In a classic game of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” 33 of the 50 American states attract big-budget Hollywood productions to their area by offering financial incentive packages, everything from substantial discounts on lodging and transportation to cash rebates to major tax breaks.
In turn, the production pumps millions, and even more, into the local economy.
Florida abolished its $296 million incentive program in 2015; according to House Speaker Jose Olivato, incentives for the film industry amounted to nothing more than “corporate welfare.”
The state has not appeared on the list of the top ten movie-production locations since.
All of which makes this week’s announcement that MovieMaker magazine named St. Petersburg No. 25 on its “Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker” list a vindication of sort for Tony Armer, who’s been the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater Film Commissioner since 2016.
“It’s a big country, and there’s a lot more than 25 cities,” Armer said Wednesday. “So it’s a great accolade for us.”
According to the magazine, the winners were determined using surveys, research on tax incentives and recent productions, along with personal visits to most of the locations on the list, “as well as the best available information on how destinations are coping with the pandemic.”
Film companies spent close to $14 million in Pinellas in 2019, Armer said. The productions were in the small (as in miniscule) to medium budget range.
Chief among the latter was writer/director Castille Landon’s thriller Fear of Rain, which will premiere Feb. 12 in theaters, simultaneously with on-demand and streaming options.
The cast includes Katherine Heigl, Harry Connick Jr., Madison Iseman and St. Petersburg’s own Eugenie Bondurant.
Pinellas is one of a small number of Florida counties with its own incentive program – filmmakers can get back 10 percent of monies spent locally, up to $1 million.
“What we’ve been concentrating on since I’ve been film commissioner are those true independent productions,” Armer said. “Those that are $2 million or under – even a little bit of an incentive can make a big difference.
“Having those great locations, great crew and a great film-friendly community can sometimes save you more money on a small production than if you’re going to try and shoot that half-million-dollar project in a state with a big incentive program. In a lot of those states, there’s a minimum spend that these films don’t even hit. So they’re not going to get an incentive if they shoot in those states anyway.”
In March, Tampa-based Digital Caviar will shoot a family-friendly romantic comedy in St. Pete, Armer said, similar to the recent Hallmark Channel movies (True Love Blooms and Love in the Sun) lensed in the area.
Should the Florida Legislature decide to re-establish a film incentive program, Armer said, it would make a tremendous difference in Pinellas County.
“Instead of being 25 on that list, I think we’d move into the top five,” he said.
“We’ve done so much to grow the business locally with no incentive, that if we had an incentive we could do even better. Because people want to shoot here. It’s just that those larger productions are not able to because it doesn’t make any financial sense.”