Memo from Miami

The Latin film conference brought out the best and the worst about town

One hears a good deal of talk from local officials about the growth of local entertainment, of the strength of Univision, Telemundo, the Cisneros Group, but this talk is mostly hot air. Empty hype from government spin-doctors won't generate jobs, just expectations. The main problem with Miami's approach to the film business is that many people here don't understand it. The talk at the conference, for example, referred to production and community image issues. But the real business of film is finance and distribution. The entertainment industry is what it says it is: an industry. It's not a charity, it's not a public service. It exists as a means to make money -- a lot of it -- and in ways that can help minimize risk. They don't call it “show art.”

So instead of whining about the lack of local turnout at conferences or blowing smoke about Miami's flashy scene, local leaders -- in media, government, finance, and education -- need to sit down and figure out a practical strategy to spark the entertainment industry in Miami. The movie business and the jobs it brings aren't going to happen without concrete and concerted action.

Some specific suggestions? The county could hire a top consultant to coach local lending institutions about film finance basics. It appears that only one area bank has an entertainment department, while another is interested in investigating the field. With the flood of off-shore money washing into Miami, there may be several banks ready to move into entertainment finance. Sure it's risky and sure it's unusual, but Bank of America, for one, has a long history of making money in the field, and it's doing just fine, thank you. If local lenders begin financing film projects, film companies will set up shop here. If the Spanish broadcasters (Telemundo, et al.) expand their original programming, there will be markets for suppliers, and they too will open operations in Miami.

Local government needs to offer serious tax breaks and low-cost or no-cost facilities to individual filmmakers and to production companies. Permits and fees should be waived or kept at a nominal level to encourage both local production and lure studio-level, big-budget projects. If Miami-Dade doesn't do this, the work will continue to go to the cities that do.

The local film industry (the crews, the film labs, the caterers, et cetera) need to rethink their attitude toward independent, no-budget film projects. These start-up productions need to be supported, not exploited. It's much easier to find competent pick-up crews in Los Angeles than in Miami. When it's so hard to find crews here for a director's first feature, why would he or she stick around to make a second, even with more money?

Finally Miami needs to figure out what it can offer that is unique. Forget about Hollywood East. Even if it were possible to replicate Hollywood (which it isn't), what's the point of this thinking? So the physical Hollywood, meaning Southern California, is no longer a great place to shoot films: It's crowded, it's expensive, its unions are entrenched. But Hollywood is Hollywood because it's an efficient place to do business. The banks are there. The dealmakers are there. The networking, the infrastructure, the web of relationships are there, and will remain so until the big one levels the place. Miami's problems are exactly like that of a screenplay: First, you need a strong, sellable concept, you need to finance it, and then you need to execute that concept well. What should Miami's concept as a film center be? Based on fashion, Latin culture, tropical drinks? Call when you know.

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