Film Florida Part 1: Why Productions Have Left

Film_Florida-logoBy James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

At the height of its film production tax incentive program, Film Florida was the third busiest state for producers to bring their film and television projects. Filmmakers flocked to Florida for the weather, the scenery, and up to 30% in tax incentives. But after the state ended its popular film incentive program, producers and studios began to look elsewhere. Can Film Florida bounce back? We asked several filmmakers and film commissioners, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that it can… but only if the state goes back to what works.

Michelle Hillery, Deputy Film Commissioner, Palm Beach County Film & TV Commission

Michelle Hillery, Deputy Film Commissioner, Palm Beach County Film & TV Commission

“Our state’s performance-based incentive program designed to generate Florida jobs and new business for Florida companies officially ended June 30, 2016. As a result of not having a program, generations of talented crew members are being forced to work in other states and even move out of Florida. What was once a #3 production center in America is now steadily losing high impact productions to competing states offering incentives.” – Michelle Hillery, Deputy Film Commissioner, Palm Beach County Film & Television Commission

It wasn’t long ago that Florida was riding high thanks to the Sunshine State’s Film Tax Incentive Program. TV Productions like Burn Notice, The Glades, and Bloodlines were in their early seasons, and even Florida’s favorite son, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had brought his HBO series Ballers to his home state.

Film projects like Magic Mike, Rock of Ages, Iron Man 3, and the Dolphin Tale movies brought millions flooding into the Sunshine State, creating paying jobs along with it. The result was an so-called return on investment ratio of 43:1, where one dollar spent by state on tax incentives, yielded forty three dollars in production spending in the area on hotel accommodations, restaurants, local lumber, and other production hard goods.

The result was not only luring productions to the state via Film Florida, but also filmmakers like Aaron Wells of Silver Beach Productions, who moved to the Palm Beach County area in the late 1980s to follow the work, and enjoy much better winter months than his home state of Michigan. Florida film schools like G-Star, Florida State University, the University of Miami, Full Sail University, the Palm Beach Film School, and others were getting a steady influx of incoming film students, looking to learn the craft and then to get a local job after. There seemed to be no end to it, even with the natural ebb and flow of location shooting over the decades.

But as is usually the case with a bubble, nobody really knows it’s there until it bursts. Some warn of it, sure, but as long as the work and the money is good, they just ride it out. So in 2006 and 2007, when the housing crisis hit Florida, people lost their homes, and with it, property tax revenue dissipated. Jobs were lost, as a steady decline in the economy began, made worse by the national and international crisis of 2008 and resulting ‘Great Recession.’

But filmmakers like Wells weren’t in bad shape just yet. “The year the housing market crash was actually my busiest to date,” said Wells. “But it was a bit of an anomaly as I did a ton of ‘sell your gold for cash’ television commercials. [But] once everyone sold all their gold, the commercials stopped, as did the business.”

Bloodline (Netflix)

Bloodline (Netflix)

Then there was the typical decision to end a series as part of its natural life cycle or poor ratings. One such example was the Netflix original series, Bloodline. “[(The show)] generated $65 million in new travel spending for crew and actors associated with the show. 1,738 jobs, $9.4 million in state and tax revenue and $30 million in production spending,” Hillery said.

Citing numbers from a Florida Keys / Key West Tourist Development Council Economic Impact Study, Hillery went on to say that the windfall was short-lived, as the decision was made to reduce the number of episodes in Bloodline’s third season and then cancel the series altogether. “[It was] a huge loss for the Keys and the South Florida economy.”

As time went on, other states began to offer film incentive programs of their own. Atlanta had the benefit of a thriving studio infrastructure, and a similar climate to Florida (on the coast). New Orleans had finally recovered from the devastating damage of Hurricane Katrina, and Louisiana was building a thriving filming community of its own. With the economy slowly recovering, and competition on the rise, the state of Florida’s assembly did the worse possible thing, and in 2016, voted to end the film incentive program.

“Film Florida has been able to account for at least 50 film and TV projects that our state lost because of not being able to compete with other states offering some kind of incentive/investment program,” Hillery added.  “These projects wanted to come to Florida but couldn’t because of the lack of a funded program to offset some of the costs of producing the project here in the state.”

Dolly and set grip Ben Stinson felt the loss hardest. Having moved to Florida to find work in 2007, as the state’s housing crisis began, he managed to take whatever work he can find, then enjoyed consistent bigger budget projects in film and television.

After filming in South Florida, HBO's Ballers with The Rock moves production to L.A.

After filming in South Florida, HBO’s Ballers starring The Rock moved production to California

“Watching the business lurch forward at a rapid pace with the tax incentive in place, it is especially dramatic to see its decline now that it is gone,” Stinson says. “I was lucky enough to jump onto Ballers for the second season [which aired in 2016]. They left shortly thereafter for the new California rebates a year later. You know there is a problem when Dwayne Johnson, the biggest name in Hollywood, can’t even work in his own home state.”

On top of that, Hillery says that Florida’s film schools have been training the next generation of filmmakers, only to see them leave the state for jobs in Atlanta, Louisiana, and even heading to Los Angeles (thanks to California voting to triple their own tax incentive program).

“Florida is spending its money to educate thousands of Florida residents, so they can move elsewhere and buy houses, pay taxes and get jobs,” Hillery says. “Long term, that’s the biggest threat to the industry, because those students are the next generation of film, TV, and digital media professionals, and we are losing them.”

So while states like Georgia are boasting of a $7 billion increase to Georgia’s economy, Florida is looking at nearly a billion dollar loss due to productions simply going elsewhere.

Tony Armer, Film Commissioner of St. Petersburg & Clearwater, Florida

Tony Armer, Film Commissioner of St. Petersburg & Clearwater, Florida

“Prior to the credit expiring Georgia and Louisiana had a small effect in that they had more robust tax credit programs so they were always busier,” said Tony Armer, Film Commissioner of St. Petersburg and Clearwater. “After it fully ran out of money, the effect was magnified as the state lost a lot of major projects and crew began moving to Georgia to work.”

One can also look to New Mexico to see what happens when even the ‘threat’ of a film tax incentive getting cut down can do. At one time, many major and indie films and TV shows were filmed in Santa Fe, including The Avengers, Breaking Bad, Terminator Salvation, Thor, and more, and the industry there saw a slow down starting in 2011. New Mexico is seeing a bounce back, but the Texas film industry could be next (Austin was considered a top indie film location).

So what can be done to bring productions back to Florida? We’ll learn about that in Part 2. Meanwhile, visit Film Florida’s site for more information.

Additional reporting by Heath McKnight

About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.