Dollar incentives seen needed to refuel Miami-Dade's film industry
By Paola Iuspa
As Miami-Dade launches a campaign to sell the county as a setting for commercials, films and TV shows, some producers said economic incentives are the real key to helping the area compete for business.
Incentives, industry experts said, would help reduce production costs and could entice many companies here that are now taking feature films, music videos, commercials and photo fashion shoots to Vancouver and Toronto, Canada; Majorca, Spain, or Cape Town, South Africa.
Canada subsidizes productions and Majorca and Cape Town are less costly because of weaker currencies compared to the US dollar.
"We stopped being competitive during the past two years," said Eugene Rodriguez, owner of Big Time Productions, with three studios in Miami and Miami Beach. "With a strong dollar, hotels, meals and airline fares have gone up. We are losing the European market, which used to be big, especially in the photo-fashion industry. We need subsidies."
Mr. Rodriguez, whose studios are under contract for the feature films Bad Boys II, with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, and MGM's Out of Time, starring Denzel Washington, proposes a property tax refund for film and entertainment industry companies doing business here.
Miami-Dade County commissioners would have to approve any tax-incentive program before it could be put into place.
Airline-related firms, studio owners, catering companies, equipment rentals and others could afford to drop fees if they would get a rebate in real estate taxes - an expense they all have in common, Mr. Rodriguez said.
"We could charge below the market rate and make ourselves competitive," he said. "People love Miami. They want to come here. We have a great location and perfect weather. It is just that they cannot afford to come here anymore."
He said Miami's sex appeal attracts producers as much as year-round weather, a talent and film-crew base, vibrant nightlife and cultural diversity.
Jeff Peel, director of the county's Mayor's Office of Film & Entertainment, said the photo shoot business was down 25% in 2000 from what it was in 1999.
Mr. Rodriguez, who shared his plan with Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and plans to discuss it with Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, said Cape Town and Majorca are up to 40% cheaper than Miami.
"If we reduce our fees 40%," he said, "who is going to pay for the difference? That's why we need subsidies."
TV, filming and photo shoots in unincorporated Miami-Dade are done through Mr. Peel's office. The City of Miami and the City of Miami Beach have their own offices, Mr. Peel said.
Carlos Guevara, senior producer at Encanta Productions in South Beach, with clients such as Latin pop singer Luis Miguel and Warner Bros., said his company stopped doing music videos about a year ago. He said client budgets were too low and production costs too high.
"We were competing with Los Angeles and New York," he said. "Often it was better to shoot videos out of the state because it was less expensive. Technicians' fees were lower. Meals and catering services were also cheaper."
Although Florida offers a sales-tax exemption for goods and services related to the film & entertainment industry, Mr. Peel said, additional incentives would make a big difference. He said a proposed law meant to attract entertainment business to Florida was killed in the Senate during the 2002 legislative session. He said he hoped it would be reintroduced next year.
The bill called for reimbursing motion picture producers up to $2 million and single TV program producers up to $200,000 if they spent at least $1 million in Florida, Mr. Peel said. The law, he said, would have also applied to TV distribution firms and post-production companies.
Another bill drafted to help support activities to market or provide services to the entertainment industry in Florida was also killed. If passed, the state's Office of Film & Entertainment would have been responsible for creating and managing the Florida Entertainment Industry Promotion Trust Fund, according to the Florida Legislature's website.
While he waits for the Legislature to take action in the 2003 session, Mr. Peel said his office is financing a $225,000, direct-mail marketing campaign to increase Miami's exposure in Hollywood.
"Our goal is to blow our horn a little bit louder," he said, "to promote Miami as a place to produce feature films, TV shows commercial and photo shoots."
With the slogan "Where Imagination Runs Wild," and featuring an orange flip-flop sandal in different backgrounds, Miami-Dade County last week unveiled its year-long marketing campaign, Mr. Peel said.
The promotional package, he said, is made of colorful production kits with a Miami-Dade map, a CD-Rom with location shots and a South Florida directory of film, video and print to be sent to producers and handed out at trade shows.
One freelance music-video producer and photojournalist from Miami criticizes the new promotional material saying it looks like a tourism campaign rather than something for the film community.
"It is a pretty piece of graphic, but the sandal has nothing to do with our industry," he said.
Bob Berkowitz with Multivision Video & Film in South Miami said feature films and TV commercials are where the "big bucks are." In the late '80s and early '90s Miami was the backdrop for the Miami Vice TV series and feature films that included True Lies, Bird Cage, Stick, Mean Season, The Perez Family and The Specialist.
"Lately we have not had as much in the feature film area as we did in the past," Mr. Berkowitz said. "We picked up some of the slack with music video and commercials. But by and large it has been a big challenge to make up for what we missed in feature films."
That has changed, Mr. Peel said. He said Miami is now the backdrop for TV shows such as HBO's Baseball Wives, CBS' CSI: Miami featuring David Caruso, NBC's pilot Miss Miami and Swedish soap opera Ocean Drive.
While Miami-Dade has a tremendous infrastructure of technical professionals, he said, there is a lack of business continuity. The active years in the film industry in Miami, Mr. Peel said, were followed by very quiet ones.
Some locals said Mr. Peel's office should make an effort to bring stability to the industry.
"We cannot go through cycles of a lot of work and then nothing," said a Miami filmmaker who asked not to be identified because, he said, he would need to go to Mr. Peel for permits and feared retribution. "We went from Miami Vice to nothing to all these films."
Mr. Peel said the film & entertainment industry has grown in the past 10 years. He said the county is collecting about $200,000 in permit fees while in the early '90s it collected about $100,000.
Miami is home to 40 cable networks that include Univision, Telemundo, Venevision, Cisneros Group and Sony Discos, Mr. Peel said. Together those companies generated about $2.5 billion in revenues last year, up from $1.7 billion in 1997. Some of that, he said, goes back into the local economy.