Movie millions: Will new tax credits bring the film industry to Florida?

Will huge new tax incentives lure more filmmakers to the Sunshine State?

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Next month, A&E Network premieres The Glades, the rare series being filmed almost entirely in Florida — in this case, the Broward County suburb of Pembroke Pines. But according to members of the local acting community, it should have been produced in Tampa Bay.

In fact, the pilot was filmed in the Bay area (including locations at the Don CeSar and Belleview Biltmore resorts, as well as in South Georgia) under its then working title of Sugarloaf. But when it came to negotiating for the cable network's 13-episode run, the producers ditched Tampa Bay for South Florida. How come?

Lindsey Norris Guthrie is manager of the Tampa Bay Film Commission. She says that what she heard from the company producing The Glades was "that they were looking for something more generic, that our area was a little too distinctive." She also says that there were changes made with the show when it transitioned from Sugarloaf to The Glades.

But a local actor appearing in The Glades, Ricky Wayne, says he believes the film commissions in both Hillsborough and Pinellas dropped the ball. "I feel our film commissions and their respective staffs should be far more organized and aggressive."

The executive producer of The Glades. Gary Randall, agrees. Speaking to CL from the set this week, he said the primary reason the new series isn't being filmed in the Tampa Bay area is that he didn't get enough support from area film commissions.

Randall said that Miami/Dade, Broward and even Palm Beach counties have a much stronger infrastructure "that's more savvy for filmmakers in the permit process." He said he encountered problems in Tampa Bay getting warehouse space, access to public buildings and police and city permit support.

"We were totally ready to stay in Tampa and make it there," he said, adding that the area "just doesn't have the experience."

Still, Guthrie says her Tampa Bay Film Commission has been doing solid work with a shrinking marketing budget, and says that the state has been disadvantaged by not being able to provide tax incentives to Hollywood film producers. That's why she and her colleagues in dozens of film commissions across the state are thrilled with a new package signed last week by Governor Charlie Crist that will provide $242 million in transferable tax credits for projects that will be produced in Florida over the next five years.

Individual productions could be eligible for a 20 percent tax credit, which could go as high as 30 percent if the film qualifies for other bonuses (including a 5 percent "family friendly bonus" which means does not "exhibit or imply" any act of smoking, sex, nudity, or vulgar or profane language).

For the thousands of people involved with the entertainment industry in Florida, the package has been desperately desired for years. The state was losing out not only to Hollywood, but to Louisiana and Georgia, which currently give out tax incentives as high as 30 percent, and to Michigan (the home of those ubiquitous ads featuring actor Jeff Daniels saying Michigan is open for business).

But not everyone thinks the incentives are a good thing. Last year in Wisconsin, an economic report on the Badger State's film tax credit program not only said that the incentives law was flawed and cost too much, but questioned the notion that the film industry can effectively create state jobs.

And in Iowa, state legislators are contemplating killing the tax credit program, as the state attorney general continues a criminal investigation into misuse of state film tax incentives.

In Florida, the Legislature allowed the film commission to offer cash rebates beginning in 2004, a program that hit its high-water mark in the 2007/2008 year, when the Florida Film Commission says it was able to provide $25 million in rebates to lure 52 projects into the Sunshine State. But then, state commission chair Lucia Fishburne says, "The unimaginable happened." That's when the Legislature cut the Commission's budget to just $5 million. Last year it was increased to $10.8 million, and now for the first time tax credits will be available, with $53.5 million available in the government fiscal year which begins July 1 and $74 .5 million in 2011.

Kelly Paige is the president of Level Talent, a model and talent management agency based in Tampa. She cheers the cooperation that allowed The Glades to be only the second series currently produced in Florida (USA Network's Burn Notice out of Miami is the other).

"The important thing is that we stuck together as a state and said, 'Do not do a CSI Miami and produce it in a different region," she said of the CBS weekly show, which shoots exteriors in Miami but is produced in Greater Los Angeles. "We were able to keep it and get it to say here."

Paige is extremely optimistic that with the new tax incentive package, more films and TV series than ever will come to Florida and the Tampa Bay area. "I think we'll see more production in the state next year than in the last five years combined," she declares.

Not that the state has been completely shut out of production work before. But, like other employment vehicles Tampa is known for (such as call centers and chain restaurants), the film opportunities have been less than glamorous: infomercials, "newsmercials" and TV ads are the "bread and butter" that keep people employed, says Jennifer Paramore of Pinellas County's Film Commission. She says those jobs haven't been affected by the economic slowdown. In fact, she says, "I'm amazed how good business has been."

But still, concerns remain strong that not enough is being done to lure productions such as The Glades. For instance, payments for renting out a building, or a bar, are generally handled between the production company and the local business owner. But according to one local casting agent (who says she must remain anonymous lest her comments offend local government agencies), "Part of the film commissioner's job is to nail [locals] down [about prices] and say, 'It's a pilot.' The film commissioner is supposed to smooth the edges so they'll want to come back."

But now there is the very real probability of more work coming in. On June 9. the state's Office of Film & Entertainment started accepting applications for the $53.5 million that will be available beginning next month. The criteria? A project needs to start within six months of the application date.

The filmmaking community pushed incentives as a stimulus for the state economy, Michigan being a case in point. Just two years ago Michigan lawmakers, contending with the highest unemployment rate in the country, voted for one of the most generous incentive programs in the nation, offering tax credits as high as 42 percent.

Hollywood noticed. After having just two projects filmed in the Wolverine State in 2007, there were 35 in 2008, and 52 last year. Among those features were Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino and Drew Barrymore's Whip It, as well as parts of George Clooney's Up in the Air and Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.

But Ken Droze, a spokesman with the Michigan Film Office, cautions that the stimulus won't turn over immediately. "It's a gray area," he admits. "You need for the industry to mature for a bigger payout to the state's treasury, and the ripple effect and the multiplier will increase."

There was substantive debate in Michigan on the merits of providing such incentives, but there was nary a protest here in Florida. The bill gathered little media attention before being signed by Governor Crist.

The idea that incentives will bring more television and film work to Florida and possibly the Tampa Bay area thrills Ricky Wayne. The actor moved to Pinellas from California in 2005 and has been getting the most work of his professional career, but it's mostly been in Louisiana, Georgia and Michigan.

"I'm a single father with a 4-year-old kid, and I would love to have the chance to stay home once in a while and work," he says. "I mean, Lafayette, Louisiana, compared to Florida?"

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