Last summer, a hoard of zombies clashed with a cadre of Army troopers on Sarasota’s Main Street. It was all caught on camera, and it’s something the county would like to see happen more often.
The encounter wasn’t some kind of end-of-the-world battle but rather a scene from the short film Operation Mad Jackal, written, produced and directed for about $5,000 by locally based Evil Crew Productions.
It seems a lot of people think Sarasota County ought to be in pictures. And a new local film and entertainment office is being charged with spreading the word about all the region has to offer film, television, advertising and other kinds of production crews.
What does the county stand to gain? A big influx of cash, for starters. The Governor's Office of Film & Entertainment, the state’s economic development program for expanding Florida’s film and the entertainment industry, reported on its Web site (www.filminflorida.com) that “Florida film and entertainment is a $3.9 billion industry, representing more than 5,500 businesses and employing more than 34,000 Floridians at an average salary of $53,000 per year.”
Production crews spend money on everything from lodging to fuel to food to dry cleaning. “It impacts practically every business in the community,” says Jeanne Corcoran, the new director of the Sarasota County Film and Entertainment Office. “It reaches such a broad spectrum of the economy…that people are often surprised by it.”
Corcoran, a Sarasota native, witnessed this firsthand during a nearly decade-long stint with the Nevada Film Office. Crews for the film Lethal Weapon 4, for example, spent more than $1 million while filming specialized shots on a two-mile stretch of highway in Nevada. While shooting scenes for The Mexican in and around Las Vegas, the folks behind the film spent “many tens of thousands of dollars a day every day they were in town,” Corcoran says. Both productions also donated money to local charities.
Corcoran saw Nevada’s film-related revenues grow from $51 million in 1998 to well over $100 million a year for the last seven years in a row. She hopes to help Sarasota County do the same, although on a much more modest level at first. The goal is to bring in $1 million in direct economic impact in the film office’s inaugural year, $1.5 million in year two and $3 million in year three.
THE BACK STORY Sarasota County has had a film office before, run by a part-time film commissioner based at the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau. But the office’s budget was too small to do an effective job, and a task force at the county’s Tourist Development Council recommended that it become part of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County (EDC).
The new film office will have a first-year budget of $200,000, with $70,000 coming from the tourist development tax, $70,000 from a local business tax and a one-time start-up fund of $60,000 from the county. The office plans to raise some private sector dollars as well.
EDC president Kathy Baylis says the film and entertainment office fits right into the EDC’s mission to create a more diverse economy. “We see this as a business development opportunity,” she says. “The EDC is looking at the creative sector as a strong business sector that we think has a lot of potential for growth.”
By nurturing and promoting the area’s burgeoning creative sector, the film office will be helping to grow an industry that typically offers good wages and employs a lot of people. That in turn could help keep more of the talented graduates of the film-related programs at Manatee Community College (rated one of the top 25 two-year colleges for filmmaking by MovieMaker magazine) and the Ringling School of Art and Design. (Thirty-three students are currently enrolled in MCC’s two-year A.A.S.-degree film program. Ringling School of Art and Design will start offering a digital film major this fall; its computer animation program is ranked No. 1 in North America by 3D World magazine.)
“I’m amazed at how many people are into film in this area,” says Pamela Maxwell, a theater vet who took film classes at MCC and co-wrote and directed Secret Lives of Waitresses, a film shot in the Bradenton area with a predominantly local cast of 13 and crew of 25. “I think there’s real potential for a hub on this coast of Florida for independent films. It can bring a lot of attention and income to the area.” Secret Lives, which cost under $100,000 to make, is in the final stages of post-production, and Maxwell hopes to enter it in film festivals.
Getting Sarasota on film helps put the region on the map. “After the production crews are gone and your community is seen in a film, on a TV show, etc., it’s an amazing marketing and advertising tool for your community,” says Corcoran. “The impact, from a marketing and advertising standpoint, is phenomenal. You can get exposure you couldn’t afford to buy. And you can see an impact from even a modestly successful production for anywhere from six months to 20 years.”
According to Corcoran, the Loews Lake Las Vegas Resort still gets business from serving as the main location of the 2001 film America’s Sweethearts. MTV’s The Real World: Las Vegas, which originally aired in 2002-2003, “launched the Palms [Casino Resort] like the space shuttle,” she says.
A RISING STAR Does Sarasota County really have what it takes to become the next great center for filmmaking?
“I don’t think it’s going to be the next Hollywood, but it could certainly be the next Austin, Texas,” says Clint Weldon, co-founder of two Sarasota-based film companies: Mars Vision Productions, which produces local, regional and national advertising spots, and studio director of Sound Stage One, a sound stage and production facility. “Sarasota really is, when you think about it, a perfect place to develop as a production hub.”
The county’s main draw is the wide variety of locations it offers. Beaches are, of course, plentiful, but there’s also the urban feel of downtown Sarasota, the wilderness areas along the Myakka River, historic properties like Cà d’Zan, small-town settings like Venice, and ranches and farms in the eastern part of the county. “Anything you could possibly want to use, we’ve pretty much got,” says Travis Vengroff, one of the founders of Evil Crew Productions.
Many of these locations could also double as another part of the country or world, a big plus for filmmakers. “We plan to show the chameleon-like qualities Sarasota County has,” says Corcoran. “We want to be more than just the obvious.”
