Behind the scenes at Sanborn Studios

Major projects yet to take shape, but film company president remains confident about future

wtatangelo@bradenton.comNovember 20, 2011 

MANATEE -- Sanborn Studios LLC reached its one-year mark here this month with enough plot twists to propel the first act of a solid screenplay.

The newly named film and television production company emerged weeks after new Florida legislation took effect, creating $242 million in transferable tax credits to encourage the entertainment industry to use the Sunshine State. As plans unfolded for Sanborn Studios in Sarasota-Manatee, highlights included a multimillion-dollar impact and more than 100 new jobs.

Sarasota County commissioners got on board, allocating $250,000 from their Economic Development Incentive Program to create a Film Industry Incentive Program. This paved the way for county officials to approve Sanborn Studios for a $650,000 grant.

Today, however, the film and television company won’t disclose its number of employees. Key players have already left. And the helicopter news show once hyped as its main production hasn’t taken flight yet.

But Sanborn Studios’ two executives remain confident that large, long-term success is just one deal away.

Chief Executive Officer/Founder Ken Sanborn committed to the project after selling his shares of defense company Gyrocam Systems to Lockheed Martin in 2009. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Karinne Behr, president and partner at Sanborn Studios, was an executive producer on numerous big-budget feature films, most notably the 2007 box-office flops “I Could Never Be Your Woman” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and “The Flock” starring Richard Gere.

In September 2010, the Herald reported, Sanborn Studios planned an initial capital investment over the first 18 months of approximately $30 million with an estimated $14 million to be spent on infrastructure development. Other planned investments included facility renovations, equipment, hiring and purchasing rights for initial productions.

Since then, Sanborn Studios has provided services for the 30-minute television pilot “Workers’ Comp” starring Morgan Fairchild, various TV commercials and a 2 1/2-minute trailer for the unsold action movie “Miami 24/7” starring Casper Van Dien.

“Sanborn Studios is committed to its three-year plan of creating 117 jobs at the end of the three years, as well as marketing the studio to filmmakers and introducing them to the Sarasota/Bradenton area,” Behr wrote in a recent email to the Herald. “Our goal is to attract long term projects which will create direct and indirect jobs.”

Its major projects, however, still haven’t taken shape.

In September 2010, Sanborn Studios announced that its first major pilot would be the TV action series “Miami 24/7.” Other projects on Sanborn Entertainment’s slate included two reality TV series: “Cutting Edge Medicine” and “You Can Make A Difference.”

Production was expected to begin two months later on “Miami 24/7,” which has been reclassified as a movie for tax credit reasons but has yet to begin shooting. The two reality series have been removed from the Sanborn Studios’ website.

Several key players have left the company, reducing the executive team to the original two managers.

“I’m still very hopeful for them, still very enthusiastic for that type of asset in our community,” said Jeanne Corcoran, director of the Sarasota Film & Entertainment Office, in a phone interview last week with the Herald. “Any startup struggles with obstacles they didn’t expect. In that respect, Sanborn Studios is learning as it goes. It’s a real learning curve for any startup -- not just them.”

Economic challenges

Sanborn Studios officially opened last November with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at its primary complex in Lakewood Ranch. The 30,000-square-foot studio includes sound stages, post-production facilities and offices. Corporate headquarters and the aerial photography department for Sanborn Studios are on 15th Street East along the northern border of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Ken Sanborn said in a publicity statement issued in September 2010 that he planned to hire about 60 employees in the first year, although he’s not obligated to by Sarasota County.

As previously reported by the Herald, according to the financial incentive agreement between Sarasota County and Sanborn Studios, the company must add the 117 jobs with an average wage of $72,000 by Sept. 2, 2013. Within 60 days of that date, Sanborn Studios shall reimburse the county $2,992 for each of the 117 new jobs not created. If Sanborn Studios ceases operations in Sarasota County within five years of the agreement, the company will be responsible to reimburse the county a prorated amount of the incentive starting at 80 percent.

