Originally posted on The Tampa Tribune website:

TAMPA – Count Cephas Gilbert as one big supporter of efforts to grow the film industry in Tampa. Gilbert’s Caribbean-themed business, called Cephas’ Hot Shop Restaurant, was shut down in August after 32 years because of damage caused by fire. It will take $15,000 to bring it up to code.

Enter Hollywood director Brad Furman, visiting Tampa to scout locations for his movie “The Infiltrator.” Furman was driving through Ybor City when he spotted the colorful restaurant, went inside and fell in love with Cephas’ Hot Shop. He now plans to film scenes there depicting four of the locations in the movie – Tampa, Los Angeles, Miami and Nicaragua. The money Gilbert stands to earn renting out the business will help cover his repair costs.

“Could there be a better example of what production can do for a community?” said Dale Gordon, Tampa-Hillsborough Film and Digital Media commissioner.

It reminds Gordon of what the “Dolphin Tale” movie franchise did for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, once in dire financial straits and now bursting with tourists and poised for a $12 million remake.

“A restaurant won’t turn as many heads as an aquarium but it is just as important,” said Gordon. “It’s someone’s livelihood.”

Starring Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” fame, “The Infiltrator” is the true story of a DEA agent posing as a Tampa businessman to bust a financial institution laundering millions of dollars for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Eight days of filming will be done in the Tampa Bay area.

No contracts are signed yet, even with Gilbert, but Furman told the Tribune during his visit this week that he also aims to showcase the historic Tampa Theatre, the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse downtown, homes and alleys throughout Ybor City, the Loewe’s Don CeSar on St. Petersburg Beach, and the 2001 Odyssey strip club on North Dale Mabry Highway.

“Tampa has so many different faces and worlds you can live in,” said Furman, whose films include “Runner Runner” and “The Lincoln Lawyer.” “You think Tampa is one thing and then you spend more time here and find out it is also this, that and even more,” Furman said. “It has all these different layers and ethnic communities. There is so much that can be filmed here.”

It could have been even more. Furman said he would have scheduled 90 percent of his 46 shooting days here had state tax incentives for films been available. Florida spent all its $296 million in film tax incentives for 2012-2016 long before Furman started work on the new film. Bills introduced during the last session of the Florida Legislature would have added $50 million to $200 million a year but they failed. So last March, the Hillsborough County Commission OK’d a local incentive of $250,000 for “The Infiltrator.”

That was enough to lure the production to the area for a short stay but with potentially big financial rewards. It was certainly big for Cephas Gilbert, though he wouldn’t reveal how much in rental fees he’s negotiating. The front exterior of his business, featuring a mural of a Caribbean beach scene, will double as Miami, while the exterior side will serve as Los Angeles, and his backyard with its lush foliage will be Nicaragua.

Fire burned through the restaurant in 2006 but Gilbert was uninsured.. He continued selling food, including his signature aloe shakes, from a makeshift three-walled shed fronted by a counter facing Fourth Avenue near 17th Street. Health inspectors finally caught up with him and shut the place down.

“I couldn’t afford to make the repairs,” Gilbert said. “I hoped I could save enough but never did.”

Gilbert is revered for feeding people who cannot afford to pay for his food. His generosity has helped establish him as an Ybor City icon. Josh Dohring of the commercial real estate company Commercial Partners Realty, launched an online fundraising campaign for Cephas’ Hot Shop that has brought in over $5,000 in donations. Friends and loyal customers have stopped by from time to time with cash and in-kind donations such as lumber.

Director Furman said he was unaware of Gilbert’s reputation or his financial issues. He said he discovered the colorful place by chance.

“It can be so many things,” Furman said. “We may film there for a few days. It’s an example of how eclectic Tampa is.”

The only scenes Furman can’t film in the Tampa Bay area, he said, take place in New York City.

“You can’t fake the cold,” said Furman. “We have a great production designer but no one is that good.”

With no state tax incentives, many scenes that might have shot in Tampa will be filmed in London, home to the movie’s production company, Good Films, and where government incentives reach as high as 25 percent.

Furman said he is relieved that enough local incentives were approved in Tampa so he could film something here. That attitude, said author and real-life DEA agent Robert Mazur of Tampa, is why he agreed to sell Furman the film rights to his book, “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel.”

“From the start I could tell he cared about making this movie authentic,” Mazur said. “In order for that to happen I always thought some of it had to film in Tampa.”

“Lincoln Lawyer” author Michael Connelly, who also lives in Tampa, said Furman brought authenticity to the movie version of his book, as well.

“There’s a thin line between the need for invention in a visual medium and the need to be loyal to the story and character that attracted you in the first place,” Connelly said. “I’ve had all kinds of experiences with this in Hollywood and I have to say, ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ experience was the best because of Brad’s dedication to the book.”

Tampa grew on Furman each time he would visit Mazur here to see where the action of the book took place.

“It was incredible to walk in the same places,” Furman said. “It inspired me to do the right thing. I am not somebody who wants to just take the rights to someone’s life story and run. I want to make a film Bob can be proud of.”

After the state incentives failed last year, “Infiltrator” producers cut Tampa filming plans to a minimum. But when Furman discovered the diversity of locations here, he decided to add more. Gordon, the film commissioner, said she hopes state lawmakers will see in “The Infiltrator” – and in the example of Cephas’ Hot Shop – the potential for economic impact that the film industry holds for Florida’s communities.

“Productions do more than fill hotel rooms with those in town working on the film,” Gordon said. “They provide employment to locals and even those not in the industry can benefit.”

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