Originally posted on the Tampa Tribune website from Paul Guzzo:

With a resume including “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands,” director Tim Burton has proven he is among the great fantasy storytellers in Hollywood.

But the off-camera story behind his latest movie, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” stands to generate the most buzz in the Florida production industry: Incentives can work.

Burton wraps up two weeks of shooting in the Tampa Bay area soon, but before the production leaves it will spend at least $2.5 million in Hillsborough County in return for $100,000 in incentive money from the Hillsborough County Commission.

The timing was right for those pushing to lure more producers with even more cash.

The Florida legislative session begins Tuesday, and proponents of replenishing the state’s empty pot of tax incentives for film and television productions will tout Burton’s deal.

Then, a few weeks later, with the session still under way, Hillsborough County aims to pile on with more evidence that film incentives are a smart investment.

“The Infiltrator,” starring Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” fame, will begin filming in Hillsborough County and promises to spend at least $1 million locally for its $250,000 county incentive.

The two productions together will spend at least $10 for every $1 they get from the county.

But hold on.

Opponents of incentives for film and television will arrive in Tallahassee with ammunition of their own — a study conducted by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research showing the state receives just 43 cents back per dollar it awards in tax incentives to productions.

That amounts to a loss of almost $170 million on the $296 million in incentives awarded by the state program since 2010.

Leaders in the film industry don’t seem concerned.

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The report is accurate, they say, but misunderstood. The study numbers reflect only how much money in tax receipts the government gets back, primarily through the sales tax.

As Hillsborough County is proving, they say, the overall impact on the economy is much greater.

Statewide, the return on investment to Florida’s Gross State Product is $15 for every $1 awarded to a production, according to a state study.

“Film and television productions make money for the state,” said Dale Gordon, Tampa-Hillsborough Film and Digital Media commissioner. “There is no doubt.”

Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican, has introduced a bill (SB 1046) that deals primarily with restructuring the state’s film and television tax incentive program. The bill seeks an annual allocation with two application periods six months apart. In the past, all the money was immediately available.

A companion bill (HB 0451) has been introduced in the House by Orlando Republican Mike Miller.

How much money to offer will be determined later.

One suggestion: $50 million to $75 million a year through 2020. That came during a November interview the Tribune had with Michelle Hillery, president of Film Florida, a not-for–profit entertainment production association that provides a leadership role in Florida’s TV, film, commercial, digital media and gaming industries.

Hillsborough County’s incentives have demonstrated that local governments can lure a few days of production but landing the bulk of a movie’s production will require the kind of cash only the state can provide, said Hillsborough film commissioner Gordon.

The Legislature allocated $296 million in film incentives for 2010-2016, but all the money has been awarded.

“The fact that the money was spent so quickly is not a bad thing,” said Gus Corbella, chairman of the Florida Film and Entertainment Advisory Council, lead advisory body to Florida leaders on entertainment issues. “It shows how successful the program was. People wanted to film here. But we need incentives to continue to bring them here.”

Under the state’s current incentives program, productions can receive up to 20 percent back on what they spend in the state.

Incentive money is capped at $8 million per production.

What’s more, under contracts with the state, no production receives incentive money until it demonstrates its spending through two audits — one by an independent auditor hired by the production company and the other by the state.

“We don’t just hand out money,” Corbella said. “The production must benefit the state economically.”

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It is tough for any tax incentive program to break even when measured by tax receipts, said Amy Baker, chief economist with the Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

One example: A production company might purchase wood from a Florida lumber yard for its set and pay a 6 percent state sales tax. The office adds to this amount the sales tax on goods and services purchased by lumber yard employees with the share of their pay that comes from the production company.

“It doesn’t mean the state shouldn’t’ be doing it,” Baker said. “If it is not going to break even in terms of state revenue there may be another reason for you to do it. It may foster the economy, create jobs — a variety of reasons.”

The $296 million the state has spent in film and production incentives added $4.1 billion to Florida’s Gross State Product, a 15 to 1 return, according to a report by the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment.

The same report says incentive money created more than 170,000 jobs that paid over $900 million in wages.

To qualify for incentives, at least 60 percent of a production’s workforce must come from Florida while it’s working in the state.

SB 1046 proposes upping that number to 70 percent.

Not counted in the state’s calculations is revenue from an income tax because Florida, unlike most states offering film incentives, doesn’t have one.

“Our report is not incomplete,” said EDR’s Baker. “The state of Florida has a very stylized and specific definition of how it defines returns on investment. Those are in terms of tax receipts, sales tax being the largest.”

Still, some incentive programs earn the state profits based on tax returns alone, according to the website of the Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

The Florida Sports Foundation Grant Program, which helps communities and host organizations attract sports events, earns back $5.60 in state revenues for every dollar it awards.

And Visit Florida Advertising, which promotes the state as a travel destination, brings in $3.20 for each dollar spent.

But those programs are directly linked to tourism, an industry with heavy sales tax returns.

“It is hard to compare the film industry to any other,” said Corbella of Florida Film. “It always feels like comparing apples to oranges. Film and television are unique.”

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Another government funded program that earns a profit, according to the website, is the Quick Action Closing Fund — $1.10 for every $1 spent.

This is a discretionary fund, one of the state’s riskiest, used when Florida is competing for corporate projects.

Sen. Detert’s film incentives fund calls for creation of a special quick action fund to tap in case the regular fund is empty when a high-impact film comes along.

“Dolphin Tale” is an example of such a film.

As much as 73 percent of all visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, backdrop of the film based on the true story of Winter the dolphin, go there because of the 2011 movie, according to one local study. One estimate of the economic impact for Clearwater is as high as $5 billion by 2016.

The movie doubled as a commercial for Clearwater, said Hillsborough film commissioner Gordon. The absence of incentives, she said, almost cost Tampa its own commercial — “Live By Night,” a Ben Affleck film about Prohibition-era rum running in Ybor City. Production is set to begin this year.

“It’s all about Ybor,” Gordon said. “It would teach the world about our city. It would be great promotion.”

Once headed for Savannah, Georgia, the movie has been stalled by Affleck’s busy schedule, so Tampa might still be in the running if state incentives come through.

Affleck will direct and star in the film, along with Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana and Elle Fanning.

“Even if we get the incentives, there is a chance Warner Bros. does not apply until they are accounted for,” said Gordon. “The quick action fund could make sure we get it.”

Tony Armer, St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner, said he believes the new Tim Burton film could also pay immediate dividends for Pinellas County should state incentives become available.

Armer represented his office at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and noticed that when he mentioned the film, producers there “sat up a little straighter and were impressed by the area due to that news alone.”

The Pinellas commission also invested in the Burton film but didn’t seek cash for its payback as Hillsborough did.

Rather, Pinellas bargained for exclusive, behind-the-scenes photos of the production and testimonials from Burton to use in marketing the area to other producers.

“If we are good enough for a director the caliber of Burton others will know we are good,” Armer said. “They know that means we have more than just pretty locations but are also easy to work with and have a great infrastructure. This is a great place to film.”

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