In addition to responding to questions via email, Behr met with the Herald last week at the company’s airport facility. Ken Sanborn could not attend because of a previously scheduled meeting.

The Sanborn Studios’ president had just returned from representing her company at the American Film Market. Commonly referred to as AFM, the important industry event is where the selling and acquiring of shows occurs every year in Santa Monica, Calif.

The eight-day convention was encouraging this year, according to published reports.

“The American Film Market doesn’t end until Wednesday, but it is already clear that overall attendance and participation in the new conference series were both strong, reflecting the rebound in the film business since the recession that hit in 2008,” the Hollywood Reporter stated in an article titled “AFM 2011 By the Numbers: Overall Attendance and Buying Executives Climb.”

Behr discussed the piece -- the reception area of Sanborn Studios’ corporate headquarters has a table covered with copies of the venerable trade magazine -- and its assessment of the film industry.

“I think we’ve seen a slight improvement and AFM was definitely busier this year,” she said. “I think everyone commented on the fact there was definitely more activity. Personally, I think it’s going to take, it’s not going to be an overnight jump, but I think it’s going to take another year or two before we see a major change back to the way things were before the recession.”

Behr reported via email having a positive trip and that filmmakers were impressed with Sanborn Studios.

“All the people I spoke to have money attached to their project, so it’s not really a situation where you say they’re waiting for financing,” she said during the interview at her headquarters. “They are confirming their casts, so one of the reasons I can’t speak about it right now is they’re in the process of confirming their cast. And when they do, the goal is for us to fly them here, show them the facility, show them our services and really sell them on coming to shoot here.

“Some of the projects that we have could come as early as January,” Behr added. “So this is on the film side. Again, our goal has always been to attract a major TV show here. So another lead I have is, I’m also talking to a major TV show. I don’t like to talk about things until they actually happen. I don’t think it’s professional for me to talk about it. I have some good things in the works. And I probably have about four or five projects that could land, if we get lucky, that could land this way.”

Cast changes

As of Friday, the publicity statement about planning to hire 60 employees in the first year, issued last September and titled “Lights! Camera! Action! Hollywood is Coming to Sarasota,” could still be found on Sanborn Studios’ website under “News.”

In July, Ken Sanborn confirmed that “four people out of a staff of 21” were given unpaid vacations.

Behr declined to state how many people Sanborn Studios has hired.

“I’m not going back to the 60 employees, whatever,” she said last week. “In all fairness, it’s almost like taking a score at halftime. We are in the type of business where you could start off very slow and then have a total explosion of jobs.

“We are still building,” Behr said. “So just like any new business, the first year of business is building infrastructure, marketing the facility and trying to get as many productions out here as possible in order to create more and more jobs.”

She spoke confidently about sitting down with the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County in three years, predicting officials would say “thank you very much” to Sanborn Studios for fulfilling its agreement and doing something “wonderful for this area.”

Behr acknowledged the company has seen some significant staffing departures.

“We all wish each other well, but people move on,” she said. “It’s the nature of business.”

Ray Collins, anchor/reporter at Fox 13 News Tampa Bay from 2004 to 2009, started last November as director of media relations and creative development at Sanborn Studios.

He left in February.

“I appreciated the opportunity,” Collins said in a recent interview with the Herald. “I met a lot of interesting people from around the country in a relatively short period of time. In the end, returning full-time to my media consulting company -- RayCollinsMedia.com -- was the best use of my time.”

That same month, Sanborn Studios terminated its agreement with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch to buy land in Lakewood Ranch.

“On February 17, we received a fax from their attorney terminating the purchase agreement on the property,” Rex Jensen, president and chief executive officer of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, told the Herald at the time. “Therefore, we really have no further relationship with Sanborn Studios.”

New York City news television veteran Dan Forman, the senior vice president of program development at Sanborn Studios, left a few months later. In October, Forman landed a job as managing editor at WCBS-TV, which covers the greater New York City area. Reached by phone, he declined to comment on Sanborn Studios except to confirm he worked there from December 2010 to April.

