On March 5, the Miami film community rejoiced at the announcement that the Miami Community Redevelopment Agency, headed by chairman Marc Sarnoff, is set to invest $11.5 million of taxpayer money to transform the downtown school board skills center into the new 70,000-square-foot Miami Entertainment Complex (MEC). MEC, to be located at 50 NW 14th Street, is the city's latest attempt to bring major motion pictures to the Magic City, responding to filmmakers' supposed complaints that there isn't a proper sound stage in Miami.
It was announced in November that EUE/Screen Gems Studios would run the operations of the facility and had already signed a ten-year, $100,000-per-year lease, which also includes an 11 percent revenue share with the City of Miami, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
"[Miami] is lacking proper facilities for contemporary shows you see on television and in theaters," EUE/Screen Gems Studios COO Chris Cooney told Cultist in a phone interview.
"To do these big films, you need some big-span space," Cooney added. "[Filmmakers] need a lot of green screen space. You look at Gravity -- it's the perfect example. They were catapulting through space; you can't have 18-foot ceilings. That's the problem in South Florida."
EUE/Screen Gems Studios, which has ten sound stages in Wilmington and nine in Atlanta, will add an additional two to its roster with the MEC location.
Unfortunately, there are still many underlying issues with the property itself. Before it was purchased by the CRA for $3.1 million in 2010, the Miami film community raised some pressing questions that have yet to be answered.
In a White Paper report by Maria Chavez of the Florida Film Production Coalition from September 2010, which we obtained thanks to Al Crespo of the Crespogram Report, Chavez outlines reasons the site of the new MEC would be a poor selection for a sound stage:
- The ceiling height is 18 feet to ceiling. "[It] creates serious limitations. The ideal is 35 feet for multiuse purposes."
- Columns that are "20 feet width and length 40 feet apart" would need to be removed for larger productions.
- Sound issues due to "railroad tracks directly parallel to west side of the building, 395-project construction, road noise from street traffic and 395 Expressway."
- Major issues with parking.
Even worse is her recommendation of the entire space itself:
"If the City of Miami's vision is indeed to be a world-class film production hub, on the world stage as a destination for filmmakers, a key, integral requirement is to have solid infrastructure that offers a Sound Stage Complex that is state of the art. The Miami Skill Center does not have the key elements to be or compare to a quality sound stage facility in Miami."
"The industry doesn't need another substandard space to substitute for a real sound stage, which unfortunately is what the Skills Center would be, even with some retrofit."
Cultist reached out to Miami filmmaker Billy Corben, who has been an outspoken critic of MEC.
"This space is completely unfeasible and unusable," Corben told us during a phone conversation. "The demand in the market doesn't exist. It's right in the flight path of planes taking off and landing at Miami International Airport. As far as digital postproduction is concerned, everyone is scaling back and going smaller."
His most important point was in regards to the $11.5 million of public funding the city is putting into the facility. "After Marlins Park, we need to meet these things with immediate skepticism," he said.
While some of the usability issues are addressed in the proposed building plans, the financial feasibility of MEC is the most important question left hanging. According to MEC's design criteria, the facility should be capable of "providing annual revenues of $2 million."
While that's all well and good, the number is not only unrealistic but also dangerous in its inaccuracy.
According to the 2010 IRS Form 990 of Austin Studios in Austin, Texas, a 100,000-square-foot facility, which could be used as a comparison to future MEC revenue, its total revenues were only $431,626 -- less than one-quarter of MEC's estimate.
Additionally, Cultist reached out to Oren Cohen, vice president of Mana Wynwood, which includes the 100,000-square-foot Mana Miami Production Village, the recent local production spaces for Charlie's Angels and Iron Man 3.
"In my eyes, it's a tremendous amount of investment on... unexpected business," Cohen told Cultist via phone. "It's a huge investment using public money, and the return may not be there based on present and past experiences."
He also claims a large indoor facility isn't why large studios come to Miami.
"What we were getting from the major studios is that the majority of the work that comes into Miami is about getting outside locations. Some large productions may build inside sets, especially on rainy days, which is what we learned in the experience with Iron Man 3 and Charlie's Angels. When they come to Miami, they may need a staging place, but they come here more for the geography."
Unfortunately, Miami has been burned too many times by city-funded entertainment projects to be optimistic about MEC. While all signs point toward calamity, there is still the auspice of hope, even from the loudest of its opponents.
"I wish it was a good thing," Corben said about the possible future of the project. "Listen, if I turn out to be wrong, and it turns out to be a smashing success, nobody would be happier about it than me."
Cohen, who would feel the most business competition from the opening of MEC, mirrors Corben's sentiments. "I'm not negative about it; I'm excited. I hope it works out, and I hope it becomes a successful venue... I don't want to put any negative connotation on it. If you build it, they may come. You never know."
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