Lights, camera ... action? County commission seeks to boost local filming
For years, Hillsborough County has trailed Miami and Orlando in production of major movies, television series, commercials and other video.
But plans are in the works to turn things around.
Hillsborough commission Chairman Ken Hagan unveiled plans Wednesday to hire a film commissioner, a position the county hasn’t had for more than two years.
The commissioner will head a new, nonprofit film commission that will be housed in the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. Previously, the work of marketing the county to the film industry was handled by Tampa Bay & Co., a tourism agency.
A report done for the county last year shows how far behind Hillsborough has fallen.
The county gets 9 percent of the film production in Florida, compared with Miami’s 57 percent and Orlando’s 31 percent.
Hillsborough is even losing out to its neighbor across Tampa Bay.
In the past three years, Pinellas County locations were used for five major films: “Dolphin Tale,” “Spring Breakers,” “The Investigator,” “Sun Don’t Shine” and “Sunlight Junior,” which stars Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts and premieres this month at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan.
The movie “Magic Mike” was shot last year in Pinellas and Tampa locations. Otherwise, critics say, Hillsborough has been mostly shut out.
“There are a lot of people who shake their head about the situation in Hillsborough County,” said Jennifer Parramore, the Pinellas County film commissioner.
The report to Hillsborough echoed recent criticisms from area residents who work in and with the film industry. They say the film office has been slow in marketing the county and in following through when film companies express an interest.
Hagan said the city of Tampa has agreed to share in the film commissioner’s salary.
“Clearly, we have the market and environment to considerably expand our market share,” he said Thursday. “I wouldn’t say we’re going to surpass Miami anytime soon, but the general thought is we can double or triple our percentage and pass Orlando.”
It was Hagan who last summer persuaded fellow board members to spend $500,000 to reinvigorate the county’s film and video industry efforts. Hagan said between $30,000 and $40,000 of that appropriation paid for the report released at Wednesday’s commission meeting.
The report’s researchers looked at successful operations in other counties and states. They drew a blueprint for how a Hillsborough commission should be organized. The report also lays out how to measure jobs created by video productions and how much wealth the projects inject into the local economy.
The commission will be modeled on the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, a nonprofit organization that has been successful in bringing major amateur sporting events to the area.
“I think for the film commission to be successful, it has to have a high degree of autonomy to develop its own culture and marketing activities,” said Rick Homans, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. “But what we will do from the EDC is support it every step of the way wherever possible.”
Homans said he will help get the fledgling agency off the ground as a member of its executive committee. As the commission takes shape, it can take advantage of the Economic Development Corp. marketing apparatus and financial administration.
The key piece, Hagan and Homans say, is hiring a savvy film commissioner.
The ideal person will know how to market an area to film companies and have connections in the industry nationally and locally. The commissioner will travel to trade shows and film festivals to make contacts with producers and directors, and sell the county as a potential location.
Parramore said a film commissioner needs to be a trouble-shooter who can cut through red tape with local government, police and fire officials so movie crews don’t waste time obtaining city and county permits.
In Pinellas, Parramore said, the commission acts as a one-stop permitting service, something she said Hillsborough should emulate.
“Sometimes you just need to know the right person in the neighborhood to call,” Parramore said. “I call the guy that’s been up there forever and ever and he’ll tell me how to take care of it. That’s the kind of network you need to really be golden.”
The absence of a film commissioner is a main reason Tampa and Hillsborough County have been shut out of so much of the video business, said Kelly Paige, a Tampa talent agent.
Paige cited the Tampa Bay area’s failure in 2010 to land “The Glades,” an A&E series in its third season that shot preliminary scenes here but ended up in South Florida.
On Wednesday, after hearing Hagan talk about the plans for a revamped commission and commissioner, Paige said she is hopeful but not convinced.
“We are moving in the right direction, but we’re so far behind,” she said.
The state government has appropriated $296 million in tax credits for film projects between fiscal year 2011 and 2015. But most of those credits are used up, Paige said, because producers and directors like to film in Florida.
Other states have more attractive financial incentive packages for film and video, Paige said, but Florida’s was judged the most financially responsible in a Pew Research Center survey because of its strict requirements.
To get the credits, a company must spend 60 percent of a project’s budget in Florida, and 60 percent of the cast and crew must be made up of Florida residents.
Paige said that because of the lack of marketing activity by Tampa Bay & Company, she has made four trips to Los Angeles in the past seven months to “wave the flag for Tampa Bay.”
She said a major film company will start pre-production four months on a movie set in Tampa based on a historic event. Paige said she was given the script to read.
Another project that would be a natural for Tampa is actor-director Ben Affleck’s production of “Live by Night,” based on the novel by Boston and St. Petersburg author Dennis Lehane of “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island” fame.
Most of Lehane’s Prohibition-era gangster story takes place in and around Ybor City.
Paige said the two films will have a combined budget of $100 million. Having one or two blockbusters film here would boost the area’s marketability tenfold, she said.
“We have filmmakers who want to come here within 120 days and we have to build a film infrastructure,” Paige said.
“We’re so close.”