Hollywood on the Atlantic: Florida woos filmmakers
Tallahassee, Fla. — While there's no mistaking Florida sunshine for Hollywood glitter, state officials here are aiming with a businesslike precision to cash in on the slight resemblance - at the movie box office.
The state has launched an all-out effort to parlay its third-place ranking and 10 percent share in the movie industry into a heftier chunk of the market. And one Wall Street analyst suggests that Florida's efforts to widen the Los Angeles-New York orbit of money, talent, and glamour could make the state a major motion picture center by 1990.
So what competition could a sleepy Southern state, known principally for its swamps, retirement communities, and agriculture, pose for a larger cut of this $ 2 billion-a-year industry?
Plenty, says Ben Harris, chief of the Motion Picture and TV Bureau for the state, which hosted filming for nine movies in 1981 and has 20 more expected this year. Florida's weather, landscapes, and cityscapes put the state on equal footing with Los Angeles or New York, he says. But further, and more important because of the average $10 million price tag for a feature movie, it's cheap to film in Florida, he adds.
He offers examples:
* Florida's existing television commercial industry, which did $60 million in business here last year, offers a pool of talent and technology that eliminates the cost of importing legions of crew and equipment here.
* Florida's ''right to work'' laws significantly cut costs associated with the firm grip unions have on production in California and New York.
''We're more flexible . . . the hourly wage in Florida is a few pennies more, but in California they have to hire more people,'' Harris explains. ''Just to hang a plant on the set (the union demands) you must get an art designer, a set decorator, a carpenter, and a nurseryman. In Florida, one guy gets the plant, pounds the nail, and hangs it.''
* Location fees, reportedly hitting as much as $10,000 for filming in a single location in California's Orange County, usually are no more than $25 a day, if imposed at all, in Florida.
* Hopes also have been hung on two mammoth production projects being built in Orlando. Universal Studios has begun work on two sound stages as part of its East Coast tourist attraction. And Disney productions just completed the multimillion dollar EPCOT project, a cable television venture and tourist attraction.
The box office may make or break a movie, but movies are a no-lose proposition for communities hosting them because the cash is paid up front before audiences ever see films. (Indeed, much of Florida's less-than-classic footage included in films like ''Island Claws,'' ''Chimps,'' or ''Hot Stuff,'' may never be box office hits, but they contribute mightily to the state's more than $50 million-a-year film industry.)
Explaining the positive economic impact of the movie industry, Harris says, ''It brings in a high wage type situation and the only thing they take is the image on a piece of film and they don't take our natural resources.''
A case in point, he adds, was the 1977 filming of Jaws II. Pensacola-area businesses reported that film crews spent $750,000 on hotel accommodations, $250 ,000 for woodworking tools, $200,000 for four-wheel drive pickup trucks, $250, 000 worth of Boston Whaler brand boats (eaten by the shark), and $18,000 in painting equipment.
The business is so lucrative and Florida's commitment to film is so serious that Gov. Bob Graham doubled the film bureau's size and funding this year to 10 staffers and a half-million dollar budget, including a special videotape ''locations library.'' Florida's goal is ''to be the motion picture capital of the country by the end of this century,'' he says.
However, one official of a major Hollywood studio is skeptical. While Florida is a desirable location for some types of productions and may see its 10 percent share of the market grow, talent and major investments are too firmly anchored in Hollywood and New York to ever be lured away on any grand scale, says the executive, who asked not to be identified.
Further, adds a Universal Studios executive, Universal's new project is planned primarily as a tourist attraction and not for extensive film production.
''It's impossible to move a whole industry,'' admits Lee Isgur, an expert on leisure-time investments with Paine Webber. ''But there is a possibility of Florida becoming very important and possibly number one by 1990. With Orlando's EPCOT and MCA (Universal) studio space, there is a tremendous possibility of productive capacity. At the same time, the union situation and real estate prices in Los Angeles almost encourage production elsewhere.''
Florida officials lightheartedly support their push for a film industry, suggesting that rather than a poor country cousin to Hollywood's glitter, the state is the rightful heir.
Jacksonville was the home of more than 100 film companies in the early 1900s. But local politicians sent filmmakers packing off to California after such unsavory practices as filming gunfights on Sunday and reporting false fire alarms to catch footage of fire engines.
Today's politicians, however, say they're ready for Take 2 in the story of Florida's film industry.