The End of Subsidies Kills Miami's Film Industry

It's 9 p.m. on a Friday, and the Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove is but a sleepy ghost of drug-addled days past. Isis Masoud, a tall, pretty, expectant mother with clear brown eyes that almost match her rusty-brown hair, sits on a gold vinyl couch stacked with embroidered pillows in a vestibule. At a nearby reception desk, a couple of bored-looking hotel employees in polyester uniforms await guests as the droning thump of electronica echoes in the emptiness.

Wearing knee-high leather boots and a modest sundress with a red and white wave pattern, Masoud stands up and then strolls below the foyer's wood-banistered mezzanine and passes empty plush chairs. Her long arms sway as she talks about the city's cocaine years, when the Mutiny was in its heyday. The cast and crew of Scarface, the iconic film of that era, even stayed here.

"Their experience at the Mutiny was such a big influence on the film," she declares before walking past the hotel's poolside restaurant, where all of the tables are empty. At the bar, a man in a light-green button-up shirt leans uncomfortably close to a leggy woman in a short dress. The bartender has nowhere to go as the pair gets increasingly intimate.

Then it's on past the empty pool, the dormant hot tub, and an elevated deck with a couple of ficus trees, a cascading waterfall, and a pond with a single goldfish about the size of an adult's thumb.

Masoud describes her long career as an entertainer. A graduate of the University of Miami's theater program, she has been working as an actress, dancer, choreographer, and director for almost two decades. Since 2010, when the State of Florida approved a $296 million incentive program to draw movies here, she has done pretty well as an actress. She picked up a small dancing role in the Tom Cruise movie Rock of Ages and then played a 911 operator on the new season of Bloodline, a Netflix series shot in and around Key Largo.

For Rock of Ages, she says, she earned as much as $1,600 per day and has made $10,000 in residuals. The day rate for Bloodline was almost $1,000, and then there was backstage work for hundreds more. "If I worked on three to four film/TV projects like that a year, plus a few commercials," she explains, "that's a good living."

But last year, the state turned off the spigot for incentive money, and now few movies and TV series are being shot here. Burn Notice, the story of a quirky, washed-up secret agent, has stopped filming. Ballers, a series starring University of Miami hero Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, folded up its tent and moved to Los Angeles. Even Bloodline recently called it quits. "The lack of incentive is essentially what killed the show," Masoud says of the last while standing by the lonely fish pond. "They were prepared with stories for five to six seasons."

Recently, producers of two major projects with Miami roots have chosen to shoot in Puerto Rico and Los Angeles, respectively: a feature film about the killing of Miami cigarette boat racer Don Aronow, starring John Travolta, and the second season of FX's American Crime Story, which will focus on Gianni Versace's murder in South Beach. Both are receiving government incentives for working elsewhere.

Though local communities are beginning to come up with their own solutions and a few projects remain, many like Masoud now fear the industry that once put modern Miami on the map with large-scale productions such as Miami Vice is essentially dead.

So with her son only a few weeks away from delivery, Masoud is contemplating her next move. One possibility is to go to Georgia, where a film incentive program worth $606 million has drawn hundreds of productions and prodigious jobs. "Since I'm having a baby at the end of July, I'd prefer not to move to Atlanta to pursue my career as an actress and filmmaker," she admits. "My entire family is here."

The list of notable productions shot in Miami over the years includes Dwayne Johnson's Pain & Gain (left), Sean Connery's Goldfinger, and the Oscar-winning Moonlight.EXPAND
The list of notable productions shot in Miami over the years includes Dwayne Johnson's Pain & Gain (left), Sean Connery's Goldfinger, and the Oscar-winning Moonlight.
Jeff Daly / Courtesy of HBO; © 1964 UA / Photofest; Elevation Pictures

In cutting off the film subsidies, one thing Tallahassee failed to comprehend is how deeply the film and television industry is embedded in the area's history. Just a decade after Miami was incorporated, a silent film, A Honeymoon Through Snow to Sunshine, included scenes at Henry Flagler's Royal Palm Hotel. Tinseltown's most famous silent-film director, D.W. Griffith, even shot movies in South Florida in the 1910s and '20s. Flying Down to Rio, released in 1933, was partly shot here and is notable for bringing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers together in their first onscreen appearance.

Moon Over Miami, the 1941 Technicolor musical directed by Walter Lang and featuring Betty Grable and Don Ameche, is often credited with being the first of the great movies with the city as a key location.

In the 1950s, Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack often worked and played at Miami Beach's Fontainebleau. The hotel even appeared in the 1967 Sinatra film Tony Rome. When the singer was staying there around that time, actress Mia Farrow "handcuffed herself to Sinatra's door and... he couldn't get out of the room because she somehow locked it," writer Joann Biondi says. Eventually, she explains, Al Malnik, owner of the nearby restaurant the Forge, persuaded the actress to open the door.

