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Filmmaking in Tampa Bay Area ekes out a living

Screen grabs from SHINE Mural Festival 2017 Legacy Project by Zulu and Thirst in St. Pete.







As Tyler Martinolich tells it, the anemic filming industry in Tampa Bay is the story of unrealized potential held back largely by politics. He is Film Tampa Bay’s interim executive director and a wealth of information about the goings-on of film, in the area and in the wider industry.

“Georgia and Louisiana beat Florida outright because their state governments offer generous subsidies, most of which we can’t even come close to matching.” Thirty-two states offer some level of incentive to all film productions, small or large. 

Our two Southern neighbors both offer some of the most generous terms -- 30 percent rebate on applicable costs. Georgia, in particular, has a strong film industry lobby.

Florida’s previous incentive program for local film production ended in 2013, which coincided with the termination of some popular South Florida productions, such as Netflix’s Bloodline.

Both Hillsborough and Pinellas County offer a 10 percent incentive to local film production on a rebate system. Applicable expenses, pre-approved and audited along the way, are reimbursed in cash, up to a total of $500,000 on an $8 million total budget. The minimum qualifying local spend is $100,000. 

Most large feature productions start at a budget of around $32 million and increase from there. In essence, Florida completely misses out on blockbusters because our state’s incentive structure offers dimes and nickels compared to hundred dollar bills offered by other states.

Martinolich and his Pinellas counterpart, Tony Armer, work at multiple levels to keep local filmmaking alive, including addressing the incentive structure in Tallahassee, where Florida senators are often pro-tourism and pro-entertainment and open to improving the state’s offer. However, in the state House of Representatives in recent years, the appetite for growing the film industry has been less robust.

Martinolich: “There is a perception that by more seriously incentivizing film production in the State of Florida, we’re giving Hollywood a handout.”

In reality, non-local productions hire local talent, which is cheaper and less complicated than moving hundreds of support staff from other cities. Such a stipulation can be specified in the agreement, too, to ensure a return to our local economy.

Building a collaborative spirit

While not on the same level as statewide incentives, the Tampa Bay region’s counties do band together to go after projects.  

“By combining a 10 percent rebate on production expenses within Hillsborough County and working with surrounding counties to activate their incentives, we become much more effective,'' Martinolich says.

If a production films in a few different settings across the region, they can piecemeal a return on their investment that’s comparable to what they would get in other states.

Marketing

The film commissions in the Tampa Bay region court non-local productions to the area by hosting location scouts and managers from New York and Los Angeles and offering hands-on assistance to non-local productions with the proper permitting. 
 
“Our message is highlighting the great locations that are unique to Tampa and building relationships between agencies and local crew and support services. Agencies and clients need to have confidence in our market.” -- Tyler Martinolich, Film Tampa Bay’s interim executive director
Film Tampa Bay proactively liaises with other governmental entities on behalf of non-local productions to provide the best possible experience to outsiders, a value which offsets the smaller local financial benefit.

Without a more generous incentive structure for outsiders, the sweet spot for filming in the region is commercial productions, which are largely driven by local and national advertising agencies.

“Our message is highlighting the great locations that are unique to Tampa and building relationships between agencies and local crew and support services. Agencies and clients need to have confidence in our market.”

Publix, The Home Depot, and Audi are among the national retailers that have chosen to film in the area. Quite a few commercials have been filmed in Historic Hyde Park’s majestic mansions, giving locals occasional glimpses of lights, cameras, and black-clad crew.

Commercial production may sustain the local film industry, but it doesn’t help grow the region’s reputation for quality crew and visionary filmmaking.

Education

Martinolich: “Local industry growth necessitates developing a groundswell of public interest in local filmmaking and education about production skills, through strategic partnerships and film festivals.”

In 2013, Jolt Production School was launched with the help of partners like Film Tampa Bay and various private production studios to foster interest and skills development in video production.

Jolt offers an intensive five-week course for students that is hands-on, with direct mentorship from seasoned professionals over 19 lectures. Three camps are held each year between February and December. The cost is $480. No prior video experience is necessary, and the courses are open to all ages.

With respected film programs at schools like Florida State, Ringling, and Full Sail, the hope is that students will get a taste for filmmaking early, attend these schools, and then return to the Tampa Bay area to create rather than heading for Atlanta, Vancouver, or California.

Film Tampa Bay is also active in helping to place students at internships in companies that can increase their practical knowledge through hands-on experience.

Local creators

At the last Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF), which showcases both local and non-local independent films, a handful of local creators had a chance to present.

The unceremonious demise of The Tampa Tribune in 2016 was chronicled in Stop The Presses, a documentary by Deborah Kerr. She and her crew began filming intent on taking viewers through a day inside a newspaper. 

