PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — As film advocates push for state lawmakers to bring back an incentive program meant to lure big budget movie projects and jobs to Florida, critics are blasting calls for new state tax breaks as unnecessary handouts for Hollywood.
Florida’s tax credit program for filmmakers ended three years ago. The nearly $300 million program was supposed to last for six years.
“What happened was everybody rushed to Florida and they used all the money up in the first two years,” said Kelly Paige, a past president and current board member of Film Florida, which represents the film industry.
Film Florida has been pushing for a new incentive program to lure big budget movies and television shows.
But ABC Action News Reporter Kylie McGivern found state lawmakers most recently shot down a $2 million cash rebate program backed by the association last session.
Florida has been the setting for a number of past productions, including The Punisher, shot in downtown Tampa, and Dolphin Tale, filmed in Clearwater.
Florida has long film legacy
The Sunshine State was also represented in Creature from the Black Lagoon, filmed at Wakulla Springs in the 1950s, and the iconic South Beach-set Miami Vice television series from the 1980s.
“It’s a good place to shoot,” Director Tim Burton told the St. Petersburg Clearwater Film Commission about filming in the Tampa Bay area, where he shot Edward Scissorhands and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. “There’s so many different vibes and scenarios and different looks.”
Actress Katherine Heigl also gave a shoutout to St. Petersburg on Twitter in April while she was in town shooting the movie I Saw a Man with Yellow Eyes.
Andres Malave of Americans for Prosperity Florida said the recent filming schedules show Hollywood doesn’t need state taxpayers to foot the bill to lure production companies to the state.
“We should just be focusing on real priorities for the state,” said Malave. “At the end of the day, people want to know that their dollars are going toward essential government services – education, roads, things that are going to truly make life and business better here in the state of Florida.”
Americans for Prosperity Florida, a conservative advocacy group, is lobbying against state tax breaks for filmmakers.
Meanwhile, Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit research institute, has promoted film tax breaks as “both necessary and important.”
Florida losing out to ‘Hollywood of the South’
TaxWatch reported Florida – one of 18 states without any film incentives – lost film productions to states, such as Georgia, which is now known as “The Hollywood of the South.”
“I’ve lost a lot of talent,” said Paige, who works as a talent agent. “People from all over the country are now moving to Atlanta.”
Georgia’s governor recently boasted of a record year for the film industry in his state, claiming 399 productions brought in nearly $3 billion in economic benefits.
Paige said if the Florida wants to attract the economic windfall that big budget films bring and keep its talent from moving out of state, taxpayers will need to lend a helping hand.
Robert Sterrett, a location manager in the industry, said he used to find steady jobs in the Tampa Bay area, but for the past four years he’s had to live in Los Angeles for the majority of the year to continue working.
“It was almost like being in college… not really that fun,” said Sterrett. “When you have a family in Florida and you’re 3,000 miles away, it is difficult.”
But this year, that all changed.
New filming project backed by Hillsborough County
Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way Productions, is backing a project based on Tim Wolfe’s book on astronauts, “The Right Stuff.”
Sterrett was hired as one of the key assistant location managers and the production is filming in Florida.
The project also received incentives from Hillsborough County’s film program, which awarded filmmakers $53,000 – or 10 percent of the production company’s spending during its time shooting in Tampa.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, a champion of local film projects, told ABC Action News when the state ended its tax credit program, “it was an opportunity for Hillsborough County to step up and to be the leader in the state.”
Hillsborough’s film commission issued 176 filming permits last year and 202 so far this year.
“The industry is really exploding in Hillsborough County,” said Hagan. “From a job creation and a revenue perspective, as well as being a tourism driver and a brand builder, it is our best interest to continue to grow this industry.”
In Pinellas County, Film Commissioner Tony Armer said film production has also increased in recent years – fueled in part by its $500,000 incentive program.
Filmmaker Dan Myrick – best known for The Blair Witch Project – recently took advantage of Hillsborough County’s incentive program. He also opened a new studio in Ybor City with partners Kristian Krempel and Doug Fox.
At the studio’s grand opening, Film Tampa Bay Executive Director Tyler Martinolich told supporters, “The state of Florida does not support film. Hillsborough County supports film.”
The crowd responded in applause.