Then, in the 1960s, comedian Jackie Gleason broadcast a weekly TV show from the hotel that continued to draw stars to the area. "Apparently, he was a big drunk," Biondi says. "He would get into fights in pool halls and in bars like the Boom Boom Room and the Poodle Lounge... Sometimes he was mean, but other people saw him as just this big, lovable teddy bear."

Over the next few decades, B-movie directors such as Herschell Gordon Lewis and Doris Wishman found plenty of inspiration for cult films such as Blood Feast and Nude on the Moon. In Blood Feast, released in 1963, Lewis sought out the "ugliest beach possible" for the movie's death-by-garbage-truck finale, says Dana Keith, founder and director of the Miami Beach Cinematheque. "These filmmakers started in South Florida nudist camps... but also pioneered 'Florida gore' and the soft-core adult-flick phenomenon." Perhaps the most famous porn flick of all time, Deep Throat, Keith adds, "was shot at the Voyager Inn, which became a Johnson & Wales dormitory."

Casting director Lori Wyman (left) worked with Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson on Miami Vice.
Casting director Lori Wyman (left) worked with Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson on Miami Vice.
Courtesy of Lori Wyman; Miami News Collection / Courtesy of HistoryMiami

In 1983, Al Pacino's Tony Montana literally shot Miami back to the top of the national consciousness in Scarface. It dramatized the cocaine and violence that dominated the city at the time (as well as the worst Cuban accent ever). The Fontainebleau was once again a setting, and local actor Steven Bauer was hired to play an iconic role opposite Pacino. Bauer, who still lives in Miami, recalls meeting an aspiring teenage filmmaker, Brett Ratner, who was an extra on the set. Bauer says the ambitious young man told him: "One day, I'm going to be a big-time director." Ratner went on to direct the popular trilogy of Rush Hour movies, earning almost $1 billion at the box office.

Just a year later, Miami Vice was broadcast to the nation on NBC, and if Scarface hadn't immediately put Miami Beach back on the map, this TV series did. Miami-born casting director Lori Wyman worked throughout much of the shooting. The show transformed Ocean Drive from "death's waiting room" into the neon-drenched tourist mecca it is today, she says.

The show's leads, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, became the new icons of South Beach. Though Wyman remembers Thomas as a smooth-talking softy, Johnson was the star and made everyone walk on eggshells. "He was intimidating," Wyman says. "Everybody pussyfooted around him. They were afraid of him. [They] didn't want to jeopardize their job."

Once, though, a pack of female fans attacked Johnson. "He went to a restaurant on South Beach — I don't remember which one — and these women, girls, ran up to him and grabbed his shirt and tried to rip it off his body," Wyman recalls.

Johnson's pastel outfits began a trend among young men hitting the nightclubs. The Miami Vice color palette even seeped into CSI: Miami, filmed almost 20 years later.

In the '90s, movies such as Blood and Wine (1996) and Wild Things (1998) included many scenes in Coconut Grove starring actors such as Jack Nicholson, Matt Dillon, and Denise Richards. Tourists still visit the Carlyle hotel in South Beach to eat lunch where Robin Williams and Nathan Lane sat for scenes in The Birdcage (1996). Much of There's Something About Mary (1998) was shot in Miami, including at Little Haiti's beloved Churchill's. Using local workers and locations such as Greenwich Studios in North Miami, producers issued as many as 20 films shot entirely in South Florida in the mid- to late '90s.

But then something happened to the movies. They left town.

Local actor Isis Masoud appeared in the film Rock of Ages.
Local actor Isis Masoud appeared in the film Rock of Ages.
Photo by Karli Evans

Steven Krams, a rotund man with a mop of parted, wavy gray hair, is a huge fan of cinema. The president and owner of Magna-Tech Electronic Co. and Continental Film & Digital Labs in North Miami wears a light-blue button-up shirt, khakis, and large gold-rimmed glasses. His NE 150th Street office is filled with historic artifacts of the Hollywood industry, including cameras that legends such as comedian Charlie Chaplin and director John Ford once used. Krams is also the founder of the Coral Gables Art Cinema. As a kid, he collected reels of film at garage sales, and that passion translated into a business that has him restoring old 35mm projectors for the area. He's the one responsible for supplying all of Miami's art houses with film projectors.

Krams says Miami was America's third city, behind New York and Hollywood, in the entertainment industry for decades before 2010, but then other areas began providing subsidies. "The business had been strong for almost 80 years at that point here," he recalls. Then, he says, "Louisiana got strong because they filled the gap where Florida walked away from it. North Carolina filled the gap, Georgia filled the gap, everybody around us. We gave it away. We actually, essentially, gave the business away."

