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A lack of tax incentives has scared film producers away from Florida. What will get them back?

2021's "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar" is one of several recent films that take place in Florida but were shot elsewhere.
Cate Cameron
2021's "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar" is one of several recent films that take place in Florida but were shot elsewhere.

Broward County's new film commissioner says incentive plans are a must to bring back job-creating film and TV projects.

Over the years, plenty of filmmakers have chosen Florida as the perfect cinematic backdrop – from 1941’s “Moon Over Miami” to 2016’s Oscar-winning “Moonlight.”

Take last year’s comedy, “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.” The title characters are two midwestern women who vacation at the fictional Florida resort of Vista Del Mar — Spanish for “view of the sea.”

Here’s the thing: the beach scenes were shot in Mexico and the last part of the movie was filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico — where the closest “mar” is about 700 miles away.

And that’s been happening a lot in recent years — production companies have taken their business elsewhere because they say it’s too expensive to make a movie or shoot a TV show in Florida.

"It's more than exasperating," said Sandy Lighterman, Broward County’s new film commissioner. "It gets me in my heart."

But now there’s a major push on state and local levels to lure them back.

Florida used to have a tax incentive program for the film and TV industry. However, there were so many takers that the money quickly ran out and lawmakers let the program lapse about six years ago.

An incentive plan is back in play in Tallahassee during this year's legislative session in the form of House Bill 217 and Senate Bill 946.

The measures replace the old incentives model with a rebate system. If the bills pass, film, television, and digital media projects produced in Florida would need to meet specific criteria to be eligible for tax credit awards.

Lighterman, who's also vice president of the nonprofit entertainment industry association Film Florida, said the state's industry professionals support the bills.

"We formed the bills so they will get passed by the Legislature," she said. "Because we have such a conservative legislature, we have to have a conservative program."

When it comes to smaller projects such as commercials, independent films and web-based content, industry experts say Florida hasn't been doing so badly — even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interestingly, since Florida is currently more "open" than other states — no vaccine passports or mandates — the work has been pretty steady throughout the pandemic.

But most producers of major films and TV series — the long-term job creators — remain gun-shy about filming here.

To make up the difference, Florida municipalities have crafted their own incentive programs for film and TV. Miami-Dade's was created by Lighterman while she served as film commissioner there. In her new role, she's now working on one for Broward and envisions linking both counties' plans to create a regional program.

And once those blockbuster projects start rolling in again, there are two particular Broward locations Lighterman would like to see in a starring role.

"Markham Park, believe it or not!" Lighterman said. The trails and pine trees in the Sunrise park are reminiscent of Colorado and other western states.

"And Vista View. It's a park by I-75 and Griffin. You have a vantage point very high up. It looks like hills and it is hills — and that's also been underutilized."

Christine DiMattei is WLRN's Morning Edition anchor and also reports on Arts & Culture.
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