Hope rides on state funding

Ad jump shores up lagging film, TV sector

Outside the substantial — and growing — Spanish-language television sector, greater Miami attracts film and TV productions based largely on whether the story takes place in Florida.

Network shows set here include CBS’ top-rated “CSI: Miami,” breakout F/X hit “Nip/Tuck,” and in 2003, ABC’s “Karen Sisco,” since cancelled. But for the most part crews jet in only to shoot exteriors and B-roll, with the bulk of their budgets spent on L.A. soundstages. Meanwhile, competition from other states and other countries is fierce.

“When producers come to talk to me, the first question they ask is ‘what can you do for me?,’ ” says Jeff Peel, director of the Miami-Dade Office of Film & Entertainment.

Given the status of Florida’s production incentive statute, passed by the state legislature last year but left unfunded, the answer has apparently been less than persuasive. But hopes are rising that the situation may change, and soon.

Both the legislature in Tallahassee and Gov. Jeb Bush have recommended apportioning funds to a production incentive program for the coming fiscal year (July 2004-June 2005).

“I’m very optimistic,” says state film commish Susan Albershardt. “It’s the first time everyone has gotten together on this — the House, the Senate, and the governor — so it’s a very positive first step.”

As yet, the three proposals do not coincide. Albershardt is hopeful that the legislature, in session through April 20 to determine the state budget for 2004-05, will meet Bush’s recommended $3 million apportionment.

As proposed, the incentives would apply to anything from a theatrical film to a musicvideo or commercial, provided the production invests $850,000 in “qualified expenditures,” defined as using a Florida-based company or in-state labor.

Producers would then be eligible for reimbursements for as much as $2 million on a feature, $450,000 for TV movies and pilots, $150,000 for a TV episode, and $25,000 for commercials and musicvideos.

“We’re in a wait-and-see mode but we’re preparing,” says Albershardt.

Regional report

Away from Tallahassee politics, it’s been quiet on the feature front in Miami. After a comparatively fat 2002 — when sequels to big-budget productions “Bad Boys” and “The Fast and the Furious” came to town, plus Denzel Washington crime drama “Out of Time” — 2003 saw a lull.

Miami did land “Stuck on You,” the conjoined twins comedy from 20th Fox starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear, and “From Justin to Kelly,” spawn of TV’s “American Idol,” in 2003. But nothing else sizeable has yet appeared on the horizon, says Peel. And he notes that pilot season also has been unseasonably quiet.

Meanwhile, “CSI: Miami” and “Nip/Tuck” — aside from occasional production days — do generate publicity and attract attention, similar to the way “Miami Vice” put the city on the global map in the ’80s.

Moreover, riding on the current fascination with plastic surgery and perhaps the coattails of “Nip/Tuck,” cabler Bravo has greenlit a six-part docu series, tentatively entitled “Miami Slice.” September Films will produce in association with Bravo.

The series will follow the lives and careers of five Miami-based surgeons. There is no shortage of material: Miami has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the country.

Facilities in neighboring Broward County are experiencing some spillover on the Spanish-language front, while two locally based companies are keeping crews busy year-round, notes Broward County Film Commissioner Elizabeth Wentworth.

Breakaway Films is the production entity created last year by Doug Schwab (founder and president of video/DVD distrib Maverick Entertainment) with partners Ron Castell and Pamela White. It aims to produce 15 urban and Latino films annually, and recently finished “La migra.” (see story, p. xx).

NorthSouth Prods. is producing more than 90 hours of programming from its Hollywood, Fla., Offices — including reality show “A Wedding Story” for TLC, for which it’s seeking South Florida couples with pending nuptials.

The company is also recruiting participants from central to South Florida for a new home improvement show on TLC, “In a Fix.”

Dollar down, ads up

While English-lingo TV and film activity may be off, Miami’s important print and commercials sectors are heating up — a rebound linked to the strength of the euro against the depreciating U.S. dollar.

Miami, which suffered from over-exposure in the notoriously fickle fashion world, is in vogue again and competitive against locales in Europe and South Africa.

“The big story is the return of fashion photography,” says Graham Winick, film liaison with the city of Miami Beach, where much of the activity has been based dating back to an early 1990s. “We see a return of clients from Germany, the U.K. and France.”

Winick says many of those clients are observing that conditions have improved since the beach’s 1996-97 heyday. “They find permitting co-ordination is easier, and the hotel industry has changed with a better quality of hotel,” he says. “Fashion numbers are back to the high-water mark.”

The commercials business is tied to costs. “Last year, Florida was twice as expensive for Europeans,” says Massimo Martinotti, president of Mia Films and of the South Florida chapter of the Assn. of Independent Commercials Producers (AICP).

Martinotti saw a real upsurge in his own business in early 2004. He believes that the strengthening of the U.S. economy is helping South Florida, along with a post-9/11 aversion to traveling abroad. Activity is up, “but budgets are not as high as two years ago,” he notes.

Local production outfits that have managed to thrive, such as Mia, H2O Films and Tropic Survival, have weathered the lean times by diversifying and looking beyond local clients to aggressively pursue work near and far.

At Tropic Survival, says Sheila Duffy-Lehrman, VP and creative director, “we do advertising and marketing, we’re a trailer house, we do industrials and corporate film, and branding and images for local TV stations.”

Dollars may determine whether business comes to Miami, but image still plays a big part, says Martinotti. “Miami today has a new look and better hotels — it’s fashionable again.”

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