Talented professionals also abound here, thanks to the programs at MCC and Ringling, the large number of performing arts organizations and the film-related industries like Weldon’s that have already set up shop. “There are special effects makeup people we have utilized on different projects,” says Weldon. “Grips, camera operators, directors—everybody you would need, they’re all here.”
Del Jacobs, a film instructor and manager of MCC’s multimedia/film program and a member of the film office’s advisory board, is excited about the internship opportunities for his students. “It will be ideal for student interns to get plugged into location scouting, working with crews, etc.,” he says. Conversely, MCC stands ready to serve as a resource for crews working in the area. “We’d offer opportunities for visiting filmmakers to come to classes and use them as sounding boards or preview audiences or serve as a guest lecturer,” says Jacobs.
The area’s close proximity to Tampa, Orlando and Miami means that any equipment or personnel that can’t be found locally are just a short drive away. And the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport makes it convenient for anyone to get here.
Because of the growing prominence of the Sarasota Film Festival, the eighth largest in North America in terms of attendance, more and more people involved in the industry will be visiting the area and learning what it has to offer. Jody Kielbasa, the festival’s executive director, recalls how the late Robert Altman attended last year’s festival, liked the area, and decided to move the location of an upcoming movie shoot here. “He sent his son and producer down to check out locations; they were actively scouting Sarasota as the place they were going to shoot this film,” says Kielbasa. “Altman became ill and the film didn’t happen. But the opportunity was there.”
Kielbasa also references a film called The Deal, starring William H. Macy and Meg Ryan. Co-written by Macy, the film will be shot in South Africa but got funding from contacts Macy met while attending the 2006 Sarasota Film Festival. “That’s a very positive thing,” says Kielbasa. “Any time a film happens from a region, that gets out there in the trade papers.” In fact, a February 2007 Variety article about the movie mentioned its Sarasota Film Festival connections.
Though all these factors serve to make Sarasota County appealing for film and television productions, as well as catalogue shoots for companies like Lands’ End and Bealls, corporate training video production and commercial shoots, there are still some components lacking before Sarasota can seriously compete with the big boys.
“The big problem is nobody knows what’s here,” says Weldon. “We really need to inventory what we have and make sure it’s available to out-of-town and out-of-state crews.”
Taking such an inventory of local people and businesses in the film industry, locations available to filmmakers and businesses that can provide catering and other kinds of services is one of Corcoran’s top priorities, and she urges those involved in the industry to make themselves known. “People will discover as we educate the community that they have a lot contribute,” she says. “I look forward to getting to know those people and integrating them into what we do here.”
Much as it is for many residents, affordable housing is also an issue that plagues production crews. “Finding a place to house people at is always a problem,” says Vengroff. “We had a few extras come in from Cape Coral [for Operation Mad Jackal], and housing them was a nightmare.”
Making it easier for crews to deal with local governments is also key. “People have a difficult time getting the permitting they need,” says Weldon. “There’s a lot of red tape that has to get negotiated that other towns don’t have. So a lot of things bypass Sarasota. If your budget only has a certain amount of time to get something done, you don’t want to waste a lot of time in preproduction getting through all this red tape.”
Corcoran plans to work with the county’s various local governments on that issue. “Our hope is to assist in creating a uniform master permit that gives every [local government] entity identical information that they can review and approve,” she says. “This will streamline the entire process, with everyone ‘on the same page’ and productions having to do far less paperwork, reducing red tape and bureaucracy and building a strong reputation for being a ‘film-friendly’ production community.”
“Keeping the bureaucracy down, helping filmmakers find those necessities that aren’t very fun in filmmaking, like housing and catering, and having resources that filmmakers can immediately find and use makes a big difference,” says Jay Wade Edwards, a Bradenton native who shot his film Stomp! Shout! Scream! on Anna Maria Island, at Sarasota Jungle Gardens and at various other locations throughout the region. (Stomp! Shout! Scream! has been screened at 20 film festivals and is currently being shopped around for distribution, most likely on home video.)
Corcoran also hopes to maximize the incentives and grants offered by the state of Florida for film and television projects shot in the state, and she’s exploring the idea of creating local incentives. Currently, Florida offers a $20 million Entertainment Industry Financial Incentive, which reimburses up to 15 percent of a production company’s expenditures incurred in the state, up to $2 million, according to the Governor’s Office of Film and Entertainment. “Governor Crist supports making the incentive a transferable tax credit,” the Web site reported, “and has recommended spending $75 million per year for the next three years to attract film and television productions to Florida.”
Corcoran plans to target all forms of media (except the adult film industry), everything from music and corporate training videos to student and independent films to big-budget television and movie projects. “I’m going to reach out and proactively educate production centers,” she says. “I won’t wait for the production company to show up; I’ll go out and chase it down.”
SARASOTA'S NEW FILM OFFICE
First-year budget: $200,000
Tourist development tax: $70,000
Local business tax: $70,000
County start-up fund: $60,000
IT'S A WRAP!
A sampling of films shot in the Sarasota-Manatee area.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
The Great Wallendas (1978 TV movie)
Glory Days (1979)
Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)
Spring Fever (1982)
Seven Sundays (1995)
Walkin' on Sunchine: The Movie (1997)
Great Expectations (1998)
Out of Time (2003)