State’s Film Infrastructure: Primed and Ready
One of the chief arguments from those who oppose reviving Florida’s film, television and digital media financial program is that it makes no sense to provide publicly financed tax breaks to an industry that provides only temporary employment. Show us the infrastructure for a permanent film/television/digital industry presence in Florida, they say, and then we can have a conversation about the newly proposed rebate program.
It’s not an entirely illogical position, though it creates the perfect conditions for a never-ending circular argument (“I’ll build a studio if you give the tax rebate.” vs. “I’ll give the tax rebate if you’ll build the studio.”). However, the reality is the infrastructure already exists and continues to grow as Florida has been cultivating this industry for more than 100 years. Ironically, tax dollars are playing a role.
A prime example is the new, 88,000-square-foot EUE/Screen Gems production facility recently opened in central Miami. Built as a public-private partnership with Viacom Inc. and the tax-supported Omni Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), the new complex boasts two 15,000-square-foot soundstages and will be a production home for several of Viacom’s iconic brands, including Nickelodeon, MTV and Comedy Central.
“We are grateful for the vision and investment from Omni CRA to build a top-tier studio and post-production facility here in Miami,” said Chris Cooney, chief operating officer of EUE/Screen Gems Studios. “This is a groundbreaking partnership for us and for Viacom, designed to capitalize on the best of Miami – its terrific talent pool and Viacom’s expertise in production.”
EUE/Screen Gems also operates studios in Wilmington, N.C., and Atlanta – two states that have invested heavily in the film industry over the years (though North Carolina recently has begun to scale back that support). A sister company also operates a studio in New York, another state/city offering significant support to film/television/digital productions through the years.
Meanwhile, over in Sarasota, city officials broke ground right before Thanksgiving on a new 35,000-square-foot production complex resulting from a partnership between the Ringling College of Art and Design and Semkhor Productions, a new media and marketing company with facilities in California and New York.
Ringling officials believe the new facility, which will include one large studio dedicated to its film school, will further enhance a film school already ranked among the nation’s best.
“Now Ringling gets to be on the cutting edge of productions,” school President Larry Thompson told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune during the groundbreaking. “In a way it feels inevitable. I think Sarasota was always going to have a part in the new media.”
Director Roman Coppola, son of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and brother of Oscar-winner Sofia Coppola, was on hand for the groundbreaking as well. He is quoted by the Herald-Tribune as saying, “This is very evidently a community that values the arts. To make a film studio is a rare thing.”
Looking to South Florida, G-Star’s School of the Arts in Palm Beach County, opened its doors in 2010 to a $5 million state-of-the-art movie-studio complex with 110,000 square feet of production space. The G-Star Studios consist of 13 buildings, including one of the largest (80 feet by 120 feet) sound stages in Florida. It also features a set construction shop, prop shop and much more.
These studios add to an existing fleet of soundstages, warehouse complexes, production companies and film office space scattered around the entire state. However, the last major studio building boom came when Universal Studios and Disney-MGM Studios were constructed in and near Orlando in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This led to Steven Spielberg’s television series seaQuest DSV and the Ron Howard-Tom Hanks miniseries From the Earth to the Moon being filmed in Florida. More recently, though, Florida television production has slowed. Interestingly, ABC’s summer program Astronaut Wives, a thematic successor to the Howard-Hanks series, is filmed in Louisiana even though it is set in Florida and Texas.
In addition to the studio infrastructure, there is even more significant investment in human capital. Film/television/digital programs are available at most high schools and many of Florida’s state universities. On top of that, students at private schools, including Ringling and Full Sail University in Winter Park, are eligible for public (primarily federal) financial aid packages.
Some have expressed concern that, if the Florida film industry falters, state taxpayers will wind up training workers who then go on to work in neighboring Georgia, with its exploding film industry, or even California or New York.
None of this takes into account the professional talent already residing in the state who are forced to leave to find work elsewhere.
“Florida boasts the third highest SAG-AFTRA performers’ membership after California and New York,” said Herta Suarez, Miami Local Executive Director.
Based on all this, it’s pretty difficult to make a credible argument that Florida is lacking a film industry infrastructure or that it’s not able to train workers for the industry. Both pieces of the puzzle already are here and, to a certain extent, they already are taxpayer subsidized.
Which brings us back again to the original circular argument. Skeptics of a state-supported film/television/digital rebate program could argue that: a) the industry already receives ample taxpayer support; and b) that all of this infrastructure investment is occurring without the state-supported rebate.
That argument, though, is somewhat reminiscent of the logic that gripped the real estate industry here and across the country in the middle of the last decade. Money for prospective home buyers was readily available at that moment, so it was bound to be available for the foreseeable future. The industry was set, right? We all saw how that worked out.
The same could be true of the film infrastructure. How much of this money is based on the belief that Florida will not allow itself to be left out of the film boom in the Southeast and will reinstate the rebate? It’s worth noting that EUE/Screen Gems was able to purchase its North Carolina facility because the previous owner, Carolco, went into bankruptcy.
That’s the essential question Florida legislators will have to answer in their upcoming session: Are the studio expansions here proof that the industry already receives enough subsidies and is essentially self-sufficient? Or, is it a sign that the industry is willing to invest – up to a point – on Florida wanting to be a part of “Hollywood South”? Finally, if Florida leaders ultimately decide film/digital/television isn’t for them, how long will the industry continue to invest?
The answer will determine whether this construction represents the beginning of a new wave or a temporary bump on the road to Georgia’s film dominance.
Florida’s more than 100,000 film, television and media professionals are waiting for their happy ending.
Photo Credit: Top image by Kel Archuleta.