Originally posted on the 850 Magazine website from Gray Rohrer:
A woman jumps into the Wakulla River, unaware of the inhuman monster lurking below the surface. The monster swims menacingly near. Suddenly, both stop and amicably get out of the water.
Jack Arnold, the director of “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” has yelled “Cut!” Julie Adams and Ricou Browning, who play the roles of Kay Lawrence and the Gill Man, respectively, are drying off. It’s 1953, and shooting of the film, which is set in the Amazon jungle, is almost over. Most of the movie was shot in California, but the underwater scenes and some other scenes were filmed in the Wakulla River, whose pristine, prehistoric aura is evocative of the South American rainforest.
One of many in the schlock-filled monster movie genre, “Creature” is a film lover’s cult classic and a quaint relic of the early Cold War years. Its low-tech production values pale in comparison to the CGI-infused blockbusters of today. But the production of the film itself also shows how much has changed within the process of selecting a shoot location, both for the entertainment business and for the state and local governments bidding for their attention.
In 1938, the famous swimmer and Florida native Newt Perry could call up his friend Johnny Weissmuller, the actor who played Tarzan, and convince him to shoot “Tarzan Finds a Son!” in Silver Springs near Ocala. Later, Perry would get producers to cast Browning, a graduate of Florida State University, in all the underwater scenes for “Creature.”
Cut to the present day, when officials across North Florida — and throughout the state — are working to lure more production crews to take the plunge of filming on location in the area. And not just Hollywood blockbusters, either. TV pilots and series, commercials, music videos, digital shorts and other entertainment productions are being coaxed to film in the Sunshine State.
To entice them, state and local governments, acutely aware of competition from neighboring states and similar locales, have dangled large carrots of taxpayer funds, known as economic incentives, to land the projects.
“No longer is it about location, location, location. It’s about incentive, incentive, incentive,” said Emerald Coast Film Commissioner Gail Morgan.
Film and entertainment industry backers say the funds result in phenomenal returns on investment for taxpayers, as production crews rack up hotel stays and spend on food and production materials such as lighting, sound and set props.
A 2013 report from the Motion Picture Association of America, an industry trade group, found that Florida’s incentive program produced a return on investment of $4.60 for state and local government tax revenues for every $1 spent during the 2011–2012 fiscal year. The study also lauds the opportunities provided by the industry to film school students throughout the state and tourism spurred by movies and TV shows.
Another report released this past November from the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment, the state agency that oversees the incentive program, states there were 4,446 businesses employing 22,545 people in the film and entertainment industry as of 2013.
But incentives of all types, even for businesses in target sectors like aerospace or for corporate relocations, have been heavily criticized from across the political spectrum. Many liberals view the taxpayer incentives as giveaways to large corporations while education, health care and other social welfare programs go underfunded. Conservative, free-market advocates see incentives as unnecessary interference in the private market, a case of the government “picking winners and losers.”
Gus Corbella, chairman of the Florida Film and Entertainment Advisory Council, thinks the film and entertainment incentives suffer from a further perception problem among lawmakers because they spark Florida-based purchases and wages for jobs that only last the length of the project, instead of the permanent jobs that other incentive programs aim to create.
“I think there is a certain misunderstanding or bias toward the fact that this is ‘entertainment,’ ” Corbella said. “But entertainment is not created in a void; it takes people and skill and a lot of money. We’re missing out on it by not extending the incentive.”
The state film incentive program began in 2010, even as lawmakers dealt with severe shortfalls during the Great Recession, and would eventually receive $296 million. Projects received rebates for spending money on productions and wages in Florida. The program was set to run until 2016, but proved so popular among entertainment companies (as well as video game companies and businesses merely shooting commercials) that it ran out of money two years early.
“The fact that the money has all been spoken for says that it’s working,” said Bay County Film Commissioner Julie Gordon.
State legislators opted not to fund the incentive program in 2014, causing some projects to immediately leave the state. Industry advocates have pegged additional funding and the long-term stability of the program as their top goal heading into the 2015 legislative session, which begins on March 3.
From balmy shores to murky woods and natural wildlife, North Florida’s scenery has a long history in American cinema. Jacksonville was a hotspot for movie studios making silent films in the infancy of the movie business. In addition to “Tarzan” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” underwater scenes from “Airport ’77” (1977) were shot in Wakulla Springs. Some scenes from “Jaws 2” (1978) were shot off Okaloosa Island and Navarre Beach. In 2002, Shell Island off Panama City Beach was transformed into the Arabian Desert for “Secondhand Lions.” Parts of “The Truman Show” (1998) were shot in Seaside and Panama City. The area has also been host to myriad TV shows, commercials, digital shorts and music videos through the years.
Gordon said she remains busy despite losing out on large-scale movie and TV projects because the incentive funds dried up. “House Hunters” and other shows for HGTV, The Food Network, The Travel Channel and other cable channels, as well as German and Japanese television shows, have filmed in the area recently. Feature films such as “American Honey,” which filmed in the area and has not yet been released in theaters, and “Dancin’ — It’s On,” which was filmed entirely in Panama City and will be released in 2015, have also been attracted to the region.
North Florida’s streamlined permitting processes, professional staffers and cheaper production costs — even relative to other locales in the state such as Orlando and Miami — make it easier and more attractive for producers.
