During the Great Recession, Florida’s unemployment was over 10% — people were struggling.
To bring jobs to the state, the Legislature passed a bill to offer film studios incentives to set up shop in Florida.
It was a good trade — studios already had plenty of reasons to ditch high-tax states such as California, and with a little help, the Sunshine State became one of the top alternatives.
At its height, Florida was the No. 3 film destination in the country.
But the program was far from perfect.
It received close to $300 million in funding from the Legislature and operated on a “first come, first served” basis with a 30% tax credit. While tax credit recipients spent $1.2 billion in Florida, too much of the money was allocated too far in advance, and the requirements to qualify were loose, leading to a suboptimal return to state coffers.
But there was plenty of good mixed in, too.
The program resulted in 200,000-plus hotel room nights and 100,000-plus jobs on projects for Floridians. Among the projects were Dolphin Tale, Dolphin Tale 2, Graceland, Magic City, The Glades, Bloodline and two seasons of Ballers.
The positive economic impacts extended far beyond the film industry. Clearwater Marine Aquarium, for instance, has gone from pulling in about 75,000 guests a year to more than 800,000, thanks in part to the popularity of the Dolphin Tale movies.
Here we are again.
The economy is suffering. Tens of thousands of Floridians are struggling to get work, let alone high-paying jobs. And lawmakers are facing tough decisions as they craft a budget amid a dip in state revenues.
But, just as it was a decade ago, the film industry is an economic powerhouse. Despite shuttered theaters and a dearth of blockbusters, it might even be stronger today than in 2010, thanks to the meteoric rise of streaming platforms.
The industry has more than bounced back — Florida’s biggest rival, Georgia, is nearly overwhelmed with studios clamoring to get back to work and spend billions in the process.
Lee Thomas of the Georgia Department of Economic Development recently told the Georgia House that “we’re so busy that shows are going into the Georgia World Congress Center because we’re out of stage space and they have no trade shows going on right now. So, it’s a good problem to have.”
As the rebound continues, Georgia has a leg up on Florida thanks to its robust film program.
Florida’s entertainment industry association, Film Florida, estimates Georgia and other states friendly to the industry have swiped more than $1.3 billion in business from the Sunshine State.
Their data lists more than 80 major projects that would’ve filmed in Florida if the state had a film rebate program. Many of those projects were for films and television shows that took place in Florida, too, but authenticity, unfortunately, takes a back seat to production budgets. It’s just not good business to leave money on the table; Georgia’s offer is better.
In the 2021 Legislative Session, lawmakers have the opportunity to bring some of that business back.
Sen. Joe Gruters and Rep. James Buchanan, both Sarasota Republicans, and Rep. Dana Trabulsy of Fort Pierce filed bills (SB 704 and HB 757) to set up a new, more conservative program to attract productions — and it’s been crafted to avoid the pitfalls of the 2010 program.
Unlike the system set up in 2010, the proposed “Film, Television, and Digital Media Targeted Rebate Program” would not be first-come, first-serve, and no money would be set aside until the production is complete and ready to air.
Instead, productions would need to get preapproved based on the highest return on investment for the state. If they do, they would be eligible for a rebate equal to the lesser of up to 20% or $2 million of production costs.
To get certified, studios must rent equipment such as cameras, vehicles or lighting setups from Florida businesses; spend at least 70% of its budget or production days in Florida; employ a majority Floridian cast and crew, at least one of whom is a veteran; and meet minimum budget requirements — $1.5 million for films or $500,000 per episode for TV or streaming series.
The key to the new program is the return on investment for the state. If an appropriation is added to the program, it has been designed to ensure the state receives more than $1 of tax revenues for every $1 in rebates provided while creating more than $5 of spending in the state. Florida would actually make money from the program, which would increase state tax revenues without raising taxes!
The bills have bipartisan support.
Gruters’ bill is co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Gayle Harrell, Ed Hooper, Travis Hutson and Tom Wright, as well as Democratic Sens. Linda Stewart, Jason Pizzo, Lori Berman, Janet Cruz, Victor Torres, Annette Taddeo, Loranne Ausley, Darryl Rouson, Randolph Bracy, Tina Polsky, and Audrey Gibson and Shevrin Jones.
In the House, Republican Reps. Vance Aloupis, Melony Bell, Demi Busatta Cabrera, Mike Caruso, Linda Chaney, Fred Hawkins, Sam Killebrew, Jim Mooney, Rene Plasencia, Alex Rizo, David Smith and Jackie Toledo, as well as Democratic Reps. Kristen Arrington, Dotie Joseph, Robin Bartleman, Nick Duran, Joy Goff-Marcil, Michael Gottlieb, Michael Grieco, Andrew Learned, Daisy Morales, David Silvers, Allison Tant, Susan Valdés and Marie Woodson have signed onto Trabulsy and Buchanan’s bill.