By Michael Hinman - Tampa Bay Business Journal - August 11, 2008
TAMPA — The minute Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi axed film production incentives from Italy’s federal budget, producers there revolted, threatening to boycott film festivals and leave the country for good.
When the Florida Legislature reduced film incentives from $25 million to just $5 million last May, it was like a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.
Film producers in Italy got their way. Berlusconi quickly put the film incentives back into the budget.
Florida, however, is now feeling the burn.
Tampa Bay has lost a higher-profile movie project ready to roll in the area, and there’s even talk a popular USA network series filmed in Miami called “Burn Notice” could be next.
Michigan or bust
“We had booked about 90 percent of our locations and just about had everything ready to go when it happened,” said Jason Weinstein, development director for a psychological horror film being produced by New Castle Entertainment that had planned to use various locations in Tampa’s Hyde Park and a vacant high school in Sarasota to create Ohio-like street settings.
Called “Intent,” the film already had attracted actors like Betty White from “Golden Girls,” Steve Schirripa from “The Sopranos,” and Eric Roberts, who most recently played gangster Salvatore Maroni in the blockbuster hit “The Dark Knight.” But when the Legislature reduced incentives, the chances of “Intent” receiving a $1 million budget incentive washed out.
Weinstein and crew were forced to pack up and move production to Michigan where more than $20 million in tax credits are available for infrastructure investments alone.
It’s a story that will likely play out again soon as Florida seeks to compete with other states that have increased already sizeable film incentive pots, enjoying the estimated return of between $6 and $7 for every dollar invested.
“Now is not the time for us to bow out,” said Lindsey Norris, film commission manager at Tampa Bay & Company. “This one hits close to home. Tampa has been on the cusp of some really big productions in the past couple of years, and we’ve been ever so close. But for one reason after another, we seem to be missing the boat.”
Keeping the money close
Gov. Charlie Crist had sought an increase of Florida’s film incentives to $40 million this year, but a $2 billion budget shortfall meant some line items not considered essential would be cut. Even with the incentive, Tampa had an uphill battle attracting film projects away from other popular locations like Miami and Jacksonville, but now local officials are working hard to keep some 500 film-related jobs in Tampa alone from moving where the work is.
It’s been hard for Bob “Smitty” Smith.
The owner of Smitty’s Craft Service, Smith provides food and drinks for actors and crews of film projects all over the country including 2005’s “The Dukes of Hazzard,” local film “Cocoon” and Tampa’s most recent major production, “The Punisher” in 2004. While he’d like to stay as close to his Odessa home as possible, it’s hard when very little filming takes place in his backyard.
“I was only here for three weeks last year, and that was a vacation,” Smith said. “I understand it’s all about money, but I would rather my friends around here be making money that they can spend close to home rather than having it sent some other place.”
Not much can be done about 2008, but Norris said there’s still hope for 2009. Next week, members of the statewide lobbying group Film Florida will gather in Sarasota to hash out strategies for increasing incentives in the next budget cycle in the spring.
“There are people who live and work here who depend on this industry,” Norris said. “We want those people to stay here. If they go somewhere else, we may never see another production here again.”