After Georgia passed a controversial “heartbeat” bill,  outlawing abortions six weeks into a pregnancy, actor-producer Leonardo DiCaprio announced he would produce his new series The Right Stuff, in Florida instead of Georgia, passing up Georgia incentives to shoot here even when no such program remains in Florida. Executives at Marvel have signaled they, too, may stop producing their blockbusters in Atlanta, and corporate owners Disney just happen to own some sound stages still attached to theme park operations in Lake Buena Vista. Some of Sarasota’s state lawmakers see a chance to attract Tinseltown’s attention once more. “We need to embrace this industry and do all that we can,” says state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota. For the fourth year in a row, he’s filing legislation to rekindle a long-dormant film incentives program in Florida.

But will any program coming out of a Legislature that’s grown averse to incentives be enough to woo Hollywood? And in this age where politics factor so heavily on the actions of Hollywood stars, does a state with a Republican-dominated government have a chance to woo filmmakers shutting down projects over an abortion bill?

Jeanne Corcoran, director of Sarasota County’s Film and Entertainment Office, thinks so. “We have very politically savvy lawmakers,” she says. Specifically, she things political leadership in Southwest Florida can show the way to bringing film back to Florida in force, and that Sarasota specifically will feel the rewards.

Conservative Incentives

The fact Republicans have dominated state politics in Florida for more than 20 years doesn’t mean there have been no philosophical shifts. During the eight-year administration of Gov. Rick Scott, no fight made headlines with such frequency as his battle with the Legislature over incentives. And it’s a battle the Governor largely lost in 2017 when the House gutted Enterprise Florida’s budget. Then-Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran has since joined the administration of new Gov. Ron DeSantis, and House Speaker Jose Oliva has largely continued Corcoran’s free market philosophy.

But state Rep. James Buchanan, R-Venice, feels there’s still an argument to be made for incentives done right. The last iteration of Florida’s film incentives program proved front-heavy with little accountability. In 2010, Florida budgeted about $300 million in transferable tax credits to attract projects to the state over a six-year time frame. All the money was gone by early 2014. Worse, as the money disappeared, the film industry that lawmakers hoped would become permanently entrenched in the state largely pulled stake and moved to Georgia. In a particularly embarrassing episode that made headlines, the Ben Affleck film Live By Night, planned and set in 1920s Tampa Bay, elected to move to Georgia and entirely rebuild a façade of Ybor City, which thanks to Georgia’s uncapped incentives program was a more economic choice.

If incentives come back in Florida, Buchanan doesn’t want such an insecure foundation. He filed legislation in the 2019 Legislative Session that would require 70 percent of cast and crew to be Florida residents. It would also demand 60 percent of all money spent on a project be spent in the state of Florida.

“The whole goal is for this to be the most conservative program of its kind throughout the U.S.,” Buchanan says.

Gruters sponsored the Senate version of the bill, which passed in the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee he chairs. But it never went anywhere after that. Buchanan’s bill never got a committee vote.

Now, the lawmakers are looking for ways to add further accountability without making the program unworkable. Part of what Buchanan wants to do is make sure payments don’t all come up front. A project must actually create the jobs before the state offers tax credits reimbursing the work. That offers filmmakers the promise of a break on costs but doesn’t give the money away. The hope is for a sustainable and accountable program that not only attracts filmmakers to work in Florida but encourages them to plant roots. But will directors and producers themselves take notice?

Directors’ Lens

Erin Gaetz, founder of SouthPaw Content, has closely followed the incentives battle in Tallahassee for years. A Panhandle-based filmmaker, she’s been frustrated in the past by how much money went to out-of-state players who cashed checks and left. But she sees promise in the plans advanced thus far by Gruters. The first-come, first-serve model helped attract some major series, such as Netflix’s Bloodline and the USA Network’s Burn Notice. But plenty of other quick-hit productions came and left, delivering little gain to the industry in the state or to Florida in any broader sense.

“Under that system, something like MTV's Floribama Shore might get a tax credit instead of, say, a docu-series on Hurricane Michael, just because it got in line first,” says Gaetz. “Judging ‘merit’ in the creative world is a little tricky, but it seems insane to hand out tax credits based on timing alone.”

She sees potential in a program that can pick and choose who it funds. And she likes that idea of weighing local economic impacts.

“I like Sen. Gruters' bill because it incentivizes production companies not just to bring projects to Florida, but to keep doing so,” she says. “But since that proposal requires a production company to film something like 70 percent of their projects in Florida to get the tax credit, it remains to be seen whether that will entice big-budget companies that make films all over the world to come to Florida. Still, I think this is an incredibly worthwhile proposal.”

Tony Stopperan, a Sarasota-based filmmaker who recently founded the Skyway Film Institute, says film provides significant and long-lasting benefits to the local economy. His institute seeks to leverage private equity investment into film projects for regional benefit. That has already led to projects like the just-wrapped I Saw a Man With Yellow Eyes, a film starring Katherine Heigl and Harry Connick, Jr. that filmed largely in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

But he says state incentives play a big role in production budget. He’s financed some projects doing their post-production at facilities at Ringling College of Art & Design, but which will film elsewhere to take advantage of economic opportunities.

“You want to have value-added incentives, and there is value in having film here,” he says

Gruters notes that some series and movies inspire tourism by fans who want to visit locations where scenes were shot. Regardless, just showing Florida’s lush landscapes and environments to any audience may inspire them to visit or move to the Sunshine State. But Stopperan also notes that simply having a creative class in place inspires further investment in the field. “There’s an opportunity for growth in a big industry at a time when there are huge demands for film and episodic content across all platforms,” he says.

So what works? Gaetz knows there’s political nuance to passing any incentives program. Her father, Don Gaetz, once served as president of the Florida Senate and her brother, Matt Gaetz, represents the Panhandle in Congress. But there’s some way out there to create a program with accountability and an attractiveness to film itself. “Without layering too much bureaucracy onto the process, I think the state could create a Florida film commission that awards tax credits based on artistic value and economic impact,” she says.


Of course, there’s still the question of whether film indeed wants to move to Florida. If conservative politics are driving Hollywood from Georgia, does Florida offer a great alternative, incentives or none? Gruters notably also sponsored a “pain capable” abortion restriction as his first bill in the Legislature three years ago, legislation that if it ever passed would outlaw abortions at around 20 weeks. Of course, one key difference may be that even with a Republican Legislature such a bill hasn’t made it to a vote in Florida.

Regardless, Stopperan can’t say how eager film is to leave Georgia anyway.

“There’s a push for the entertainment industry to shoot somewhere that aligns to industry values,” Stopperan acknowledges, “but you also don’t want to be cutting the legs out of people who have those values but are living in a state that does not. Those are human beings who are relying on the industry to stay.”

Corcoran thinks Florida, especially Sarasota, can provide all things. Sarasota County offers its own locally funded rebates program. It also boasts infrastructure built over the last decade, including soundstages at Ringling College and elsewhere. The Hollywood Reporter lists Ringling College as the No. 15 film school in the country and directors like Kevin Smith have found success and partnership opportunities shooting in the region.

“Georgia has done some things politically and otherwise that have driven business away,” Corcoran says. “Hollywood is an industry that is sensitive to political winds of change.”But she thinks the measured politics in Florida can lead to a conversation with filmmakers.

“Our Republicans and our Democrats in the Legislature, the ones in Sarasota in particular, are very savvy people,” she said. “And I think when filmmakers look to Hollywood and see breakout hits like Moonlight can be shot entirely here on modest budgets, they will see the opportunity.”