Tampa Bay's film industry isn't dead. It's just resting, staying limber with a few shoestring indies and ambitious life support.
Thanks to a tax-funded production incentives program, Pinellas County is staying in a game Florida already lost to states like Louisiana and Georgia, which have fortunes to lure movie and TV projects.
St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer has petty cash by comparison: $500,000 annually drawn from tourist development tax dollars, also known as "bed taxes."
That won't buy another Tim Burton, Ron Howard or Steven Soderbergh visit, but it got Kevin Smith to film scenes here for a horror short. We won't see Bryan Cranston or James Franco around town, but the kid strangled by the clown doll in Poltergeist is here directing a thriller.
"Locally, this is what we've got," Armer said. "This is all we're going to get. We will not have another major film shoot in this area without state incentives. That's just the nature of the business. … If you don't go after these small projects, there's nothing."
Three projects were recently or currently being filmed in Pinellas County, and a handful more are considering, Armer said.
He estimated how much each production will receive from county incentives, but "None of those numbers are finalized. … It's basically 10 percent of what their local spending is projected to be."
Smith a.k.a. "Silent Bob," an indie icon since Clerks, filmed scenes in a St. Petersburg house in June for his latest horror flick, Killroy Was Here. Mostly, it was produced in Sarasota with Ringling College students.
"That film would entirely shoot in Sarasota if it wasn't for the incentives" of about $50,000, Armer said.
Production continues in Tarpon Springs through Aug. 20 on Epiphany, a drama co-directed and co-written by sisters Koula Sossiadis Kazista and Katina Sossiadis, long-time admirers of the city's Greek culture.
"It's about a little girl trying to reconnect with her negligent father," Kazista said by phone. "She's a sponge diver in Tarpon Springs … kind of uncovering her father's past. Trying to get to know him."
Armer said Epiphany is in line for "around $25,000."
Production is under way on Celebrity Crush, directed by Oliver Robins, who played frightened Robbie Freeling in 1982's Poltergeist. The movie is produced by Michael Baumgarten, who earlier filmed Paying Mr. McGetty in St. Petersburg.
"It's a thriller in the vein of Misery," Armer said, "but instead of an author, it's a guy who starred in a cult classic horror film (being) stalked by a crazy fan." He estimated Celebrity Crush received $10,000 in incentives.
Each of these projects is months away from distribution.
Florida's $296 million incentives program once enabled Dolphin Tale, Magic Mike and Spring Breakers to be filmed around Tampa Bay. Hundreds more film, TV and video projects were partially funded statewide until the pool ran dry.
Efforts to replenish the fund have been voted down each legislative session since. As a result, major studio projects like Ben Affleck's Live by Night, which is set in Ybor City, moved to states with incentives.
Pinellas County's incentives program was created with a smaller budget in 2007 by Armer's predecessor, Jennifer Parramore, who seldom tapped the fund because the state's was flush with cash.
Armer hasn't spent the entire $500,000 in either year of his stint as commissioner.
"We're doing small projects; 20 grand here, 30 grand there," he said. " … But some of these other projects that are lined up with be looking for larger amounts. I haven't used it all yet, but that's the goal." They spent $100,000 on Tim Burton's 2016 film Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, he said.
Armer is also expecting results from the commission's marketing pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival, where producers shop for locales and talent. A number of projects are being negotiated.
"Hopefully we'll have some film commitments by the end of this year, and hope for 2018 (starts) for those as well," Armer said.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.