Behr explained that Forman was still living in New York at the time, with his wife and children, and the commute became too difficult.

“At some point he said, ‘Life is too short, I don’t want to stay away from my family as much as I am,’ and he wanted to go back to New York,” Behr said. “But we’re still friendly with him and we might do something with him in the future again.”

Alan Bailey maximized state production incentives while working at Paramount Pictures for 35 years before he started in January as the chief financial officer at Sanborn Studios. He left in August. Bailey did not respond to personal cellphone calls or emails seeking comment.

“Alan came in, it was at a time when we were jump-starting the business, he came in as CFO of the company,” Behr said. “He worked on business models with us and financial projections, and after the eight months he wanted to pursue other interests. It’s life. It’s not personal. We’re friends.”

Sanborn teams with USF

In May, USF Sarasota-Manatee announced that it had teamed with Sanborn Film & Television Institute to offer a master’s degree in business with a concentration in film and television production. The Film & Television Institute is a limited liability company of which Ken Sanborn is sole manager and started in April. At the initial press conference, Dr. Robert Anderson, USF-SM’s dean of the college of business, said they hoped to start the program this fall, but that issues concerning international students and their visas might delay the opening until next spring.

Three students have enrolled in the program so far and will begin their concentration at Sanborn Studios in May, Anderson said Wednesday during a phone interview with the Herald.

“I wasn’t aware of the personnel changes over there (at Sanborn Studios) until just a week or two ago,” Anderson said. “Other than perhaps the foreign student component Alan Bailey was working on, it doesn’t affect the program at all. The program was developed as part of the MBA program, which we already had and will continue to have. I expect it will happen and we will just focus more on the U.S. market and the state of Florida as well as outside Florida, which is fine and will strengthen the program.”

‘Miami 24/7’ international sales terminated

Sanborn Studios stated a year ago that “Miami 24/7” sold the standard 13 episodes to foreign distributors at AFM. According to page 33 of the AFM 2010 Product Guide, Cinepro Pictures International acted as the sales agent for “Scar 23” and “Miami 24/7” at AFM. On the bio page of his Maxsar Digital Studios website, Behr’s brother, longtime business associate and former “Miami 24/7” executive producer Philippe Martinez is listed as “Chairman and CEO of both Cinepro Pictures International, LLC. and Philippe Martinez Productions, Inc.”

For months, the Sanborn Studios website touted “Miami 24/7” as its main production. The producers were listed as Ken Sanborn and Behr, with “production (by) “Sanborn Studios, LLC.” The status of the action show never changed from “pre-production.”

The description read: “When Manhattan investigative journalist Ken Cooper gets fired for standing up for what’s right, he’s forced to take a job as a helicopter reporter in Miami under the watchful eye of his mentor, Jim Boyd. After proving to his beautiful, tough-as-nails pilot Bobby Wade that he has what it takes, Ken is thrust into a world of racing, speed and pure adrenaline, Miami style.”

The same page informed potential buyers: “World distribution sales information contact Cindy LaFray: cindy@cinepropictures.com. Credits not contractual.”

In an email to the Herald in November 2010, Sanborn Studio officials wrote: “We cannot disclose the names of our buyers at this time but the show has sold internationally during AFM 2010 in multiple countries including: France, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Poland, CIS, Africa etc.”

Martinez told the Herald last month that “Miami 24/7” and Cinepro had split.

“We are no longer the distributor. We were. We made some sales and then we walked away,” Martinez said in a phone call Oct. 21 to the Herald.

When asked why Cinepro was still listed on the Sanborn website, Martinez responded, “I haven’t talked to Sanborn Studios in months.” By Oct. 24, Sanborn Studios no longer listed “Miami 24/7” as in “pre-production” on its website and had removed all mention of Cinepro and any distribution deals. The only mention of “Miami 24/7” on the Sanborn Studios site as of Friday was on a page titled “Sanborn Studios Recent Work” along with “Workers’ Comp.”

