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Ybor City vies for movie role

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Published:   |   Updated: November 29, 2013 at 08:20 AM

TAMPA — Savannah, Ga., with its picturesque squares and Southern charm, inspired and hosted Clint Eastwood's 1997 film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

But can it pass for Ybor City?

Tampa may have to face that possibility or one like it if state officials can't come up with money to lure production of Oscar winner Ben Affleck's forthcoming film “Live By Night,” based on the best-selling novel about rum-running in Ybor during the 1920s and '30s.

A four-year pot of money Florida uses to provide tax incentives to the film industry ran dry long ago. And a company that does casting for Affleck put out a call for extras in Savannah during October, though it was soon withdrawn.

“People want to come here. We have tremendous weather and great locations,” said Dale Gordon, executive director of The Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission. “The demand is high. The problem is they are not going to come here if they do not get the tax credits.”

Nobody in Affleck's camp will comment on what's next.

But there still is hope for Ybor City to play a role.

Film Florida, a trade commission that represents the interests of the state film industry, plans to push the state Legislature for changes in its film tax incentives when lawmakers convene in March for their 2014 session. The commission is seeking an allocation of $200 million a year, rather than funding every four years.

“If we are able to get that approved or anywhere even near that, Florida would be back on the map strong, and we would have no problem getting projects like this one,” Gordon said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has worked to bring more film productions here, said the issue goes far beyond one project.

“This is big business,” Hagan said. “We're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in spending per year we could lose.”

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Film and television production in Florida has generated more than 100,000 jobs in the state over the past three years, paying more than $650 million in wages to Floridians, said Gus Corbella, advisory council chairman with the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment, a state economic development office.

In 2012, Gordon said, these productions generated a $1.2 billion economic impact for Florida.

But without a more competitive tax incentive, she said, that number will dwindle.

“Live By Night” is the 2012 novel by Dennis Lehane, a Boston writer who lives part of the year in St. Petersburg and who came to know Ybor City during college days in Florida. The novel features secret tunnels and mutual aid societies, unique to Ybor City at the time, as well as mob warfare, the Port of Tampa and the old Tampa Hotel with its minarets.

Other Lehane books turned into films include “Mystic River,” directed by Eastwood and starring Sean Penn; Martin Scorcese's “Shutter Island,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio; and Affleck's “Gone Baby Gone,” with Morgan Freeman.

When Affleck was spotted in Ybor City in May, Tampa was abuzz at the prospect of hosting a major motion picture.

Then in October, a call for extras went out through advertisements in Savannah by Sande Alessi Casting of Los Angeles, which worked on “Argo” — the film that won Affleck the Best Picture Oscar last year.

In the world of Hollywood, Savannah can be made to look like Ybor City.

But Sande Alessi Casting told the Tribune this week it is not currently casting for “Live By Night.”

Andrew Young of the City of Savannah Film Office said the October casting call has been withdrawn. The company, Young said, probably jumped the gun on the announcement.

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Earlier this month, entertainment websites reported that Warner Brothers planned a September 2014 production start in Savannah and a Christmas 2015 release date for “Live By Night.” Warner Brothers did not respond to a request for comment this week.

No one associated with “Live By Night” has applied for tax incentives to the Georgia film commission office, nor is it on the office's production schedule.

No one has contacted the Tampa Hillsborough Film & Digital Media Commission, either.

The commission's Gordon said she hopes this is because the “Live By Night” producers are waiting to decide on Tampa until after the Florida Legislature considers more generous tax incentives.

“Because of the current situation with state incentives, we are most likely not a top candidate as a filming location,” Gordon said. “If we did have the incentives in place to offer a production of this nature, we would actively pursue them.”

She added, “It's a business. The first thing a producer asks isn't what types of locations your area has, but what kinds of incentives it can offer.”

The Legislature allocated $296 million in film incentives for 2012-16. Every penny had been spent just a year into the four-year cycle.

Like Florida, Georgia provides tax incentives of up to 30 percent for television and film productions of any kind. But Florida caps its incentives at $8 million per project while Georgia has no cap.

“If the budget is $50 million or whatever it is, they can get up to 30 percent of that back in Georgia,” Gordon said.

Gordon and commissioner Hagan agreed it would take further study to decide on removing caps.

Production companies do not receive hard cash upon arriving or completing their film. The tax incentives are paid later. A reasonable cap, Gordon said, ensures Florida does not overextend itself.

Said Hagan: “We pride ourselves on our fiscal responsibility. We don't just give money to anyone. We make sure it is the right project and that it will benefit us.”

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Florida is among the top states in the country in getting the most from its tax incentives for productions, Gordon said.

A Florida Department of Economic Opportunity analysis reported that productions increase Florida's gross domestic product at a rate of $15 for every $1 of tax credit awarded.

“These productions add a lot to the economy,” said Gordon. “We cannot afford to lose them. If productions slow down, a lot of our crews and equipment houses will have to leave and relocate to a state that has work. It is desperate, desperate times for us.”

Another option for luring a single film such as “Live By Night” is seeking “special exception” money as Pinellas leaders did last year for “Dolphin Tale 2,” the sequel to the movie about Clearwater's Winter the dolphin that is in production.

The producers wanted to return to Clearwater for the second movie, but the lack of tax credit money was an obstacle.

So backers persuaded Gov. Rick Scott to sign off on $5 million in state money for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The aquarium turned over the money to producer Alcon Entertainment.

“This exception was made because 'Dolphin Tale' spurred so much tourism in the area,” Gordon said. “It was like a long infomercial for Clearwater and St. Petersburg.”

In August 2012, the USF St. Petersburg College of Business released a study that estimated the economic impact of “Dolphin Tale” on the Clearwater and St. Petersburg area would reach $5 billion.

That amount includes jobs created during films and impact following the release of the movie.

“These films can have a ripple effect,” said David Downey, deputy director of St. Pete/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They can build a brand for an area.”

“Dolphin Tale” draws about 73 percent of all the visitors who come to the aquarium, according the USF study.

“With numbers like that, you can understand why they were given money for the sequel,” Gordon said.

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“Live By Night” starts in Boston and ends up in Cuba, but most of the story takes place in between across Ybor City and Tampa.

Might a gangster film like this qualify for the same consideration as family-friendly “Dolphin Tale 2”?

“I personally don't like to promote the mafia in Tampa,” said Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor City Development Corp., a city economic development agency. “Do I know it sells? Of course it sells. As far as tourism, people flock to stuff like that.”

Gordon considers “special exception” a definite possibility for the film.

“But they'd have to be committed to Tampa for more than four or five days,” she said. “They'd have to shoot 75 percent of it here.”

Commissioner Hagan agreed the film could qualify for the exception. But he still wants to see a long-term change in tax incentives first. If that were to fail, he said, he would consider other sources.

Whether the film is produced in Ybor City or not, simply having its name as the title location for “Live By Night” could increase tourism here.

The action-packed script, of course, could omit any reference to the place that inspired it.

“I can't imagine that happening,” Gordon said. “At least I hope not.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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