'Magic City,' Tom Cruise, James Franco Join Hollywood's Flight to Florida

Filming "Magic City"

How film and television are saving millions by shooting in the Sunshine State.

This story originally appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

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).

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"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.

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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.' "

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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.

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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!"