Hollywood Heads to the Sunshine State
Tom Cruise, James Franco and Starz's $108 million series "Magic City" succumb to Florida's charm -- and tax incentives.
Last summer, actress Olga Kurylenko got ready to wade naked into the ocean at 5 a.m. in Miami Beach in front of the equally gorgeous Deauville Hotel for a scene in Starz's buzzy new series Magic City, a Mad Men-meets-Casino saga set in mobbed-up, glamorous 1959 Miami. Kurylenko plays the ex-showgirl wife of hotel owner Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
"They go out there, and lo and behold, it was a real-life crime scene with lots of police cars and crime tape," says Miami Beach film and events production manager Graham Winick, a troubleshooter and coordinator for shows like Magic City. "There had been a gunshot homicide on a boat offshore, and the body washed ashore right there. Olga was a little hesitant to skinny-dip in that area." But after cops removed the corpse and sand-sifters cleaned the beach, the scene was filmed the next day. "It's a case of life imitating art imitating life."
It is amazing that Starz CEO Chris Albrecht is spending $108 million to shoot the first two seasons of Magic City in Miami because until recently, Florida film and TV production looked as washed up as the unfortunate homicide victim who spoiled Kurylenko's morning.
In 2009, production tax incentives in the state sank from a high of $25 million to $5 million, and producers and Florida crews fled for more tax-friendly neighboring states. "We had to get to this crisis mode to convince our legislators to do something unprecedented," says Winick, who also is past president of the lobbying group Film Florida.
But production creates jobs, so in 2011, Florida raised tax incentives to $242 million, and on March 29, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill for an additional $42 million.
The Hollywood production trade magazine P3 recently ranked the state the third-best place to shoot in the U.S., behind Louisiana and Illinois, saying, "The heat is definitely on in Florida."
"We didn't even make the P3 top 20 for the last couple of years," says Winick.
But producers are rushing to cash in on Florida's new 20 percent tax credit (raised to 25 percent during hurricane season). Michael Bay recently began directing Pain and Gain, a $25 million dark-comic action drama with Mark Wahlberg, based on a true tale of gym-rat extortionists. Steven Soderbergh shot Channing Tatum's Tampa stripper comedy Magic Mike in October.
Most notably, Miami and environs recently played host to the $80 million, Los Angeles-set musical Rock of Ages, starring Tom Cruise as an Axl Rose-ish rock singer circa 1987. "It's the biggest movie we've ever had since Miami Vice," says Florida film commissioner Shari Kerrigan.
Florida production revenue increased from $761 million in 2010 to $981 million in 2011. In Miami-Dade County alone, production is up 70 percent since 2010, to about $275 million.
Notes Rock of Ages producer Garrett Grant: "They said, 'If you guys are crazy enough to come down here during hurricane season, we'll give you 5 percent extra in tax incentives.' We said, 'OK.' "
Although it has been a half-decade since a big hurricane hit, Hurricane Irene narrowly missed clobbering Florida in August, requiring Magic City to put up iron hurricane shutters for the giant panes of vulnerable glass on its hotel set and prepare to evacuate crew to 65 inland hotel rooms.
"The hurricane stayed offshore, so we got lucky," says Ages' Grant, who is glad he and director Adam Shankman spurned the other locations they considered, from North Carolina to Sydney. "We had a very difficult time getting to our approved greenlight number. Thanks to the incentives, we hit it."
This kind of cooperation is why Starz's Albrecht, revered for developing game-changing dramas like The Sopranos at HBO, is willing to risk $6 million an episode on Magic City. The show's creator-writer, Mitch Glazer, says it was smart to shoot in Miami, where midcentury modern (MiMo) buildings still stand thanks to the historic-preservation movement propelled by Miami Vice's success.
"South Beach has probably the largest collection of pre-1959 architecture in the world," says Glazer, who thinks his show could do for MiMo what Miami Vice did for Art Deco. His goal is a vivid sense of place. "Chris' great successes were all based in the place where they happened: Sopranos, The Wire, Entourage. Sex and the City had to be shot in New York. For Magic City, when you see Stevie Evans [Steven Strait] driving his T-Bird along Lincoln Creek, there wouldn't have been all those 1920s mansions behind him if we'd shot in L.A. All we had to do on Collins Avenue was CG-remove a few light poles." To shoot a period Miami drama in Los Angeles would be more CG-intensive.
And expensive. "It would either look cheap, or you're going to spend an enormous amount of money," says Matt Nix, creator of the USA Network hit Burn Notice, whose dramedy series kicked off a new wave of production in Florida when it filmed its pilot in 2007. "And now Miami has more bench strength in crews. It's important because you can eat up the incentive savings quickly by having to fly in your own guys." Nix, now filming his sixth season, says he'll have no problem meeting Florida's new law upping its requirement for hiring local crew from 50 percent to 60 percent.
