NEW: Florida film industry first casualty in incentives cutbacks

In the political debate over incentives, it appears Florida’s film industry was the canary in the coal mine.

“It’s a sad story,” said Michelle Hillery, deputy film commissioner of the Palm Beach Beach Film and Television Commission. “The state of Florida used to be number three in film production. Now we’re not even in the top 10 conversation list.”

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In fact, neighboring Georgia, Hillery said, has taken Florida’s Top 10 ranking spot. And some of our talent, too.

Last fall, Pinewood Studios Group hired away Frank Patterson, dean of Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts, as president of its Atlanta studios.

“So we’re looking at a complete brain drain, too,” lamented Hillery.

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What happened? Florida killed its tax credit-based film and TV incentive program.

John Lux, executive director of the not-for-profit trade association Film Florida, says Florida has lost out on more than 50 film and TV projects in the past three years as the programs were first cut, then eliminated last summer. Film Florida estimates those projects would have spent $875 million in Florida and booked more than 140,000 hotel room nights.

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One of those was the just-released movie “Gifted” about a child math prodigy living on Florida’s west coast. If the scenery doesn’t look like Tampa Bay to you, it’s because it was shot in Savannah, Ga.

Netflix’s “Bloodline” series is also bailing. Lux cites Florida Keys tourism estimates that Bloodline’s first season generated $65 million in new travel spending, 1,738 jobs and $9.4 million in state and local tax revenue in addition to the $30 million in production spending.

So why did lawmakers kill the sales tax credit-based incentives?

“They think it’s a program to benefit Hollywood stars and millionaires,” said Hillery. “But that’s not the case. It’s a program to benefit Floridians.”

Hillery said the funds lured film and TV production here and boosted Florida-based production companies and facilities employing Floridians. And to get the tax credits, out-of-state studios needed to submit audited financial statements proving they invested here.

Now, those productions, those jobs and those investment dollars are going elsewhere — especially Georgia.

Film Florida’s Lux pointed out some Florida cities and counties do have smaller incentive programs. More may follow as they “see the positive impact the film, television and digital media industry can have on a community,” he said.

Still, is there a chance to bring state incentives back? Not if the impasse over Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida is any indication of eroding support for incentives.

On April 18, Florida Gov. Rick Scott held a press conference outside his office in the Capitol to make the case for a $100 million tourism marketing budget for Visit Florida. I asked him if some of those dollars could be used to replenish the film incentives budget, too.

“I am in favor of all kinds of incentives,” Scott said. “But what we’re talking about now is for tourism marketing.”

Meaning, there’s no business like show business — in Georgia.

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