The plot veered dramatically in real time when The Tampa Tribune was rapidly purchased, merged with the Tampa Bay Times, and then permanently shuttered in favor of selling its valuable property on The Hillsborough River in Downtown Tampa.

Many of the film’s characters were in attendance to see it for the first time, an understandably emotional moment for many of the Tribune’s former writers and editors, and production staff. For all the viewers, it was a hometown example of the newspaper epidemic that has claimed many dailies throughout the country in recent years.

Elsewhere in the festival, local productions were lighter. 

David Scott Leatherwood is a native of Carrollwood, graduate of FSU’s film school (2009), with experience in the Los Angeles film industry. He’s worked around the country, in New Orleans and New Mexico, but now produces films in St. Petersburg through his company Lightning Capital Entertainment

His eleven-minute digital short Phone: Instafamous, the second in a 3-part series, is a commentary on our collective relationship with personal technology and social media. Often addictive, it can be detrimental to relationships and rewards vanity, narcissism.

His film reminds some of the (much longer) 2017 black comedy Ingrid Goes West, a similar critique of digital relationships and representations, albeit with a star central character (Aubrey Plaza) and a debut at the Sundance Film Festival.

“We are fighting an uphill battle to bring film to Florida. The quality of life here is much greater than in LA, where the industry tends to be demanding and out of control.

“I came back to St. Petersburg to help develop the local industry because there are a lot of untapped resources here.”

One upside to the alternate west coast: less competition for work, which is also true for other creative industries and markets in the Tampa Bay Area. Yet, full-time opportunities can be challenging to find.

Bobby Leonard, a comparative newcomer to the region (DC native) and industry (recently graduated from University of Florida), debuted at GIFF with Legacy Mural Project, an abbreviated documentary about two muralists who transform an interstate underpass into vibrant public art during St. Petersburg’s 2017 Shine Mural Festival.

He chose to stay in the area for the same reasons Leatherwood returned. His dream: to combine his interest in psychology with film to create psychological thrillers.

Silver screen dreams

Local “Hollywood” filmmaking has popped up periodically for decades. In the ‘90s, it was thrilling and strange to urban Tampanians depicted in 1993’s Cop and a Half (Burt Reynolds!) and in 2004’s The Punisher.

St. Petersburg was represented in 1985’s Cocoon as a sleepy, heaven’s waiting room community, now an inaccurate narrative given 30 years of population growth and a newfound cultural cachet. 

Even parts of Pasco County and Lakeland appeared in the cult classic Edward Scissorhands (1990), a favorite for its setting in middle-class suburbs of eerie uniformity.

Over the last few years, bigger box office productions have come to the region, like Dolphin Tale 1 and 2, filmed in Clearwater, and The Infiltrator, filmed partly in Ybor City and South Tampa. Bryan Cranston stars in the 2016 film, which premiered at The Tampa Theatre. 

That film received $250,000 in local production incentives, and induced a 4-to-1 return, according to a study by Film Tampa Bay.

Joe Davison, a Tampa-based actor and director, was in Tampa for the GIFF weekend events and parties. Though he has produced six films as co-owner of Red Gear Studios, his most prominent role to date is a cameo in the second season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, where he plays a scientist at the fictional Hawkins lab.

Of course, he shot his scenes in Atlanta and was sworn to secrecy until the season debuted last fall.

“I tell people I was in Stranger Things and they don’t believe me! I say, go look, I’m there, clean-shaven in a white lab coat.”

What’s next

Despite what many may assume, there is plenty that ties Tampa Bay to the global filmmaking industry, through directors, actors, or festivals that bring stars from afar. Cameron Diaz, for example, sometimes works out at Powerhouse Gym in Downtown Tampa.

Given the rising costs of living and doing business in regions like Southern California, Vancouver, and Atlanta, Florida may be primed to attract productions looking to save money and depict “Anytown, USA.”

Our region benefits from looking tropical on one block and industrial on another, and year-round sunshine. Changing the state’s policies to better incentivize major expenditures is the crux to really capitalizing on those natural advantages.

If you care about local filmmaking, you can get involved. Support and attend events like GIFF, Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (TIGLFF), and the Sunscreen Film Festival, and make your opinions known to local politicians and legislators.

Such a sea change would be a major boon to the state’s economy, allow us to cement our region as a contender in the national film production industry, and help us keep and cultivate homegrown talent.

To learn more, follow this link to a 2017 story in 83 Degrees about local film festivals.

Read more articles by Alex English.

Alex English is a Tampa native who has lived in Sarasota, Seattle, New York, Bordeaux and Milan. He is passionate about urban development, retail and style, and publishes Remarqed, a personal blog on those subjects.
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