Behr explained via email that Sanborn Studios’ website did not reflect the fact that Cinepro Pictures International and Sanborn Studios had parted ways 10 months ago.

She also confirmed during her interview that the “Miami 24/7” sales were terminated.

“You have to because it’s a binding agreement they have to be terminated, plus it was with Cinepro,” Behr said. “And Cinepro, you know, is not involved with the project anymore since a long time, but unfortunately the change was not made on the website.”

“Miami 24/7,” she responded, doesn’t have a “domestic distributor, yet, and there’s no international distributor right now.”

‘Miami 24/7’ shooting schedule

Like Sanborn Studios LLC, Kenneth Sanborn and Karinne Behr are listed as sole managers on Miami 24/7, LLC, according to the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations. The same document also lists 8100 15th St. E., Sarasota, as the principal and mailing address for the project, same as Sanborn Studios, LLC.

“‘Miami 24/7’ is not a project owned by Sanborn Studios, it will rent the facilities and equipment of Sanborn Studios when needed, just as many other independent projects have done to date,” Behr said via email.

She maintained her position regarding “Miami 24/7” when interviewed in person.

“We can be producing a movie or TV show where we can have certain business partners that have nothing to do with Sanborn Studios and the owners of Sanborn Studios,” Behr said. “So that project is pretty much an island on its own. And any revenue generated from the project will go back to the business associates.”

The series about competing helicopter news teams starring Van Dien had previously been scheduled to shoot from June 20 to Oct. 14, according to The Florida Office of Film & Entertainment website, filminflorida.com.

In July, the start date for “Miami 24/7” was pushed back and the project went from being classified as a 60-minute TV pilot to a 90-minute feature film -- and being marketed as a TV series, as well -- in order to qualify for a $700,000 state tax credit.

“The state changed a rule and now we will be able to receive a new credit made available for feature films,” Sanborn said when he called the Herald in July.

Sanborn then emailed the Herald a copy of a June 15 letter addressed to him, on behalf of Gov. Rick Scott, stating that “your production is qualified for a tax credit up to $708,963 at an approved rate of 20 percent, based upon $3,544,818 in qualified Florida expenditures, as defined by Section 288.1254 Florida Statutes,” which is an entertainment industry financial incentive program passed by Florida lawmakers last year.

“Miami 24/7 The Movie” was scheduled to shoot from Nov. 18 to Feb. 1, according to the project start/end date listed on the letter. As of June 15, Sanborn could accrue qualified expenditures applicable toward his total tax credit amount. Estimated jobs for Floridians is 531.

“‘Miami 24/7’ start date has not been officially locked yet,” Behr said via email last week. “The November 18 date stated on the state website acts as a placeholder to be in the queue for the Florida Entertainment Industry Financial Incentive funding. The start date to be illegible for state funding can be up to 45 days from the official start date.”

Future for Sanborn Studios

Jeff Maultsby, manager of Business and Economic Development for Sarasota County, has been familiar with Sanborn Studios since it was code-named “Project Waterboy.” Although Sanborn Studios isn’t obligated to offer the county a progress report before the three-year mark, they will soon be asked to volunteer one.

“We are developing documentation and want it standardized for all the companies that have received incentives from Sarasota County and will be mailing that out in the near future,” Maultsby said in a phone interview last week with the Herald. “They’re not obligated, but we would like them to offer an update so we can report to the county commissioners.”

All five commissioners were left messages seeking comment on Sanborn Studios’ one-year anniversary.

Christine Robinson, who had not been sworn in yet when the county approved the $650,000 for Sanborn Studios, said she wouldn’t be able to comment until she saw the one-year report.

Jon Thaxton returned the phone call but couldn’t be reached for comment by deadline.

Joe Barbetta, Nora Patterson and Carolyn Mason did not return the calls.

Wade Tatangelo, Herald features reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7057.

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