Can Florida Ever Regain Its Favorable Status in the Entertainment Industry?


Dwayne Johnson in HBO's so-called "Florida" comedy, "Ballers"

Dwayne Johnson in HBO’s so-called “Florida” comedy, “Ballers”

The HBO football-based comedy “Ballers” was a production tailor-made for Florida. The sunny locales played into the high-flying living of the players, members of the Miami Dolphins and Miami Marlins franchises. The star of the show, Dwayne Johnson, is not a mere celebrity in the area, as he has a history as a former player on the UM Hurricanes roster. 

Yet, after two seasons the storyline, and Johnson, shifted entirely and abruptly to California

The reason was a result a state revenue program established in 2010 for Hollywood productions in 2010 that abruptly came to an end. When the tax incentives were no longer in place, it ceased to make sense for the show to remain filming in the Sunshine State. 

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, introduced a bill this past spring in the upper chamber to rectify the situation with grants through the Department of Economic Opportunity. In the House Rep. James Buchanan, R-Venice, presented similar legislation. Both bills failed. State lawmakers are reticent to give out tax incentives as they have in the past, even though they had proved in past years to provide windfalls among the Florida workforce, and boosted the economy in rival states more than happy to take the business off Florida’s hands. Part of the problem was having a set — or, static — total of funds to distribute, and seeing the money used up at an earlier date than predicted. 

The expiration of the previous incentive affected more than just the HBO production. When the Legislature declined to reinstate the revenue offer for Hollywood in early 2016, it not only chased away existing productions, it also stalled the arrival of many others. 

This summer the hurricane-alligator thriller “Crawl” was released in theaters. Set in Central Florida and with a main character shown as a University of Florida Gator coed, it was a fully immersive Florida-set film — yet none of it was filmed in there.

Similarly, “Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar” is a female road-trip comedy starring Kristen Wiig, that is going to begin filming. Even as the titular destination is in Florida, the production is not taking place here. 

By 2015, in Miami alone, Hollywood productions taking place in the city fell from spending levels of more than $360 million to $175 million. Florida chose to abandon this incentive. Meanwhile, other states quickly stepped up to the plate to replace us. Louisiana has used its lure of Hollywood to aid in its economic recovery from Hurricane Katrina. And Georgia has been especially aggressive in its desire to become a hotspot for film and television productions. Not only is the list of films and television shows made in Georgia growing annually, it has also seen Atlanta becoming a growing hub for animation work.

California has long been wrestling with the problem of production flight. Decades back, Canada made a concerted effort to become a filming destination and it has been so successful in this regard, it has been dubbed “Hollywood North.” Now, as many states are employing the Canadian template — rubbing their hands together because Florida has turned its back — some legislators are looking to recover these lost opportunities. It has not been easy.

Another challenge is how the effects of these incentives are measured. Some studies in other states have shown tax incentives become a net loss for states. However the measurements used are commonly flawed. They compare the funds distributed against the revenue generated by a film production — the local workforce used as well as the ancillary services, such as hotels booked, local restaurants used and so forth. 

These studies normally fail to measure the benefit of the industries taking root in a region after the fact. Once regular production work is established, affiliated businesses will rise up. Local production studios, as one example, can flourish, providing more work after the fact for diverse needs as television work, commercials and other local industry needs. The arrival of steady productions would have equipment and labor established and expanded in the area.

Georgia is experiencing this very result with its mushrooming work. Look at Pinewood Studios in England, possibly the biggest name in film production. Pinewood recently built a sprawling new facility outside of Atlanta, where most of the new Marvel superhero movies are made. Pinewood has no such presence in California. 

Even some local governments have undertaken the effort to lure entertainment work, despite the handicap of trying to negotiate without the statewide incentive. As many as six Florida counties now have their own grant program, in the hope of drawing entertainment work to boost the local economy. But lacking a statewide effort limits the “package” a county can offer a studio. Counties have to settle for a much smaller result than in incentive days.

Brad Slager, a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer, wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News. He writes on politics and the industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.