TAMPA — With its well-preserved history as an immigrant community, cigar rolling capital of the world, and Mafia hotbed, Ybor City seems ripe for Hollywood.
Ben Affleck agreed, and bought the film rights to “Live by Night” — a novel by former Tampa area writer Dennis Lehane set in Ybor City during the 1920s and 1930s about a petty Boston thief’s rise to successful Gulf Coast rum runner.
Unfortunately for Tampa, the absence of state tax incentives for movie productions coupled with Affleck’s wish to work close to home means filming of “Live by Night” will bypass the original.
Instead, a fake Ybor City is being erected 270 miles northeast in Brunswick, Georgia.
Since early September, set designers have been busy turning areas of Brunswick into Tampa’s Latin district.
And casting directors are recruiting extras to portray the ancestors of many people who still live in Tampa — salsa dancers, Depression-era families, residents of Cuban neighborhoods, and cigar factory workers.
Filming is set to begin the first week of November, once set designers finish their work, and last for about two weeks.
“It’s pretty amazing what they can do and how fast they can do it,” said Matthew Hill, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Development Authority. “They are erecting new buildings and sprucing up facades of existing buildings to look like Ybor City.”
Brunswick was founded by British immigrants in 1771, but its first active development period was in the late-1800s and early 1900s, said Mimi Rogers, curator of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society.
That was the same period in which Ybor City was born.
They have different immigrant roots — Ybor City is Spanish, Cuban and Italian — but each boasts similar two- to three-story brick structures throughout the business district.
“Those types of buildings are what would be built in any American town at that point,” Rogers said. “Maybe small things would be added for cultural differences.”
These include Ybor City’s distinctive wrought iron balconies and awnings — now being affixed to any existing buildings planned for filming, said Hill with the Brunswick Downtown Development Authority.
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Filming will take place on Newcastle and Monck streets in the Brunswick business district, Union and Wolfe streets in the city’s residential areas, and on Jekyll Island off Brunswick’s coast.
The production will occupy Brunswick for almost three months and employ almost 300 people.
How many are hired locally is unclear, Hill said, but they will all be spending money in and around Brunswick and the production is purchasing as many supplies as possible from the immediate area.
Hill said the City of Savannah Film Office estimates that productions the size of “Live by Night” spend as much as $45,000 per day locally.
Mostly, exterior scenes will be filmed in Brunswick — a metropolitan area of some 150,000 people along the Atlantic coast about 30 miles north of Florida.
The movie’s location manager could not be reached for comment on where interiors will be shot. Hill said he has heard that sound stages in Los Angeles will be used. Atlanta’s Pinewood Studios could also handle such a large-scale production.
Affleck is directing and starring in the movie, wrote the screenplay, and is co-producing it with Leonardo DiCaprio.
The movie’s cast also includes Zoe Saldana of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Elle Fanning of “Maleficent,” and Sienna Miller of “American Sniper.”
“People are excited to have something like this with this many stars here,” Hill said. “More people than usual seem to be taking a detour through downtown since the production arrived.”
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Brunswick’s gain is Tampa’s loss.
“This was once-in-a-lifetime,” said Dale Gordon, Tampa-Hillsborough Film and Digital Media commissioner.
“Not only is ‘Live by Night’ a big budget Hollywood film attached to a major Hollywood star, it’s a movie about Ybor City. It should have been filmed in Ybor City. Instead, we’re losing real jobs and real revenue to Georgia because of the state’s failure to invest in the film and digital media industry.”
Affleck came to Tampa in May 2013 scouting for “Live by Night.”
But by early 2014 word was spreading that diminished state tax incentives were sinking Tampa’s chance of landing the film and its producers would instead choose Georgia, which offers up to 30 percent back on in-state expenditures and has no cap on how much a project can receive or how much the state can allocate per year.
The Florida Legislature allotted $296 million in film incentives for 2010-2016, but all the money was quickly awarded.
The Legislature declined to replenish the pot during the past two legislative sessions.
Hillsborough County hoped to at least get a few days of production through a local incentive similar to what it offered for “The Infiltrator,” starring Bryan Cranston and based on the true story of a federal agent posing as a Tampa businessman to bust a financial center laundering millions of dollars for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Hillsborough County agreed to provide “The Infiltrator” production up to $250,000, the county and city provided in-kind services such as off-duty police patrol and street closures, Port Tampa Bay provided office space and the University of Tampa’s film production program provided students for support roles.
In return, the production had to spend at least $1 million locally.
The deal was enough to get the Tampa area eight days of “Infiltrator” shooting.
If state incentives were available, the producers of “The Infiltrator” said they would have filmed 90 percent of the film over 40 days in Tampa. Instead, the bulk of the work went to England in return for $4.5 million in incentives.
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Wes Miller, executive director of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, said representatives from “Live by Night” were in Ybor City earlier this year for either location scouting or to help set designers get a better understanding of Ybor City.
Film commissioner Gordon said the Hillsborough County Commission was “standing by ready to offer local incentives” to “Live by Night,” but such negotiations never materialized.
“Despite the best efforts of the Hillsborough County Commission and other local partners to secure this project, we simply cannot be competitive at this level without support from Tallahassee,” Gordon said.
The decision to film “Live by Night” in Brunswick was about more than dollars and cents, though.
Affleck owns a home on Hampton Island, a waterfront community about a 45 minute drive from Brunswick.
And even without filming here, Ybor City remains the star of the show and stands to earn great exposure worldwide.
A report by the Motion Picture Association of America said 23 percent of leisure visitors to Florida consider viewing a movie filmed in the state as very important or extremely important in their decision to come here.
In 2012, the USF St. Petersburg College of Business released a study that estimated 73 percent of all visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — backdrop for the film “Dolphin Tale” — do so because of the movie.
Brunswick will be made to appear like Ybor City.
Santiago Corrada, CEO of the tourism agency Visit Tampa Bay, lived in Miami in the 1980s and recalls how the television series “Miami Vice” played a role in that city’s sightseeing boom of the time.
“You can also see today how the ‘Twilight’ movies have impacted Seattle or what ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ did for Savannah tourism,” Corrada said. “Some people make a connection with a destination based on what they see in a movie. Any time you mention some aspect of Tampa in a film and that inspires people to make a trip here, it’s a good thing.”
Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan, a proponent of efforts to have the Florida Legislature replenish the empty pot of tax incentives for film and television production, said he is still saddened that the area could not enjoy all the benefits of “Live by Night.”
“It’s better than Ybor not being portrayed at all. They could have changed the name to something else,” Hagan said.
“But we could have received the jobs and other economic benefits if the filming had taken place here. Hopefully this serves as a lesson to our Legislature.”