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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014

Film commissioner hopes Hollywood contacts boost St. Pete’s film chances

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An influential fixture in Hollywood for more than a decade, Tony Armer used his contacts to launch his independent filmmaking career and start the Sunscreen Film Festival, which brings independent screenings to St. Petersburg.

Now, he will use them in an effort to turn the St. Petersburg and Clearwater areas into hubs for productions of all types — commercials, Internet content, TV shows, independent films, big-budget films and more. If it involves a camera and moving images, it will fall under his jurisdiction.

Armer was named head of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Film Commission on Thursday. He will oversee its operations — from permitting and helping productions find local cast and crew to marketing the area as a production destination.

The 44-year-old St. Petersburg resident takes over for Jennifer Paramore, who established the film commission as a standalone organization before moving it under the umbrella of the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau. She retired earlier this year.

Armer’s salary will be $74,880.

“Jennifer Paramore did an unbelievable job leading the commission and bringing so many productions to this area,” Armer said. “When she retired, I said that whoever took that job had big shoes to fill. Well, I didn’t think it would be me, but I stand by that statement.”

Pinellas County has been on a roll under her guidance. Big-budget movies, including “Dolphin Tale,” “Spring Breakers” and “Dolphin Tale 2” have used St. Petersburg and Clearwater as main locales and have given the cities positive exposure with the film industry. But a lack of tax incentives to lure Hollywood productions threatens to slow that momentum.

The state allocated $296 million in film incentives for 2012-16, but all the money was spent just a year into the four-year cycle.

An effort to add anywhere from $50 million to $200 million a year through 2020 was denied by the Legislature.

Not to worry, Armer said.

“I feel like I can make big contributions to the area with a lot of the connections I have around the world in the film industry,” he said.

Those connections include “Napoleon Dynamite” producer Chris Wyatt and “X-Men” producer Ralph Winter, as well as actors John Travolta and Patrick Wilson.

Armer is not promising he can bring big-budget films without tax incentives. But until the day the incentives are approved, he is confident he can turn St. Petersburg and Clearwater into a popular destination for independent films with budgets of $500,000 to $1 million.

He is already in talks with a film investment group out of New Orleans he met at the Cannes Film Festival. These investors, he said, could potentially bring three to five feature films with budgets of $500,000 to $1 million.

“But commercials continue to be our bread and butter that feeds our local industry,” he said. “I will continue Jennifer’s commitment to that area.”

He also will outline a Web initiative.

“Websites, Web content, Web series — we are living in a digital world. It is not the future. It is the now,” Armer said. “It is big business with big dollars behind it. And I am going to make a push to get us involved in it in a major way.”

With the state tax incentives unfunded, it’s going to take an aggressive effort to keep Tampa Bay as a key filming destination, said Tyler Martinolich, production coordinator for the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission and programming director for the Sunscreen Film Festival.

“I think Tony has the drive and passion necessary for the job and will be a great complement to the equally driven Film Commissioner Dale Gordon on the Hillsborough side of the Bay,” Martinolich said.

Local filmmakers are excited that Armer — someone they consider one of their own — was chosen for the position.

“He understands our needs and not just the needs of the city and county,” said Dan Brienza, executive director of the Florida Film Network. “I know he’ll always have our best interests in mind.”

With his new role, Armer will have to step down as executive director of the Sunscreen Film Festival.

“There is no way I can do two full-time jobs,” Armer said.

He helped found the festival in 2006. That year, it was held at an art studio in St. Petersburg. The 600 who attended over a weekend sat in folding chairs. A projector was placed on a table.

Today, the festival is based at the Baywalk entertainment complex and Muvico 20 Theaters. Its average annual attendance is more than 11,000. It is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“I put my blood, sweat and tears into the festival,” Armer said. “I hope to continue to serve it in some capacity, but I need to sit down with county leaders and figure out what that should be.”

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