One day in 1994, residents of Little Havana and downtown Miami heard a loud boom. It wasn’t a hurricane or a riot or anything dangerous. It was Arnold Schwarzenegger blowing shit up with a fake Harrier jet. True Lies, the action comedy about a secret agent who lies to his family and friends about his real job, filmed parts of its climactic scenes in Brickell and the Seven-Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.
Today, there are no heart-stopping, mysterious booms in South Florida — at least none produced by Hollywood. Film projects, big and small, are leaving the Sunshine State. Others don't even consider filming here. The reason is simple: There’s no money. In 2010, the Florida Legislature offered some $296 million in incentives to filmmakers. The money was supposed to last until 2016, but a few years in, it was all gone.
Earlier this week, it was announced it's very likely Miami-Dade will begin providing its own county film incentives on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t want our local productions to leave, including those that are homegrown stories," Sandy Lighterman, the county’s film commissioner, told Miami Today.
One filmmaker fighting the seemingly inevitable mass exodus is Lou Simon.
A Cuban-American director/writer/producer, she has made several horror films, including the award-winning All Girls Weekend and Agoraphobia. The latter stars Cassie Scerbo (Sharknado) and Tony Todd (Candyman). Aside from owning a home in Miami, Simon also has a place in Atlanta. Much to her chagrin, she has been forced to travel to Georgia on a regular basis to make her thrillers.
“In the past, we had an unlimited pool, and then it was a given out on a first-come, first-served basis," she says. "Then, if you had a big production company come in and film here, it pretty much sucked up a lot of the funds. So it wasn’t perfect, but it was something."
She compares the program to Georgia, where there's no limit, she says. The state gives filmmakers a 30 percent tax break. "The requirements in Georgia, however, are much higher. In Miami, the minimum you had to spend was $100,000 — but you had to spend it all in Florida.”
Since the Florida system has been seemingly done away with, Georgia’s remains the same. But indie filmmakers like Simon never truly benefited from direct monies because they don't typically produce projects that exceed $100,000. They did, however, benefit from the local production teams.
“With all the big productions having left, there’s no crew. There are no actors left. Everybody has moved out. And with Georgia being right there, it’s not a big sacrifice. Plus, the cost of living here is superhigh, and in Georgia it’s supercheap. You can’t shoot an indie film here anymore because there’s no one to work on it.”
The Hollywood Reporter revealed Monday that HBO series Ballers, starring Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, might not film its third season in Miami. "We have a long history of shooting projects in Florida and were obviously disappointed in the recent vote to not renew the incentive program," HBO said in a statement to THR. "We will be assessing its impact on any future productions like Ballers, who have established Florida as their home."
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Simon doesn't see the Rock filming around Miami anymore come production time. "Ballers will end up like CSI: Miami and Dexter, that began filming here and then moved to Los Angeles," she says. "The problem is that it's very easy to re-create Miami in L.A., because they have similar architecture, palm trees, and beaches. That's why shows like Fox's Rosewood just shoot the pilot here and some establishing shots that they can use over and over again.
"It costs the studios more to film here since they have to fly in the talent, so without incentives to offset those expenses, [big studios] will not come here."
Several groups and interested parties are fighting to revitalize the Florida film industry, and none is bigger and more influential than a pair of state senators. Venice Republican Sen. Nancy Detert has pledged that no economic incentive plan will pass through the Senate without the inclusion of film incentives. She has received the backing of fellow Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater. Cleverly, Detert’s plan contains an overhaul of the current system that would ensure the money doesn’t run out too quickly.