Home to U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Operations Command Central, two Air Force refueling wings and many other mission partners, MacDill Air Force Base is an epicenter in the ongoing wars in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
But when it comes to depicting MacDill on the small screen, California is the epicenter.
CBS has ordered a pilot called “Four Stars” that Variety describes as a “family military drama” that “follows two powerful rival families in the military community of Tampa, Florida, who make decisions at the highest levels of national security.”
But the people who make decisions at the highest levels of national entertainment have decided to shoot the pilot entirely in California.
If you say, “that figures,” you’d be close.
The reason is actually seven figures. As in a one followed by six zeros, give or take some digits along the way. As in a tax credit reservation for an estimated $1.07 million, part of California’s Expanded Film & TV Tax Credit Program.
That figure represents about a quarter of what the producers are expected to spend on the pilot, according to Erik Deutsch, spokesman for the California Film Commission, which doled out the incentive.
“$230 Million in Credits for Fiscal 2015-16 On Track to Generate $1.7 Billion in Spending, Including $659 Million in Below-the-Line Wages,” reads the headline of the news release announcing the incentives to “Four Stars” and other productions.
The nine projects announced by the commission include another relocating TV series, which makes five series that have relocated to California because of the expanded tax credit program. Also among the approved projects are three new TV series, both of which filmed pilots out of state. Rounding out the list are three pilots and a pair of existing TV series returning to the tax credit program for additional episodes.
“Our success in helping five existing TV series relocate to California in less than a year illustrates the success we’re achieving with the expanded tax credit program,” said California Film Commission Executive Director Amy Lemisch in the media release. “Every new TV series we attract or retain brings long-term, high-wage jobs that would otherwise go elsewhere.”
“One of the many benefits of filming in California is our wide range of locations that can double for anywhere in the world,” Lemisch added.” It’s great to once again see so many projects — including shows like ‘Four Stars’ and ‘Good Girls Revolt’ — take advantage of our diverse locations.”
It’s enough to make Dale Gordon’s head explode.
“The pilot is moving along, but it definitely is not coming here,” says Gordon, executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission. “They received incentive moneys from California and are shooting it in L.A. It would help my cause if you mention that.”
Gordon’s cause is trying to get the great state of Florida to realize there is money in TV production.
But the Legislature opted not to fund or continue a nearly $300 million program providing incentives for TV and film production. The money in the five-year program, which ends June 30, ran out more than two years ago. It was used locally for movies like “Magic Mike,” “Spring Breakers” and “Dolphin Tale,” but mostly for TV series such as “Blood Lines,” “Ballers,” “Glades” and “Magic City,” all shot in Miami.
The dearth of incentives means a movie about Ybor City will be shot in Georgia while a television series about MacDill will be shot in California.
“This again validates our point that, here we go, another lost project,” Gordon says. “The state does not support the film industry.”
Losing out on a TV series is especially difficult, Gordon said, because a successful show can run several years, locking in a lot of work for local crews, actors and others.
Those working in the industry point to a Florida Office of Film and Entertainment report that says the $296 million in incentives added $4.1 billion to Florida’s gross state product — a 15-to-1 return — and created over 170,000 jobs paying more than $900 million in wages. But those opposed to using public money as a production lure quote a study conducted by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, showing the state gets back just 43 cents for each dollar it awards in tax incentives to productions. That amounts to a loss of almost $170 million on the $296 million investment.
The study is accurate, film industry proponents say — but misunderstood. It counted only direct government revenue from tax receipts rather than overall economic impact.
When it comes to shooting a TV pilot locally, the numbers back Gordon.
“Hillsborough County has given us $483,000 to attract high-impact productions like this,” Gordon told me last month when I first wrote about the pilot, well before the California numbers were released. “At this point, we would be looking to offer about 10 to 15 percent of their local spend in Hillsborough County.”
That’s less than half of what California offered in terms of dollars and nearly half by percentage.
So what does that mean, really?
Well, apparently about $4 million that’s not being spent in Florida.
It also means Tampa won’t see actor Bruce Greenwood, who is “set to play Gen. Buckley,’’ according to The Hollywood Reporter. “Buckley is a four-star general who commands international special operations programs from his military installation in Tampa, Florida.”
Nor will we see Ashley Zukerman, Ana Cruz Kayne or Wilmer Valderrama, who first gained fame by playing the goofball-of-an-indeterminate origin Fez on “That ’70s Show.”
It remains to be seen how close to reality the pilot hews, and given the description from Hollywood reporter, it is a big question mark. Socom is a train-and-equip headquarters that provides commandos to the generals and admirals who run operations.
Like Gen. Buckley’s as-yet-unnamed rival at Centcom, for instance.
And speaking of such a rivalry, really?
Oh, trust me, I have listened to general and flag officers complain about each other for years, but nothing like what Variety described. But maybe things have changed.
One thing is sure though. As distinctive as it may be, MacDill and its buildings covered by orange terra cotta tiles will see no camera crews associated with “Four Stars.”
Somehow, and it is unclear how, the pilot script made it all the way to Philip M. Strub, the Pentagon’s director of entertainment media.
“I don’t recall who sent me the script ... but we won’t be involved in the production, so I don’t know how they intend to portray the actual real estate,” Strub told me in an email. Defense policy “makes it quite clear that only DoD can approve production support, and filming on an active U.S. military installation would certainly be considered to be official support.”
So between the lack of support from the state and the Pentagon, it looks like Tampa and MacDill are going to miss their moment in the klieg lights.
Deutsch, the California Film Commission spokesman, says folks out west know that feeling well, which is why the new incentive program was offered.
“The people in California have experienced what you are experiencing,” he says. “ ‘San Andreas,’ that movie with The Rock about a big earthquake in California? The bulk of that was shot in Australia.”
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The Pentagon announced no new deaths last week in its ongoing overseas operations.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, 21 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, and 11 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State.