As Florida loses yet another show to another state, can a rebate program revive the state’s film industry?

film-reel
Joe Gruters, Dana Trabulsy want Florida to be in pictures.

A new series being shot for Netflix feels ridiculously Florida. It’s about a former cop. It centers around how organized crime can be a strange attraction for strange women. Heck, it even has Florida in its name. Yet, “Florida Man started filming in August — in Wilmington. As in Wilmington, North Carolina.

WSFX reports the series, about a protagonist’s “increasingly futile attempt to do the right thing in a place where so much is wrong,” is shooting on Tar Heel State beaches posing as Florida sand.

It’s not the decidedly negative outlook on moral corruption in the Sunshine State that bothers John Lux, executive director of Film Florida. It’s the loss of industry jobs, the absence of business that bleeds from every major production into the local economy, and an overall failure to capitalize on whatever acclaim may come from the show.

“People want to film in Florida,” Lux said. “But if there is a much better return on their dollar elsewhere, which is the case now, they will go there.”

Florida hasn’t offered any type of film industry incentives since 2016, unlike many other states in the South. While Georgia provides the real world setting for Marvel productions and Louisiana cultivates a reputation as a “Hollywood of the South,” Florida struggles to attract any notable projects. Once the No. 3 state for film production, Florida no longer breaks the top 20.

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, for years pushed to restore the state’s red carpet appeal. He’s working with Rep. Dana Trabulsy, a Fort Pierce Republican, who filed legislation (HB 217) in the House to create a rebate program that once again lures filmmakers to Florida locations.

“In my hometown of Sarasota, we have these studios and sound stages sitting empty for most of the year,” Gruters said.

Florida can’t keep allowing nearby states to steal all the projects, he said, and must present some type of alternative program. Florida’s too important, a home to prestigious film schools like Florida State University, Ringling College of Art & Design and Full Sail University.

“We had six former FSU students nominated for Emmys, but all of them were working outside of the state of Florida,” Gruters said. “We have an opportunity to seize on momentum with the film industry, and people will come here in droves. We don’t have to match states dollar for dollar, but we have to find a way to protect taxpayers and at the same time push forward a program to incentivize companies to do films here.”

Trabulsy’s bill looks much like one she filed in the last Legislative Session that died in the House Tourism Infrastructure & Energy Subcommittee. Rather than recreate the incentives program from the last decade, which created tax incentives, her legislation looks at rebates available to film, entertainment and digital media.

The idea, the Representative said, is to make sure there’s accountability to producers on the receiving end so they deliver benefits to Florida. “When you are incentivizing, you are dangling a carrot to come to Florida, possibly with dollars and possibly with dollars already given if no expectations are met,” Trabulsy said. “With rebates, the film industry will come to Florida and follow certain guidelines, and only then will they accept the rebate.”

As written now, the legislation includes a requirement that films or video games must spend $1.5 million in Florida. TV series must spend $500,000 per episode in the state. About 70% of film days must occur in Florida, and 60% of cast and crew must live in the state. There’s also consideration given to projects hiring graduates of Florida schools and keeping military veterans in the cast and crew. Bonuses will go to family-friendly projects, and anyone taking advantage of rebates cannot double-dip and use Florida sales tax exemption programs.

A Florida incentives program approved in 2010 budgeted $300 million but let projects on a first-come, first-serve basis race to the state and employ benefits until money ran out in 2016. That led to shows like HBO’s “Ballers” starting its Miami-based story by filming in Florida, but then it abruptly moved production to California for its third season when the pot ran dry. Netflix’s “Bloodlines,” filmed in Islamorada, simply brought its story to a close after three seasons when the end of film incentives meant a significant spike in the cost of shooting.

There hasn’t been any type of incentive or rebate program in place in five years in Florida, but in that time the industry poured massive resources into less populous states in the South. The greatest success story as far as attracting cameras in recent years has been in Georgia. There, the state offers a 20% tax credit for companies that spend $500,000 or more in production or post-production. That has led Disney to film many of the top-grossing movies of the last decade at its Trilith Studios campus south of Atlanta, where production on “Black Panther 2” started this summer.

That threshold also led Barry Jenkins, an FSU graduate who filmed “Moonlight in Miami and went on to win the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year for 2016, to shoot the new Amazon mini-series “The Underground Railroad” entirely in Georgia. It’s a story that just as easily could have been produced in Jenkins’ home state but for the hard savings of shooting a little farther north.

“We talk to filmmakers based in Florida as well as those who want to be in Florida on a regular basis,” Lux said. “They keep asking when we are going to get in the game and get on the map. Their financiers are telling them they can’t go to Florida because it’s just not as cost effective as elsewhere.”

It’s not just about missing out on prestige from an Oscar-winning film shooting in Florida. Film Florida figures every dollar invested by the state in attracting productions will generate $5 in return. That includes direct spending on Florida cast and crew, but also indirect benefits. Furniture stores feel a boost as set designers seek the right products for given scenes. Clothes retailers see fashion fly off the racks as wardrobe departments garb extras. Painters, hardware stores and construction contractors hear their phones ring as the physical work of film production creates opportunities within communities.

Trabulsy’s bill as written budgets $20 million a year for rebates over a four-year period. Lux said if lawmakers approve that, it will bring a $100 million economic boost to the state each year the program operates.

Gruters plans to file a companion bill in the Senate but said he’s aware there’s greater skepticism of incentives or rebates in the Legislature today than there was a decade ago.

“We’re in a process of continuing to try and adjust the bill to find a receptive audience,” he said.

He wants something that will pass and feels urgency as productions pass Florida over.

He notes the average wage in the film industry today sits around $89,000 a year. That’s comparable to IT and other high-paying industries that make economic development officials salivate. There will be intangible benefits he sees that could linger for years. There are tours offered in Georgia now to see the locations for major scenes in Marvel movies.

Trabulsy said Florida also simply offers tremendous benefits to the industry. The climate lets productions film year-round. The state may not offer mountain ranges, but there’s beaches, the Everglades, Miami high rises and rural towns.

“And we are a business-friendly state,” she said.

Like so many businesses relocating to Florida, there’s savings in simply operating in a state with no income tax and low levies on property.

“The only reason we don’t have an abundance of film in general,” she said, “is Georgia and other states are taking the business away from us.”

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected]


2 comments

  • Wm. F. Hirschman

    October 5, 2021 at 8:57 pm

    I guess, speaking as a working journalist of many years, I might point out that there seems to be one minor factoid missing:” Why?” You know, one if the 5 Ws and a H they taught in J-school? Back in the dark ages of journalism — you know, the 2000s — we’d have called the state officials and asked a few questions like “Why?” “How come?” “Who is refusing to have these bills heard?”

    • Katie Waters

      October 9, 2021 at 10:31 am

      The reason why is that the conservative pac, American’s For Prosperity, (funded by the Koch Brothers and Cathey family – owners of Chik-fil-A – does not want film incentives in Florida. Their lobbyists attend legislative committee meetings and make it known that voting for incentives will be the end of campaign contributions from AFP. There is a video on YouTube of the Republican Committee Chair Nancy Detert (supporter of film incentives) handing one of their lobbyists a truth slap down – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIIF0HdOkQ0. It is my understanding that as Chin-fil-A is Georgia domiciled and privately owned, they purchase the tax credits given to producers who shoot in Georgia thereby gaining a reduction of their state taxes of up to 20%. That’s a good incentive for them to mess with ours and one more reason to boycott Chin-Fil-A.

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