Originally posted on The Tampa Tribune website:

A pair of legislative bills, one in the Florida House and the other in the Senate, would have replenished the state’s empty pot of tax incentives for the film and television industry by $50 million to $200 million a year. Both failed to pass this year.

2015 could be different. A similar effort already has the early backing of leaders from both branches of the Florida Legislature. Add to that potential tweaks in how incentive money is doled out, and representatives of the state’s film and television industry are cautiously optimistic new funds will be found next year for the tax incentives they say are needed to lure major productions to the state.

“We didn’t accomplish what we wanted last session, but we established momentum,” said Gus Corbella, chairman of the Florida Film and Entertainment Advisory Council, lead advisory body to Florida leaders on entertainment issues.

Corbella said the list of elected officials who say bringing more film and television productions to Florida is a top priority are incoming Speaker of the House of Representatives Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

“To have both presiding officers publicly stating support is a huge thing,” Corbella said. He said he could not yet comment on how the new proposed bill will differ from the previous versions. “Right now the various parties are discussing what perhaps should be tweaked for the program to work better,” Corbella said.

State Sen. Jack Latvala said he understands the importance of offering tax incentives to productions and will support the cause but said any new bill must include language changing the way the existing program is run.Currently, productions are chosen on a first-come, first-served basis.

“That’s one of the things I believe needs to be reconsidered,” said the Clearwater Republican. “We shouldn’t determine who gets credits based on who emails their application first. We should determine which productions can have the best economic impact.”

Those factors could include the number of jobs created by a production, pay scale and the longevity of employment, as well whether the film’s storyline takes place in Florida and can help promote the state throughout the world. Latvala also said whatever money is allocated for tax incentives for productions should be split into categories such as film and television in one, video games in another and commercials in a third. All types of productions currently share the same pot of tax incentive money.

“This way we know how much we can spend on each and make sure we do so wisely,” he said.

Of the tax credits spent within a year of being allocated, according to the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment Report, $54 million was allocated to theatrical motion pictures, $58.3 million to video games and $91 million for high impact television series – those created to run multiple seasons. Nearly $60 million was allocated for video games.

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 & gaming industries, said she wants between $50 million and $75 million a year in tax incentives through 2020.

“We keep hearing that we need the tax credit money to compete with states such as Georgia that are becoming hubs for productions, but can we compete dollar for dollar?” asked Chris Ranung, founder of Congress of Motion Picture Associations, or COMPASS. The group represents those who work in the film and television industry and those small businesses and vendors that support it.

Both Georgia and Florida, he said, offer up to 30 percent back on money spent in-state. Florida has a per-film cap of $8 million and will have an annual cap on how much can be spent if a new bill is passed. Georgia does not limit how many tax incentive dollars can be given out.

“Florida will have a finite amount,” Ranung said. “We cannot outspend them so we need to spend wiser.”

Florida’s Legislature allocated $296 million in film incentives for 2012-2016, but all the money was spent just a year into the four-year cycle. The 342 productions that used up the tax credits, according to the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment’s 2013-2014 Annual Report, spent approximately $1.5 billion in the state. The current lack of tax credits has already been felt in Hillsborough County.

The producers of “The Infiltrator,” the true story of a federal agent who investigated Tampa businessmen laundering money for the Medellin Cartel in the 1980s and starring Emmy winner Bryan Cranston, told the Tribune last year that they wanted to film the majority of the movie in Tampa. Dale Gordon, executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission, said “The Infiltrator” would have up to a $20 million economic impact on the area.

Instead, most interior scenes and some exteriors will be filmed in England, which offers incentives of up to 25 percent. Tampa will only be used in February for exterior scenes needed to tie the film to the city, plus a few interior scenes. That economic loss shows why the way tax incentives are given out needs to be amended, said Ranung of COMPASS.

“We pecked away at the incentive money by giving it to every production that asked,” said Ranung. “We gave a little here and a little there and then when a major production comes along that could impact Tampa for years, we had nothing left.“

A report commissioned by the Motion Picture Association of America said 23 percent of leisure visitors to Florida consider that viewing a movie or television series filmed in the state was very important or extremely important in their decision to come here.

That’s why, said Ranung of COMPASS, he agrees with Latvala that those productions that highlight Florida should be given tax incentive priority. He suggested a base incentive of 20 percent with an additional 10 percent for those stories that take place in Florida and film at least 50 percent of the total movie in the state. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties could feel an immediate benefit of such a system, each with a major motion picture greenlit with stories taking place within their confines.

“Live By Night,” about Prohibition-era rum running in Ybor City, is set to begin production in late 2015.

Once headed for Savannah, Georgia, it has been stalled by the busy schedule of Ben Affleck, who will direct and star in the movie, so Tampa could still win the production if tax incentives are available. Other cast members are Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana and Elle Fanning.

Then there is “Not Without Hope.”

Based on the best-selling memoir by Tampa resident Nick Schuyler, lone survivor of a 2009 accident that left three friends dead in the Gulf of Mexico, the production has secured Dwayne Johnson, “The Rock,’’ as lead.

While no starting date or locale for filming has been set, St. Pete-Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer said its production company Relativity Media is leaning toward not shooting in Florida – though the story takes place in West-Central Florida – because of the lack of tax incentives.

“If we have incentives, I am confident we can get it,” he said. “And Relativity may have two or three other films they bring here. That would keep a lot of our locals employed.”

Job creation will be the top impact touted by those looking to replenish the tax incentive pot.

“Film, TV, commercial, digital media and gaming employs more than 100,000 Floridians in part-time and/or full-time jobs,” said, Hillery, president of Film Florida.

These employees’ $70,996 average annual wage exceeds the state’s annual average wage for all industries by 63 percent.

“These are highly skilled, highly trained and well-paying jobs,” said Corbella, chairman of Florida Film. “We should be doing everything we can to welcome them back to Florida and to take them back from states like Georgia and Louisiana that have been taking them from us.”

Ranung of COMPASS said job creation is another reason why the current first-come, first-serve system needs to be changed. “Film pays the highest wages,” he said. “That is a fact. So we should spend more on getting those jobs.”

The latest production with a Florida-based story to announce it is looking to film elsewhere is a yet-untitled film about Ruby McCollum. The movie is set to be directed by James Brolin with a budget of $14 million.

It is based on the true story of McCollum, an African-American woman from Live Oak who killed the city’s beloved white doctor in 1952 and exposed “paramour rights,” the assumption in the South that white men had a right to use African-American women for sex.

Its producer Hilary Saltzman is looking at Louisiana as a location because of the state’s tax incentives and quality of crew.

Under Florida law, a production must hire at least 60 percent of their cast and crew from Florida’s employment pool to receive tax credits.

“The best film crew will go to where the steady film work is,” Saltzman said. “And right now the steadiest work in that region can be found in Louisiana and Georgia. Florida will need to have more than one film a year shot there to get the top crew back.”

Whatever the final tax incentive bill entails, St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Armer said it needs to be have a cohesive voice.

During the last legislation session the House asked for $200 million a year for five years while the Senate requested $50 million a year for the same time period. “Two bills asking for two dollar amounts split the support of both,” said Armer. “We need to get behind one number and put all our energy behind it.”

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