In “Marley & Me,” starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, South Florida moviegoers can enjoy picking out local landmarks from Las Olas Boulevard to Dolphin Stadium.
South Florida is as much a character in the film as Marley, the story’s unruly Labrador. The two months spent shooting the film in the region this spring pumped more than $10 million into area businesses and paid wages for nearly 1,400 local film industry workers.
But Florida is beginning to fall off studios’ radar. A fund the state provides to attract big film productions was slashed from $25 million last year to $5 million as the state struggled with its fiscal crisis.
Now in its fifth year, Florida’s budget for incentives is being dwarfed by other states, such as Louisiana, New Mexico and Michigan.
“It used to be we could compete with a less attractive or less generous incentive because we were Florida,” said Lucia Fishburne, Florida’s film commissioner. “There’s obviously an incentive war going on, and everybody’s beefing up their war chests.”
Major film and TV productions that spend at least $625,000 in the state can qualify for a rebate that is typically 15 percent of the amount spent in Florida. The rebate can reach 22 percent if filming occurs during hurricane season and if the production is family-friendly. Productions also get a sales tax exemption.
“Marley & Me,” based on the best-selling book by former Sun Sentinel columnist John Grogan, got a $1.5 million rebate for spending nearly $10.3 million in Florida, including booking 6,300 hotel room nights.
But Florida film officials say these days big budget films like Marley & Me could be shot almost anywhere.
Other states are providing much larger incentives, some worth 40 percent or more, and have no budgetary restrictions.
That worries Sam Tedesco, “Marley & Me”’s location manager, who has homes in Pompano Beach, Fla., and Southern California, and other film industry workers who also live in Florida.
“It turns film crews that have their homes in Florida essentially into migrant workers,” Tedesco said. “People are starting to migrate to other states, they’re working in Louisiana, New Mexico.”
Michigan enacted its incentive package, which can reach as high as 42 percent, this spring. Already, 25 major productions completed filming in 2008, including Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” compared with two the previous year, said Anthony Wenson, Michigan Film Office chief operating officer. Another 50 are planned next year, he said.
Lawmakers in some states don’t want to lose their competitive edge, but have grown concerned about film incentive budgets growing out of control.
In Florida, two bills that would lift the $5 million cap on incentives and offer a choice between a straight rebate or tax credit have been filed in advance of the spring legislative session.
“We know this is an uphill battle. We want so much to make the business community, as well as make legislators, understand this is a complement for tourism,” said Elizabeth Wentworth, Broward County film commissioner.
With its picture postcard of a puppy bounding across sun-soaked beaches, “Marley & Me” opened nationwide Christmas Day while much of the country endured wintry weather.
“This is publicity we could not afford to buy,” Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau President Nicki Grossman said. “Millions will see the beauty we enjoy every day, especially those battling the cold weather in the Northeast and Midwest.”
Bob Ferro, owner of Nick’s Bar & Grill on Hollywood Beach, loves the attention his business gets serving as a location for films, as it has for “Marley & Me” and a half dozen other movies, including Body Heat and All About the Benjamins.
“It’s a great advertisement. This movie (“Marley”) is going to have our girls with our T-shirts on, if they use the clip,” Ferro said. “To have your place in a movie, everyone in South Florida who goes to the movie is going to say, ‘Look, there’s Nick’s.’”
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Florida has to compete with other states for film and TV production, which provide jobs and stimulate the economy. According to the state film office, 100,000 people in Florida are directly employed in the film and TV industry.
“The only way we’re going to increase revenue for our state is to stimulate the economy and grow jobs and investments. If we don’t step up to the plate and show our side of wanting to invest, why would the private sector want to come to our state and invest?” said Fasano, who chairs the Senate transportation and economic development appropriations committee.
In a recession, proponents say spending on films flows quickly through the economy, be it on jobs, hotel stays, rental cars or lumber companies that provide materials for sets.
And, other than mountains, Florida offers a wealth of settings.
“If you want westerns, you can go out to the western part of the county; if you want yachts, you can come to the east. If you need condos, come to the middle of the county,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson. “Anything is here for any filmmaker that wants to come.”