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Product placement: ‘Life’s Rewards’ gives St. Pete/Clearwater major screen time

Bill DeYoung

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January 2021: Shooting a scene from "Life's Rewards" at Al Lang Stadium (screen grab from "Making Of" video)

History, of a sort, is being made here this month.

Premiering May 10 on Amazon Prime, YouTube and other streaming services, Life’s Rewards is the first television series developed by destination marketing organizations for streaming services. Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the St. Pete/Clearwater Film Commission and Visit Florida developed and co-produced the series of eight short (10-15 minutes) episodes.

They were screened over the weekend at Sundial AMC Theaters, as part of the 16th annual Sunscreen Film Festival.

“We’re always looking for new ways to tell our story,” said Steve Hayes, President and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. “And one of those was ‘Is there a way tell it through cinematography? Like a film?’”

Life’s Rewards centers around Dan Kinney (Sebastian Rocha), a smug New York commodities broker stranded at the Don CeSar because he can’t go home – a federal investigation into his company has been launched.

With his corporate cards cut off at the knees, Dan can’t pay for his suite. Then he discovers he has so many cumulative lodging “points” – they’re called rewards (get it?) – he can stay at the Don, free, for six months.

What follows is a multi-episode journey of self-discovery, laced with saucy humor and likeable characters. With the filmmaking side handled by Odyssey, the Studio at Miles Partnership, the Texas-based production firm that makes Visit St. Pete/Clearwater marketing videos, the episodes were shot in January and February of this year.

The goals, explained Hayes, are threefold: “One, if they’ve never been here, and they happened to watch this series and say at the end ‘Wow! That’s a cool place. I want to go see that.’

“Two, if I’ve been here before, and it’s refreshing my memory of my time here: ‘Oh, I remember when I went to the Dali.’ Or ‘I remember when I was at the Don.’ Any of those things.

“The other element is ‘I was there before, but I wasn’t able to go to certain places. And now, I want to go and do all that.’

“I think if it accomplishes one of those three things, from the tourism perspective it’s bringing people here.”

A few observations

Dan visits the Hideaway Café, the Pier, the Chihuly Collection, Al Lang Stadium, the Dali Museum, Philippe Park, the Tarpon Springs sponge docks and even the Dunedin nightclub Blur. And there are lots of Don CeSar interiors.

The Internet Movie Database lists the actors in major roles, and just one – Matthew McGee, as Dan’s New York lawyer – is from the bay area. The others, including Rocha, Laura Ault and Katie Cross (they play Dan’s love interests) are based in South Florida. Jared Wofford, from Atlanta, has the role of a sympathetic bartender (he actually says the words “St. Pete/Clearwater” in conversation, several times).

The episodes are beautifully shot. Many include sweeping drone’s eye views of the Don from the Gulf side, with a white, sandy beach (curiously devoid of people) and greenish waves rolling in and out. In one instance, however, the water appears a distinctive, artificial-looking blue, as if the filmmaking equivalent of Photoshop was employed. And never once do we see the other side – the traffic snarl of Gulf Boulevard.

The series is engaging and fun, and the cast of professional actors is so good that it never actually feels like a tourist brochure come to life – you can merely enjoy the hijinks.

Subjectively: The weakness in Life’s Rewards is the writing – things tend to happen for no apparent reason, and there are plot holes (how does Dan already know Lauren Ault’s character, and why does she only appear at convenient moments?; why does the Don CeSar manager [the actress is not identified in the cast list] dislike Dan so much but ends up on his “team” in Episode Five?; What’s the deal with the “cache” hunt and that weird guy with a speech impediment, in the yellow T-shirt?). And the financial boondoggle that has stranded Dad at the Don in the first place never at any point makes sense, or is reasonably explained. The details seem to change from on episode to the next.

Marketing, the early years

Promoting the Tampa Bay area with a video blend of pretty pictures and actors isn’t completely new – there are “travelogue” films from the 1950s extolling (in a predictably corny way) the virtues of life in St. Pete and thereabouts.

And then there’s this: In 1976, the major newspapers in St. Petersburg and Tampa pooled their resources to make an 18-minute commercial for the area. Here’s a five-minute edit of the “best” moments. Enjoy:

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