Stage set for Florida's production comeback

"Burn Notice"


Matt Nix says he spent a total of 12 hours in the Miami area before his show "Burn Notice" went into production there in 2007.

Fortunately for the showrunner, local crewmembers were already pros at working stunt-heavy productions in Florida, with credits ranging from the series "Miami Vice" to director Michael Bay's "Bad Boys" movies. Most pertinent to Nix's USA Network action-drama, they knew how and where to drop a car off upper levels of a parking garage, which neighborhoods could best tolerate large explosions, and the waterways where one could stage a boat chase without running over a manatee.

"If you go to a city that has a lot of water, where they've never tried to do a boat chase, well, everybody's learning on your dime," Nix says. "In Florida, there aren't 13 meetings where they say, 'How are we going to do this?' They know how much it's going to cost and they just do it. It doesn't (officially) go on any balance sheet, but when you're actually looking at the advantages and disadvantages of a location, that particular thing turns into real dollars and cents."

Nix is actually one of few in the industry to have recently reaped the rewards of shooting in Florida, as the state has seen its cash reserve and production profile slowly dwindle.

Gaffers, grips and other production professionals have steadily exited to work in Louisiana and Georgia, both of which offer 30% tax credits, and to other states offering increasingly generous incentives.

In 2008, the Florida legislature slashed the annual budget for its 15% tax rebate from $25 million in 2007 to $5 million in 2008.

In an attempt to recoup its image and needed production dollars, Florida bumped funding back up $10.8 million in 2009. But that made little difference, as $5.2 million of the money was committed upfront to "Burn Notice."

"Good crew people were having to leave because there wasn't anything going on here a year ago if you weren't on our show," says the show's producer, Terry Miller, whose credits include numerous Florida-based productions such as "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" (1994) and "Transporter 2" (2005).

In March, faced with declining tourism and rising unemployment that hit a high of 12.3% -- along with a concerted lobbying push by entertainment and tourism concerns -- the state legislature set in motion a plan to approve a new tax credit package that would potentially pay out $242 million over the next five years.

"The Glades"

"(Film and TV production) is very complementary to Florida's tourism industry," says Lucia Fishburne, commissioner for the Florida Governor's Office of Film & Entertainment, speaking of the legislation that was passed in April.

"We were able to link arms with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Assn. and say, 'You may not know, but this many hotel rooms are used in the course of a film.' With the economy being in such bad shape and with Florida having a shortfall in revenue, tax credits really started making sense."

While still no match for a state like Michigan, which offers a tax credit of up to 42%, Florida's new incentive has "visual advantages," according David Madden, executive vp at Fox Television Studios, which produces "Burn Notice."

Madden knows this first-hand as the original script for the pilot actually set the show in Newark, N.J.

"It took place in a lot of back alleys and pawn shops ... grimier locations," Madden says. "We went through a couple of drafts in that vein and the network very politely said, 'Look at our shows. You don't see a lot of dirt and grime. You see a lot of beautiful people in attractive locations. It would make the show a lot more appealing for us if you set it in Florida.' "

Before its recent recession-induced troubles, Florida's tropical environs and year-round sunshine made it a coveted destination for film and television productions.

Traditionally, South Florida had attracted the bulk of production, with its exotic beaches and cultural melange of immigrants, old wealth and hard-bodied partiers. The second-busiest production center was Central Florida, best known for NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County and the large cluster of resorts in the Orlando area, including Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort.

In 1989, Disney opened Disney-MGM Studios (now known as Disney's Hollywood Studios) at its resort, and the following year it was joined by competing Universal Studios Florida. Both were designed to serve as theme parks and fully fledged film and television studios.

Although the Disney property is still highly successful as a theme park, it no longer serves as a production facility. Universal still operates six soundstages, hosting such shows as Nickelodeon's "My Family's Got GUTS," a revival of "Family Feud" hosted by Steve Harvey, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling's weekly show "TNA Impact!" and the Florida Lottery's Powerball drawing.

The oldest production hub is Florida's largest city, Jacksonville, near the northeastern tip of the state. In the 1910s, New York filmmakers flocked to the region, marketed as the Winter Film Capital of the World, establishing 30 studios.

More recently, the city has hosted the HBO original film "Recount" (2008), starring Kevin Spacey, and the features "Basic" (2003) and "Lonely Hearts" (2006), both of which starred John Travolta, who lives an hour to the southwest in Ocala.

Michael Hausman, who produced "Recount," says he was impressed with Jacksonville's versatility (it stood in for Palm Beach, Miami, Nashville and Austin, Texas), as well as the cooperation he received "from the mayor all the way down." This wasn't a small detail, considering that the film's divisive subject matter was the hotly contested recount for the 2000 presidential election.

Hausman received a similar reception when he shot part of the film at the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee, where much of the real-life election drama unfolded nearly 10 years ago. "They opened their arms for us, regardless of how they felt about what we were doing," he says.

The state's conservative bent (evident in its additional 5% rebate for so-called "family-friendly" productions) often gives Hollywood types pause. But it's the state's severe weather that can pose the greatest threat if the production is shooting during the summer months, when hurricanes are a possibility and intense heat and humidity are a constant.

"It really has worn our crew down in some areas," says Clifton Campbell, creator of the new A&E original drama series "The Glades," also produced by Fox Studios, which shoots in the Fort Lauderdale area.

"The sweat is pervasive. We have to put our lead (Australian actor Matt Passmore) in an ice vest between takes so he can get through an entire set-up without changing shirts."

Still, the sweat factor doesn't seem to be scaring off filmmakers looking to save some cash.

On the first day that the incentive became available (July 1), Florida certified 53 productions for the tax credit, using up the entire $53.5 million allotment for the year, and it's already begun qualifying projects so they can secure a place in the queue for the next fiscal year.