There is a growing spirit of film-friendliness in Florida, even among some who once notoriously blocked production. In 1982, Cuban-Americans protesting Al Pacino's gangster character in Scarface forced the film from Miami to L.A. On April 13, Scarface will be the focus of a Miami Latino pride event, Hispanicize 2012, and giant Miami-based Spanish-language network Telemundo employs 400 people making telenovelas.
"In Florida, people are actually excited to let you shoot there," says Nix. "A small airport in Miami let us blow up a plane on their tarmac. Who does that? God bless Opa-Locka Airport!"
How Florida Fakes L.A.
Many of the most famous shows set in Florida are almost entirely shot in Los Angeles. CSI: Miami only comes a few times a year to film aerials, and Dexter's Michael C. Hall visits for a few days of hand-held-camera walk-and-talks. But newer shows make a fetish of local authenticity. "I grew up in Miami," says Magic City creator Mitch Glazer, "and I've never seen it accurately onscreen except when Michael Corleone visited Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II. I want my show to mine my Miami memories -- wildly, specifically. Chris Albrecht joked that Magic City is the most expensive home movie in history." But Miami can turn the tables and impersonate L.A. "We built a quarter-mile replica of L.A'.s Sunset Strip on Miami Avenue with these iconic '80s places: Filthy McNasty's, The Comedy Store and The Bourbon Room," says Rock of Ages producer Garrett Grant. "We closed the whole area down from sunset to sunrise for 17 days. If we did that on the real Sunset Strip, we'd be public enemy No. 1." Says film commissioner Noelle Stevenson of Broward County, 20 minutes from Miami: "You can film anything down here. The Hollywood sign you see in Rock of Ages was actually in Pompano Beach. People would drive by and say, 'Where am I?' People think Florida all looks the same, but it looks like three different countries. Broward County looks like Central America, Latin America, Mexico. That's why it attracts 800 film permits a year." – T.A.
Magic City's Meticulous Details
Not since boardwalk empire has TV seen a seaside vice emporium as elaborate as Magic City's fictional Miramar Playa hotel, constructed in a yacht warehouse three times wider than a football field. "It's the biggest set ever built in Florida," says Starz vp original production Karen Bailey. "We used all available crews, and we had to bring in extra troops from other shows, like The Glades. We used every piece of plywood flooring in greater Florida." The set boasts a 115-bulb chandelier from the 1956 Eden Roc Hotel, 2,200 square feet of abalone floor tile from Beijing, a 35,000-gallon tank for bathing beauties seen through peekaboo portals in the bar and a 156,000-gallon tank for crashed cars and cadavers courtesy of mob boss Ben Diamond (Danny Huston).
Even the Miramar Playa set's most fanciful touches, like pipes blowing perfumed air into the lobby, are reality-based. "When I was 12, they blew perfume into Saks Fifth Avenue, and we'd kneel down and put our hands there," says Mitch Glazer. Adds Bailey, "We wanted to capture the essence of that time." -- T.A.
ACTION IN FLORIDA: Where some recent film and television projects have lensed.
Burn Notice (Miami): Jeffrey Donovan and Bruce Campbell routinely sprint from danger in USA Network's sun-soaked series. But creator Matt Nix originally wanted to shoot it in Newark. "NBCU cable chair Bonnie Hammer insisted on it being in Miami," says Nix. "She said, 'We do shows with blue skies. We do shows that look good.' I was very resistant, but it has made the show better. When you want to drive a car off the top of a parking garage, the crew knows which garage to use."
The Glades (Florida's East Coast): Instead of sticking to Miami's often-seen mean streets, A&E's crime drama about ornery, golf-obsessed cop Jim Longworth (Matt Passmore) features the swampy environs of fictional Palm Glade, Fla. Thanks partly to the vivid setting, where alligators sometimes gobble crucial evidence, the show's 2010 premiere broke A&E records, the second season audience grew 12 percent in the 18-to-49 demographic and the third season starts this summer.
Spring Breakers (St. Petersburg): Yes, that's James Franco with a new hairdo in Harmony Korine's film about college girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine and Ashley Benson) who pull off a robbery to fund their vacation and get sprung from jail with a murder assignment from gangster rapper Franco. St. Petersburg provides the evocative location.
Rock of Ages (Broward County & Miami): Russell Brand, Julianne Hough and Alec Baldwin feel the noize and descend to the depths of L.A.'s bad-hair era in a movie whose rock-club set is actually a retro-refurbished Fort Lauderdale nightclub, Revolution Live. "We didn't want it to look like a backlot," says producer Garrett Grant. So they shot it in Florida, which Grant had previously used to impersonate L.A. in the Farrelly Brothers' 2003 Stuck on You.