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Lights, Camera, Incentives: Florida Counties Sweeten The Pot For Filmmakers

A film crew at work.

Numerous films and TV shows have been filmed in Florida through the years, from Burn Notice and Miami Vice to The Truman Show, The Punisher and Scarface.

The state used to entice producers with financial incentives. That program ended a few years ago, and many productions set in Florida have moved elsewhere. Some of the state's largest counties are now offering their own incentives.

Ben Affleck’s 2016 gangster film Live By Night was a critical and commercial flop, losing over $75 million. Set in Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood in the 1920s and 30s, Affleck (who directed) found it cheaper to recreate Ybor in Brunswick, Georgia.

“You've got to juggle what's worth more to you: Do you want another 10 cars and 200 extras or do you want one less shooting day? There's that kind of math that goes into it,” Affleck told the Tampa Bay Times just before the film’s release.

That math, according to Affleck, included Georgia’s tax incentives. Films and TV productions can apply for a 30% rebate on expenses. Those incentives have helped turn Georgia into a film powerhouse. The Marvel movies, Stranger Things, and The Walking Deadall shoot there.

Florida launched its own incentive program in the early 2000s. But by 2014, it had run out of money and state lawmakers refused to renew it. “We were number three in the United States as far as location filming, while we had that incentive program at the state level,” says Film Tampa Bay commissioner Tyler Martinloch. His office promotes film and TV production in Hillsborough County. “Since that program has ended, we're not even the top 20 anymore.”

In the absence of a state program, Hillsborough and five other Florida counties now offer their own incentives. If a movie shoots in Tampa, producers can get a 10% rebate if they spend at least $100,000. “That can be spent a number of ways,” Martinloch said. “It could be hotel rooms, payroll for local residents, it could be running your equipment or going to Home Depot here in town and buying lumber. But 10% isn't going to attract an Avengers, when they can go to Georgia and get 30% or more.”

Pinellas County offers a 10% rebate of its own. But it also requires filmmakers to participate in tourism marketing. “There’s so much to offer here, so many different vibes, different scenarios, different looks and things. It’s a good place to shoot,” director Tim Burtonsaid in a testimonial video. He shot his 2016 film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, in the Tampa Bay area.

Tony Stopperan is producing an upcoming thriller starring Katherine Heigl and Harry Connick Jr. He made the film using incentives from Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Sarasota counties. “They're baked into a budget from a producing standpoint,” he said. “You look at state or regional incentives as a mitigating factor against your budget. How much am I going to get back for the dollars that I'm going to spend?”

Stopperan says the county incentives were a key reason he decided to keep the production in Florida. But, he says, the lack of a statewide incentive program restricts where he can film. “And as a producer, I shouldn't have to limit the productions that I do to those that are showcasing the beautiful beaches and downtowns of the Tampa Bay-Sarasota area.”

Multiple attempts at reviving the state incentive program have gone nowhere. The latest proposal, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota), would give filmmakers grants of up to $2 million if most of a project is shot in Florida and employs local crewmembers. The bill died at the end of the legislative session in May. Many of the legislature’s most powerful members, including House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Miami Lakes), are opposed to incentives. Olivia and his predecessor Richard Corcoran called them “corporate welfare.”

There are also questions about the economic impact. A 2018 report by the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research found the previous statewide incentives program returned 18 cents in tax revenue for every dollar spent. Researchers also note fewer states offer incentives now than in 2009. “The number of states offering production incentives has decreased in recent years as a result of strained state budgets and increased scrutiny regarding the true economic benefit of these incentive programs,” the report said.

Patrick Button, an assistant professor at Tulane University, researched two decades of incentive programs in the U.S. and Canada. He says TV shows that shoot on location for several years may have a positive effect, but it’s harder to measure the impact of a film that wraps up after a couple of weeks or months. “It's a little bit of a dismal conclusion where it seems like if the goal is to create a local film industry, that's not happening,” Button said.

While the future of state incentives is uncertain, Hillsborough County commissioners are considering offering more to filmmakers. The county’s incentives are capped at $500,000 a year.

Bradley George comes to WUSF from Atlanta, where he was a reporter, host, and editor at Georgia Public Broadcasting. While in Atlanta, he reported for NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and The Takeaway. His work has been recognized by PRNDI, the Georgia Associated Press, and the Atlanta Press Club. Prior to his time in Georgia, Bradley worked at public radio stations in Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina.
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