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Film industry lobbies for continued tax credits in Florida

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MIAMI — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium was heavily featured in the 2011 film "Dolphin Tale," which told a fictionalized account of Winter the dolphin. In real life, Winter lost her tail after it became caught in a crab trap in 2005. She was found and taken to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where she was fitted with a silicone and plastic tail that enabled her to swim normally. The film, starring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, reached audiences worldwide.

The movie transformed the aquarium, said David Yates, the facility's CEO. Approximately 200,000 people visited the aquarium the year before the movie was released, but that number jumped to 750,000 the next year. More than 300,000 out-of-state aquarium visitors said they came because of the movie. A recent movie industry study said that almost 20 percent of visitors said viewing a movie or television series filmed in Florida contributed to their decision to travel here.

"Driving tourism and promoting the state through movies is incredibly valuable," Yates said. "There's no other mode of advertising or marketing that can touch the value on a dollar for dollar basis."

The aquarium's story is one that Film Florida, a lobbying group for the state's entertainment industry, pushed recently when a delegation of filmmakers and others met with lawmakers in Tallahassee about extending the state's incentive program for luring movie and TV production. The current program, which was supposed to run from 2010 to 2016, has already used up the $296 million in tax credits it was allocated and has been suspended.

"The program effectively is out of money," Film Florida President Leah Sokolowsky said. "So there's no ability to attract new production."

Similar bills for a new program have already been filed in the House and Senate (HB 983 and SB 1640). The main difference is that the House bill would provide $200 million a year in tax credits through 2020, while the Senate bill would provide $50 million a year.

Advocates say the film incentive program not only brings in tourists but provides good-paying jobs for local actors, camera operators, sound techs, electricians, hair stylists, make-up artists and other trades that comprise a TV or movie crew. Money is also spent with local businesses. A study released last month by the Motion Picture Association of America concluded that Florida's current film incentive program supported 87,870 jobs, $2.3 billion in labor income, and $7.2 billion in economic spending across the state, both through production spending and induced tourism, over the last four years. Its findings could not be verified.

"A majority of our employees are unionized, blue-collar workers. Good hourly wages ranging from $23-55 an hour, with benefits. We support gas stations, lumberyards, drycleaners, hotels and restaurants. It's a diverse range of businesses we support," said Bob Lemchen, the senior vice president of production at Fox Television Studios.

Fox brought the USA Network series "Burn Notice" to Miami-Dade County in 2007, followed by the A&E series "The Glades" to Broward County in 2010. Both shows were set in Florida, and Lemchen said the incentives allowed the studio to film the shows in the Sunshine State, rather than faking Miami or the Everglades in California, Louisiana or Georgia.

But not everyone is sold on the new incentive program. Abbie MacIver, Florida's policy director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said potential funding would be better used as a tax cut.

"We have been historically opposed to all taxpayer-funded incentives, not just film incentives," MacIver said. "We think it's just another example of government picking winners and losers and attempting to prop up or create a market for a politically favored industry."

While all of the tax credits in the current program are claimed, several productions have been able to take over credits for shows that are no longer in production.

Netflix is preparing to shoot the first season of a new show in Homestead and the Florida Keys. The still unnamed series stars Kyle Chandler, an Emmy-winner for "Friday Night Lights," and Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek. HBO shot a pilot in January for a new South Florida series called "Ballers," starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and the network approved it for a series. Both shows will receive tax credits for their first seasons, but their futures in Florida could depend on what the Legislature does in the next month or so.

In February, FX shot a pilot in Miami for a proposed detective series "Hoke," starring Paul Giamatti. The show only received tax credits for its pilot, so if it's picked up, Winick said production might move to Georgia or another state.