Leading Question

By Susan Burns May 31, 2010

Director Ira Sachs (Married Life and Forty Shades of Blue) and producer Mike Ryan of Grey Shack Films were in Sarasota last April for the Sarasota Film Festival, scouting locations for their next film, The Goodbye People. They liked Sarasota’s coastal setting and mid-century modern architecture. But what would convince them to make a film here? Financial incentives. “It’s all about tax credits,” says Sachs, adding that subsidies and rebates usually top moviemakers’ must-have lists.

If that’s the case, Florida is now in the game. The Florida Legislature included $242 million in tax incentives for the film and entertainment industry in the jobs bill in late April, and while the bill has yet to go the governor for his signature, it’s fully expected to pass. The state’s film advocates are ecstatic imagining the $225,000 a day that films can inject into a location’s economy.

“It’s an incentives game,” says Lucia Fishburne, Florida’s Film Commissioner, who is based in Tallahassee. And in the last couple of years, when the state was offering only $5 to $11 million in incentives, Florida didn’t rank on any filmmaker’s list. Michigan, New Mexico, Memphis, Tenn., Wilmington, N.C., and Puerto Rico were all offering filmmakers way more than Florida.

“We went from being off the map to being the hottest date in town,” Fishburne says. Since the bill was filed, her office has been fielding queries from directors and producers. The legislation has also attracted attention overseas. In a recent blog from the UK, the games industry there is calling for similar legislation, to avoid being at a “commercial disadvantage.”

Good news for the state, but how will it affect our region? There are 55 local film liaisons in Florida who are vying for a piece of the film and entertainment (which includes video games) industry, and Sarasota is only one of them.

According to Fishburne, we have some important assets: airport accessibility in several markets (Sarasota, Tampa, Fort Myers and Orlando), beautiful settings and the student talent at the Ringling College of Art and Design. We also have proximity to Tampa Bay, which is one of the key production centers in Florida, offering all kinds of production crews. “You really are strategically located,” she says.

Jeanne Corcoran, director of the Sarasota County Film & Entertainment Office, says we also need to offer local incentives: free parking, use of government buildings, the ability to block off streets, reduced permitting fees and the use of law enforcement.

A soundstage wouldn’t hurt, either. Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College, put that on everyone’s radar in March when he proposed converting the Municipal Auditorium into a venue that his digital film students and the commercial film industry could use. His proposal caused an uproar among auditorium fans and was eventually withdrawn, but Thompson succeeded in putting the idea front and center. Ringling continues to look for a location for a soundstage, but Sachs and Ryan said the lack of one wouldn’t be a deal breaker for them. However, the lack of government and citizen support might be.

“Knowing you’re wanted is important,” says Ryan, which means that political will and community support to build a soundstage and offer all those local incentives has to be part of the mix.

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