County ponders massive cuts in film office's budget
By Risa Polansky
Though local government officials have pledged to nurture the film industry into an economic mainstay here and the Legislature has made commitments to bolstering production, Miami-Dade County is proposing massive cuts in its film office's budget and staff in the wake of property-tax reform — and may need to impose unprecedented fees to compensate.
The county's proposed budget for the next fiscal year slices 40% of the Office of Film and Entertainment's operating budget and 60% of its marketing budget.
It also cuts the office's six-person staff in half.
While direct impact to the film industry here remains to be seen, slow service in a fast-paced market would not bode well for luring productions to South Florida, said Jeff Peel, director of the county office.
"We will have fewer bodies in our office to respond to requests from the industry," he said. "We're sort of the 911 of the film industry here, or the 411 — actually, both."
A slowdown in the permitting process or lag time in responding to questions or requests from potential clients as a result of a much smaller staff, he said, could put Miami behind the 8-ball.
"The first one with the right answer wins in this industry," Mr. Peel said.
To combat the reductions, the office is considering charging permitting fees, something it has avoided to maintain a competitive edge.
"We've always tried to provide free permitting here because we think free permitting is a good marketing inducement to bring productions to Miami," Mr. Peel said.
Fees, he said, could be in the range of "several hundred dollars per permit."
To gauge the industry's response, his office scheduled a public meeting for Wednesday to discuss the cuts and potential fees.
"Maybe a permit fee to help restore some of these services is a good tradeoff," he said. "That's what we're considering."
Miami Beach's film office faces much of the same: losing two members of its five-person staff and "practically our entire marketing budget, including all of our travel budget," said Graham Winick, the city's film and event production manager.
The situation, he said, is "unfortunate because none of us want to institute permit fees, but it's looking more and more likely we'll have to."
Should fees be put in place, Mr. Winick said, he'd expect a "slowdown or dropoff" in smaller productions here such as reality television shows and independent films although fees would most likely prove to be "a drop in the bucket" to big industry players.
The loss of funding to the county's and city's marketing departments could also be detrimental to the filming climate here, he said.
Now is the time to promote South Florida as a production destination, he said, after state legislators this month provided $25 million to Florida's incentive program, allowing for a cash rebate of up to 22% for a production company after wrapping up a large production here.
Almost 30 projects have applied for the state incentives, Mr. Peel said, and "a number of those are South Florida projects."
But without the finances to aggressively promote the government packages and local offerings, area film officials will be forced to "sit back and rely on our Web-based material and hope producers call us," Mr. Winick said.
However, said Robert Parente, director of the City of Miami Mayor's Office of Film and Cultural Affairs, South Florida's "great light, great locations and great service" make it an inherently attractive site for filming.
Mr. Winick said Louisiana and New Mexico, which offer some of the nation's best incentives, don't have Miami's natural resources or its large local crew and talent base — often named third or better next to New York's and Los Angeles'.
However, Mr. Parente said, the infrastructure here does need to be expanded.
Miami only has one soundstage, Greenwich Studios, 12100 NE 16th Ave., and, "when they're booked, there's no place else to house these things," Mr. Parente said in April, when he and city officials finalized a deal with Twentieth Century Fox to build sets in the Coconut Grove Convention Center and film 13 episodes of the USA Network series "Burn Notice" here.
Terry Miller, a producer on the show, in April said Fox brought the show to Miami because of its attractive exterior and because "the script was written for Miami."
Having the show here is "really great for us," Mr. Peel said. "Miami looks fabulous."
In addition to "Burn Notice," an Italian film is being shot here as are several telenovelas and reality shows, Mr. Peel said. "CSI: Miami" filmed here this month, he said.
Miami also "could have a major motion picture filming here circa the winter," Mr. Parente said.
Though the City of Miami's budget is up in the air — as it was this year exempted from cutbacks but, according to state legislators, won't be next year — the film office is not in jeopardy, Mr. Parente said.
"There's very little fat in my department's budget," he said. "We've already been operating lean. I don't think there's going to be a need to do much cutting."