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Politics

Lights, camera, Florida film jobs

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Published:   |   Updated: March 12, 2014 at 07:19 AM

TAMPA — When production crews started work on “A Dolphin Tale” in Clearwater, Maria Alejandra Ortiz didn’t have much to show them.

It was 2010 and the aspiring movie maker held a bachelor’s degree in electronic media and arts from the University of Tampa, but her work experience was limited to low-budget independent films shot in Tampa.

Still, Ortiz cashed in on a state requirement that movies receiving state incentive money — “Dolphin Tale” got $10 million — must hire at least 60 percent of their cast and crew from Florida’s employment pool. A friend opened a door for her and she got an entry level job in the movie’s art department.

That experience kick- started her career. She has worked since then in the art and graphics departments for television series such as “The Glades” and “Charlie’s Angels” and is now working on the feature film “A Change of Heart” starring Jim Belushi.

“I’d like to think it would have happened one way or another.” Ortiz said of her current success. “But without ‘Dolphin Tale’ it may have taken a lot longer.”

Legislation under consideration in Tallahassee would open even more doors to Florida’s film students, boosting the local jobs requirement from 60 percent to 70 percent and adding incentives for those who hire from college.

Backers hope Senate Bill 1640, sponsored by Republican Sen. Nancy Detert of Venice, will help lure more film and TV production to Florida along with employment opportunities that come with it.

By some measures, though, Florida faces a challenge just retaining some of the production work it’s losing to neighboring states in a multimillion-dollar grab for jobs using public money.

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To some film professors in Florida, the answer is building an industry from the ground up.

First, film schools are established and graduate qualified students. Then elected officials mandate hiring within the state. Graduates find work and start climbing the “Hollywood ladder.” A large pool of skilled production workers is groomed. More productions choose the area for workforce. Knowing they’ll find steady work, top film students choose local universities.

More than a skilled workforce alone, though, producers want cash. And they’re getting it from cities and states nationwide. Detert’s bill would add more cash to the pot: $50 million a year through 2020. That’s not much more than the state has allocated in past cycles.

A bill in the House would give the industry everything it wants, $200 million a year.

Not content to wait on state action, the Hillsborough County Commission also approved incentives this week for two movies, “The Infiltrator” and Bollywood’s “Saat Hindustani.”

If all these moves pay off, the film departments at the University of Tampa and Art Institute of Tampa can expect an immediate payoff.

Dana Plays, a professor in UT’s Film and Media Arts Department, joined the staff in 2005. At the time, the university’s film program had 40 students and limited equipment. Today, it has 180 students, a state-of-the-art soundstage and screening room, and “high-level equipment” for students to use.

Plays attributes the growth to the department’s curriculum and faculty. Major productions shot near the campus would only increase its draw.

“It would be big,” Plays said. “These films would give them experience for their résumé, important connections for future work and an opportunity to observe how these top productions are run so they can mirror their own after them. Students want to go to a school that can offer those things nearby.”

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Chris Auer, chair of the film and television department at the Savannah College of Art and Design, can attest to that.

Georgia boosted its film incentive program and since 2008 has ranked among the top five states nationwide in films and television productions.

The growth in productions and the internships they provide help explain an increase of about 33 percent in enrollment in the Savannah college’s film program.

“I know that for a fact because students have told me that is why they chose us,” Auer said. “Film and television shows being shot in our community are attractive to potential students.”

Just as important in luring students is providing jobs in-state after they graduate, said Frank Peterson, dean of Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts.

That is why boosting the local employment requirement to 70 percent is important, Peterson said.

He has never worried about students finding work, he said, in part because FSU’s film program only accepts “the best of the best.”

Of the more than 1,000 applications it receives a year, only 60 students are accepted, 30 in the undergraduate program and 30 in the graduate program.

More than 95 percent of graduates immediately find work, he said. But it’s not in Florida.

“We graduate one of the best trained workforces in the entertainment industry,” Peterson said. “And where do they go? Los Angeles, because that is where the work is.”

One reason: Other states are increasing their incentives.

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A study for the Motion Picture Association of America said 190,681 jobs were created through film and television productions in Florida from 2010-2013. The average wage was $70,811.

But Steve Heller, president of Attitude Specialty Lighting in Orlando, said the numbers are falling.

Heller said he used to rent equipment to Florida productions exclusively. Now, just 5 percent of his business is here.

Attitude Specialty Lighting has provided equipment to commercials, 84 films — including all three “Lord of the Rings” movies and two of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” — and 19 television shows, including Florida-based “Charlie’s Angels.”

“All of our business is now in Louisiana or Georgia,” Heller said.

Like Georgia, Lousiana has used film incentives to become a major motion picture production hub.

“Along with all my business that left Florida went all the technicians that worked on the shows,” Heller said. “I personally know 20 technicians that relocated out of Florida due to lack of work.”

Kelsey Stroop, too.

Stroop is another University of Tampa film graduate who got her break on “Dolphin Tale.” Using connections she made on set, she has worked regularly in film and TV production.

She now lives in Los Angeles.

“I would have been happy to stay in the Tampa Bay area if there had been more film work there,” Stroop said. “I love the area and think it has a lot of great things to offer, but there was just not enough work to keep me there.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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