miami gig. He’s about to appear in AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, and also has a gig in a Syfy pilot, a television adaptation of the Brad Pitt film Twelve Monkeys. He sees acting friends in Atlanta and New Orleans who are now “thriving” with work. “Not surviving. Thriving.”

Admittedly, he’s a bit biased in favor of incentives. As is Dale Gordon. But she insists that Florida’s program is fiscally responsible, and new language in the legislation would only make it more so.

“It’s very popular right now to be anti-incentive in general,” she admits. “Some people say we’re making rich people richer and padding the wallets of Hollywood producers. We’re not doing that.” 

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