But despite the region’s history, natural advantages and lower costs, North Florida has struggled to land a major blockbuster film or long-running TV show (like the seven-season run of “Burn Notice” filmed in Miami) that will lead to greater economic activity beyond the immediate purchases and wages paid by the production; a hit that will spark tourism and add to investment and more jobs — the Holy Grail for state and local government film commissioners.
“This is the kind of industry that — I compare it to a rock being thrown in a lake — the ripple effects on local economies are tremendous,” Corbella said. “And the kind of global exposure that it gives Florida is the kind of thing that money can’t buy.”
No recent project in North Florida has had the effect that “Dolphin Tale” has had on Clearwater in the Tampa region. The film, released in 2011, is based on a true story of how a dolphin was saved after losing its tail in a crab trap off the Gulf Coast of Florida in 2005. According to a study conducted by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which featured prominently in the film, nearly 73 percent of visitors to the aquarium in 2012 came as a result of the movie. In 2013, the aquarium attracted a record 700,000 visitors.
A sequel, “Dolphin Tale 2,” was released in September 2014. The film production resulted in $18.4 million in qualified Florida expenditures — money spent on hotel stays and other production needs in Florida and wages for Florida-based employees — and received about $5.5 million in state taxpayer incentives.
To land a breakout project like “Dolphin Tale,” however, much more investment is needed, which Gordon said would likely have to come from the private sector. The main ingredient is a production house or full-time production company located in the region.
“My goal at this point is to get a grip house. I need a production house and I need it now. I need it last year. Until we have that, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for anybody in the Panhandle to land one of those blockbusters because there’s not the local production house,” Gordon said.
That fairytale ending may be a long way off. Gordon says production houses with electrical, lighting and other movie-making equipment and infrastructure — or “grip” in industry parlance — located in Atlanta attracts major film and TV projects, while the Panhandle beaches often get a trickle-down effect from some of those productions.
“We have enough of a runoff from Atlanta and Mobile and other areas looking for beachy or coastal locations, and they do come here. But when I have to send out of market to get the biggest need of all, which is G&E, grip and electric, then sometimes they can say, ‘Well, maybe we just need to go to the grip and electric and not rent it for that long.’ For me, that’s the biggest obstacle,” Gordon said.
Therefore, she argues, it’s vital for the state incentive program to be rebooted by lawmakers, to prevent losing projects to Georgia and Louisiana. The North Florida area is already losing four projects each month because of the halt in the tax credits, she said.
The state programs to give tax credits and funds to the large entertainment companies that make films and TV shows are about one thing — economic development. In other words, money and jobs.
“I think what’s important for legislators and decision makers to understand is: Strip this veneer, this sexy veneer of Hollywood off of this, and when you get down to it, at the bottom what you really have is jobs. And that is really what this is all about,” said Corbella, a veteran lobbyist and former Florida Senate chief of staff.
(There are some social considerations in the statute, however. Pornographic films, political ads, news or weather shows, sports recap shows, projects promoting gambling or soliciting funds and “political documentaries” are prohibited from receiving funds through the program).
Lawmakers set more stringent requirements, audits and proof of boosted economic activity for incentive programs of all stripes after the Digital Domain bankruptcy. Founded in 1993 by director James Cameron, the special-effects company had done work on major films and received a $20 million incentive package from the state and $62 million from local governments to open a studio in Florida. Its bankruptcy in 2012 raised hackles among lawmakers and led to a lawsuit. The state announced this past October that it had come to an agreement to recoup $18 million.
So rebooting the film incentive program won’t be an easy task for the industry. New Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said he’s open to renewing the program but wants to ensure it has solid accountability measures.
“To me, the focus really should be the policy side of it, the accountability, and if we’re going to do it, how do we make sure that it’s doing what we intended to do?” Gardiner said.
It’s also unclear how much a revamped incentive program would help North Florida. According to the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment report, only 10 projects shooting in the region — which stretches from Pensacola to Jacksonville and as far south as Alachua County as defined in the report — received state incentive funds. Those projects account for less than 3 percent of the 342 projects that received funds through the program, and the $2.8 million in credits they received amounts to less than 1 percent of the total $296 million doled out. The vast majority of funds went to projects in the Tampa, Orlando and Miami regions and surrounding counties.
But Morgan insists the program is vital for North Florida, not just for Central and South Florida, because the Panhandle is losing film and TV projects to Georgia and Louisiana.
“They’re not going to come until that incentive program is back in place,” Morgan said.
Additional incentives already exist for “underutilized” areas, but only movie projects that film at least 60 percent of the picture in the area are eligible for them. Gordon wants the Legislature to open the underutilized-area bonus up to TV shows and lower the 60 percent threshold to provide a boost to her efforts to attract projects to the region.
“The verbiage (in the statute) has to change,” Gordon said. “It has to apply to TV. That’s most of what we do here.”
The entertainment industry in Florida sees the incentive program as essential to its health, and the North Florida region is a natural fit for production hubs in Atlanta and New Orleans. Georgia and Louisiana, however, both have stable incentive programs that make it hard for Florida to compete.
An enduring state incentive program in Florida is the first priority for attracting large-scale TV and film productions to the state. The key for North Florida is catching the eye of production crews before they drift to Central and South Florida.
But before local film officials can do that, the industry must convince the Legislature to fund the program for the long term and ensure it won’t run out of money prematurely again.
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