Thanks to lawmakers’ inaction, tax incentives for TV and movie productions have dried up at the state level, but that hasn’t stopped efforts to land entertainment industry productions.
Spring Break Nightmare, a movie about a surfer who gets kidnapped while in Pinellas County for a surfing competition, was filmed last month in St. Petersburg, Gulfport and the beach communities of Indian Rocks Beach, Madeira Beach and St. Pete Beach. Slated to air on the Lifetime TV network or TUBI, a streaming service, it’s the latest in a string of low-budget, made-for-TV movies to be filmed in the area.
Since 2018, 12 films have been shot in Pinellas County. In addition to Spring Break Nightmare, three more are confirmed for 2022, and Pinellas County Film Commissioner Tony Armer, who founded St. Petersburg’s Sunscreen Film Festival, says the county is in talks with at least a half dozen other productions that have expressed interest.
‘It’s all about the Legislature and politics. Once you get politics involved, it’s a whole new ballgame.’ Pinellas County Film Commissioner Tony Armer
Granted, these movies, with their no-name actors and modest, six- to seven-figure budgets, aren’t going to be lighting up the silver screen, a la Dolphin Tale, The Infiltrator or Spring Breakers, three major films — whose stars included the likes of Harry Connick Jr., Bryan Cranston and James Franco — that were set and shot in the Tampa Bay region in recent years. But the fact that so many filmmakers are seeing the appeal of Pinellas is a huge marquee sign that the county’s proactive approach to public-private partnerships is working.
“It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had shooting out of state,” says Trip Harper, a unit production manager for Los Angeles-based Penalty Vox Productions Inc., the studio behind Spring Break Nightmare. “The [Pinellas County Film Commission] was extremely helpful — they went above and beyond what I usually find the role of a commission to be.”
Armer and his team have succeeded despite lack of support from lawmakers in Tallahassee, who, despite several bills in that direction, haven’t reinstituted the state’s tax incentive program for TV and movie productions.
“To be honest with you, to get another Dolphin Tale,” Armer says, “you have to have a state film incentive, and we haven’t had that since 2016.”
To a layperson, Florida’s lack of tax incentives for filmmakers can seem puzzling. With its world-renowned beaches and business-friendly economy, the state would seem an ideal locale for TV and movie shoots.
So what’s stopping Florida from becoming the Hollywood of the South? Why does the state keep losing out to other states, particularly Georgia?
The simple explanation, Armer says, can be boiled down to one word: politics. “Once you get politics involved, it’s a whole new ballgame,” Armer says.
But for a small studio such as Penalty Vox Productions, the state government’s failure to support the film industry with incentives is far from a deal-breaker. It instead allows local officials to step up and fill the leadership vacuum.
It helps, too, that Pinellas County has its own, albeit small, budget — $800,000 — for incentives.
“It’s interesting that it’s by county instead of the state,” “Spring Break Nightmare” Producer Liana Rae Perez says. “But I think that added a benefit to it, because we were able to talk directly with the commissioner and get so much help on locations and even crew accommodations. Tony and [Film Commission Manager] Lisa Dozois were amazing to work with.”
Armer says tax incentives for the entertainment industry have broad bipartisan support in Tallahassee. To that end, State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, has filed bills for several years that would bring back incentives in some form from a statewide level. State Rep. Dana Trabulsy, R-Fort Pierce, has filed companion legislation.
Gruters' latest proposal, a Targeted High Wage Production Program, would have provided tax credits for movie and TV productions where 60% of the cast and crew were Florida residents, in addition to other stipulations. The bill died in the Finance and Tax Committee. Gruters couldn’t be reached for comment.
Armer, meanwhile, blames the failure of incentive bills to pass on the influence of lobbyists — pointing the finger specifically at Americans for Prosperity, a prominent political advocacy group founded by Charles and David Koch that promotes libertarian causes.
“They call [tax incentives for filmmakers] corporate welfare,” Armer says, “but that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It’s economic development. You’re hiring people, and it’s good for tourism promotion.”
Penalty Vox Productions, Harper says, ordered food daily from local restaurants while on location in Pinellas County, rented houses from area homeowners and hired 10 local crew members.
“I’d like to stress how great our local hires were,” he says. “Sometimes we are working out of state in places where people aren’t as experienced, but that was not the case here. We had people with long careers in production, and they were one of the better parts of the experience.”
Tax incentives, Harper adds, aren’t the deciding factor when it comes to choosing a location. But they do make a big difference, particularly for a company like Penalty Vox Productions, whose films have modest budgets and lower profit margins.
“Every dollar counts,” he says. “[Incentives] also allow our producer and director to pay people more when there’s something promised on the back end. Otherwise, if there wasn’t something on the back end, once the budget’s gone, the budget’s gone. Also, when we see something we like, sometimes we have to just go with it, so [tax incentives] allow us flexibility in knowing that a piece of it will come back to us.”
Armer isn’t a lone voice with an axe to grind. In 2016, Deadline, an entertainment industry trade magazine, published an article that, in interviews with union heads, casting directors, equipment rental companies and even Armer, explicitly blamed the Koch brothers for “killing the Florida film business,” as the headline proclaimed.
AFP officials didn’t return emails or calls seeking comment on Armer’s points or the Deadline article.
Whatever the reason, the fallout from not having incentives is real: two major feature films — Gifted, starring Chris Evans, and Live By Night, starring Ben Affleck — were filmed in Georgia, despite their stories being set in St. Petersburg and Tampa, respectively.
With its $800,000 budget for 2022, Pinellas County’s tax incentive program for TV and movie productions is a fraction of the $242 million allocated by the state in 2010. But the local film commission’s string of successful deals is a prime example of doing the most with the funds you have available. Another big win? Getting filmmakers to embrace local place names and not just the beautiful scenery.
“If a project is getting an incentive from my office and you’re shooting in Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, St. Pete or wherever,” he says, “you have to use those city names in the film. We require marketing deliverables.”
Penalty Vox Productions loved Pinellas County because it’s full of locations that haven’t been seen much in movies.
“It’s a pretty picturesque location,” Harper says. “It’s so beautiful, and it’s kind of, I feel, underrepresented. With bigger productions, you go down a stretch in L.A., beautiful streets with iconic places, but the issue is, you’ve seen it in 100 films.”
“But that bridge into Clearwater Beach, not everyone has seen that before. So it’s cool; it adds a production value to the movie that you might not be able to get in other places.”