Vacant film office a bad pilot for economic series on Miami
By Michael Lewis
Miami is moving glacially to fill a void that freezes out the red-hot film industry.
As Florida pumps in $242 million in incentives to lure film work, its best-known city dithers in replacing the head of its one-person film office, its sole liaison with the industry.
Forget the politics. It makes no business sense.
The industry needs someone who knows how to cut red tape so companies can shoot films, TV series and still photos with the least pain and cost. Doing that is the task of the film office.
Without that aid, film projects are tempted to leave or never try Miami in the first place.
But nobody has been doing the job since the manager fired the incumbent in late December.
People want it: 220 have applied. Some are good: 44 are deemed qualified. But action, if any, is secret.
The office isn't empty to save millions. Two years ago its director got $82,000 a year. Then he took a 10% pay cut. He was fired to hire a man paid still less, who in turn was fired in December to be replaced by exactly no one.
The parks and recreation department now permits films, but nobody helps make filming go. So the Downtown Development Authority volunteered to grease the wheels for the best-known project, Burn Notice. But volunteers aren't professionals.
What's in the balance? An economic extravaganza.
Big film projects flow from outside. They hire local companies to supply everything from catered lunches to technical services. They also use local talent. Out-of-town imports fill hotel beds and dine out.
In all, 2,000 companies roll into South Florida annually to film motion or still shots. Thousands more industry companies have bases here.
Impact studies are suspect, because a sector trying to prove its vitality often funds them. But the county's film office estimated a $130 million industry impact countywide in 2008 and says this year it could hit $523 million for all of South Florida, supporting 87,000 jobs.
At even a third of that, why leave the city office vacant for even a day?
Add to that impact two intangibles: filming sprinkles glamour around Miami, plus images of the city shown globally are nearly priceless in boosting the visitor industry and other businesses.
While Miami's film office was vacant, ironically, the city Community Redevelopment Agency bought a school board building to create a film production hub. But who does the industry or the city talk with about that? Certainly not a vacant film office.
And our best-known TV series, Burn Notice, films on borrowed time. The city plans to raze its Coconut Grove Convention Center, where the series is based. Each year as Burn Notice renews its lease the building gets a reprieve. But commissioners at any time might hand Burn Notice an eviction notice for the season ahead.
Again, the industry can't very well turn to a vacant film administrator's chair for help.
All well and good to say the industry gets a very warm welcome from an active county film office that also works with other cities to ease filming. But who does the county itself talk with for help in Miami?
A city cold shoulder, moreover, chills filming countywide for producers that worry anything they do inside Miami city limits will be an issue. Who wants a hole in the filming doughnut? Better to film where a welcome is universal.
With all good reason to keep the film office functioning every day, what does the city know that we don't? Is there a plot?
If so, it's time to finish the script. The happy ending is to immediately add a helpful pro who knows how to snip red tape and will start snipping now.
As one industry specialist told us in early January, a week after the film office was vacated, "As a location manager, my job is to be the liaison between the community and production company to ensure projects go smoothly when they're on location. If I don't know the rules or who my advocate is, I'm going to steer away from that area."
With hundreds of millions at stake and everywhere else giving filming a warm welcome, we can't afford to be frozen out.
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