Lights, camera, action: Film scene heats up in Tampa Bay Area

Go ahead -- enjoy some St. Petersburg with your popcorn. Spot Tampa hotspots throughout the in-production series The Right Stuff, executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. From Hallmark tearjerkers to large feature films and everything in between, film, TV, and commercial projects are on the rise in Tampa Bay and Pinellas.

Ask Hillsborough Film Commissioner Tyler Martinolich what's calling more filmmakers to say ‘action’ in the Bay Area sunshine,
and he has one word to explain it: marketing. Martinolich took the commissioner post in October 2019 and immediately focused on developing and delivering the right message to filmmakers. 

“People who think our area is ‘swamp and Mickey’ obviously don’t get it,” he says. “To explain what Tampa is -- that’s our ongoing challenge.”

It’s one Martinolich has tackled with gusto. He points to the landscape that is Hillsborough as a huge draw, and every time his Film Tampa Bay team travels to a trade show or festival, they share information about opportunities here. From historic hotels to rural-seeming landscape just miles away from the city hub, the area has lush variety to offer – and favorable weather to boot. Hillsborough is also one of six counties in Florida to offer a 10% film incentive (Pinellas, Sarasota, Miami, Palm Beach, and Jacksonville do as well). 

Just a short jaunt away, Pinellas has the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Film Commission to thank for the Hallmark movies that filmed there in 2019. Downtown St. Petersburg and Safety Harbor provided not only plenty of feel-good backdrops but eager talent as well. Tampa-based Benz Model and Talent Agent Juliet Reeves booked approximately 200 actors and actresses on the films.

“I’ve seen an increase in local projects over the last year,” she says. “The TV series business is picking up a lot too.” 

Martinolich also professes exponential growth in commercials, TV, and digital media filmed in Tampa Bay. The area’s ‘sweet spot’ for film, he says, is indie projects, which are defined as costing under $8 million to produce. With its 30% film incentive, Georgia remains a peach of a competitor -- but numbers don’t always tell the whole story.

Andi Matheny, an actress and comedian from Hollywood, now lives in St. Pete teaching acting classes in her studio. “Georgia is used to attracting large projects, and film crews often see markups because of it,” he says. “Tampa Bay is still a comparatively cheap place to film; we have experienced crews, hotels with great rates. We have plenty of quality local acting talent.”

Based on the current number of films applying for the incentive, Martinolich expects projects to continue to thrive in the land of Buccaneers and Lightning. Yes, it’s early to start adding ‘film mecca’ to the description of Pinellas and Hillsborough. But should the state invest more in attracting film projects, the effect could snowball into dramatic wins for the tourism and travel industry. Martinolich points to a recent project as a prime example.

“The Right Stuff spent nearly $500,000 in two days of Tampa filming,” he says. “If only the state of Florida would start supporting film more, it could have a huge impact on our area.”

Now that’s a wrap.

Cultivating the art of acting in St. Petersburg

They live among us in Tampa Bay -- these stars and co-stars, day players and extras. Search the credits of major productions filmed nearby and in Georgia and California, and you’ll recognize the names of actors whose alma mater is the Andi Matheny Acting Studios in Downtown St. Petersburg. A mural-wrapped beacon for acting education and audition innovation, the school specializes in scene study, the Meisner Technique and more.

At the helm is Andi Matheny herself, a 25-year Hollywood veteran who books roles and teaches others to do the same. Julianna Narubin and Matt Williams perform improv in Andi Matheny's acting class.

Matheny landed a supporting role in True Love Blooms, one of the Pinellas-based Hallmark movies, and filmed scenes just a few miles from her studio. It’s not often that her commute to a set is quite that seamless -- she does often film out of state. She says, though, that she is witnessing more projects being green-lit here -- and that the growing trend of on-camera auditioning is making roles more accessible than ever before.

“When actors had to audition in person, you had to live where the auditions were,” she says. “Now, my students can audition for projects that film anywhere.”

Many read their lines inside her studio, with acting coaches at the ready to help in perfecting the performance before taped auditions are sent to casting. The casting industry’s acceptance of the practice opens up roles nationwide, and it’s a skill, she says, that her students work to perfect.

“Taping auditions, you become a better actor,” she says. “When I lived in Los Angeles, I could never really tell how I was doing. … Now, we can watch playback and adjust as needed.”

That practical approach to improvement is one she encourages her students to embrace. She recently wrote a book that shares her methods and is currently searching for a publisher. In the meantime, she and her instructors audition, teach, and audition some more. Three of her students booked The Right Stuff, and Matheny is certain that her acting core exercises helped. 

“I want to demystify the process as much as possible,” she says. “My students know what to expect in the audition and beyond.”

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Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida
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