At the end of the 1990s, Canada began luring Hollywood north through tax incentives with an exchange rate of Canadian $1.50 to U.S. $1. In 2002, Louisiana became the first state to offer incentives to productions to shoot there. Others soon followed. Florida began considering a plan that same year under Gov. Jeb Bush.

In 2004, the state handed out $2 million to $2.4 million in rebates for film productions, says Graham Winick, Miami Beach's film commissioner. The move inspired the producers of Transporter 2, a Jason Statham action flick that grossed more than $85 million, to relocate from the South of France to Miami, Winick says. And it made a $20 million impact on the economy.

In 2005, the state upped the rebates to $10 million. However, Winick says, Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma that year scared off several productions, including Showtime's Dexter, a series about a good-guy serial killer, which returned only to shoot a few scenes of exteriors for the rest of the series. The rebates rose to $20 million in 2006 and peaked at $25 million in 2007. That year, Confessions of a Shopaholic starring Isla Fisher shot scenes on South Beach's Española Way and in Lummus Park. However, the Great Recession in 2008 knocked it down to $4.8 million. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist wanted to see something longer-term to encourage TV shows to stay in the state for several seasons.

In 2008, state Rep. Steven Precourt (R, Orlando) was one of the main sponsors of a bill to create a five-year tax credit for the film industry. The idea was aimed at keeping productions such as Burn Notice and attracting new ones like Magic City and Charlie's Angels. Ellen Jacoby, a casting director who worked on Burn Notice, brought the show's lead, Jeffrey Donovan, to address the state House. She says plenty of industry people lined the halls there. "And guess what?" she says. "After that, we got incentives passed."

Crist signed off on the Florida Entertainment Incentive Program, valued at $242 million, in May 2010. Soon after that, director Adam Shankman shot Rock of Ages starring Tom Cruise in South Florida. Isis Masoud recalls how the production basically created Los Angeles in Miami. "They converted North Miami Avenue near 13th Street into Sunset Boulevard circa 1982," she says. The production could have gone to Hollywood, but the investment in Florida paid off. In turn, the production poured $55 million into the county's economy, according to the Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources at the Miami-Dade Office of Film and Entertainment. (Charlie's Angels, a remake of the 1970s series shot the same year, brought $36 million in jobs and spending.)

Russell Brand in Rock of Ages.EXPAND
Russell Brand in Rock of Ages.
Photo by David James / © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Another film shot during this period was Step Up Revolution, which brought $33 million to the area in 2012. Pain & Gain (based on a New Times story) and Iron Man 3 brought $35 million and $25 million to the county in 2013. Several TV shows also drew millions to the area, according to the Miami-Dade County Film Office. Two seasons of Magic City, a Starz TV series about mobsters in Miami, brought about $35 million each. Season 1 of Ballers drew $26.6 million, and the following season delivered a $25 million impact.

Andres Malave, a spokesperson for Americans for Prosperity Florida (AFP-FL), which opposed the tax credits, doubts those figures. He points to a state-sponsored report that shows a negative return on investment. "Basically, the state's own economists, when they looked at the value and the return of investment on the film investment program, that was around 40 cents for every dollar invested," he says. "That's a bad deal for taxpayers."

Malave calls the incentives "market disruptors." "Why is it the responsibility for somebody in Hialeah to pay for the Rock's next production to be filmed in Florida?"

Indeed, AFP was founded by David Koch, who along with his brother Charles is famous as an ultraright backer of hands-off governing. "The Koch brothers, with their Americans for Prosperity, they made commercials at our expense to discourage filming here," Jacoby, the casting director, says.

Malave says the AFP never advertised against film production in the state. "To my knowledge, Ms. Jocoby has never reached out to us to work with her to help improve the business climate for the film industry," he states. "While our vision of a healthy climate does not include taxpayer handouts, we are on the record stating that we support any industry in the state that wants to come and compete. To say that we put out commercials to discourage filming in Florida is incorrect."

But it's also more complicated than lobbying. Winick admits some major TV productions putting in for five years of credit in a first-come, first-served system burned through the money fast. The Florida Legislature changed the rules in 2012, allowing incentives only for the current year plus one. The following years, the funding began to dry up, and the system seemed to break down under the allowances that mostly went to major studios. What started as hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives dwindled to just $10 million to $20 million in 2015. In 2016, no money was budgeted.

The end of incentives has driven some businesses north to Georgia, where they have benefited a Koch ally and fellow right-wing advocate, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy. He is the primary investor in Pinewood Studios Atlanta, the largest movie studio on the East Coast. At Pinewood, Marvel is shooting Avengers: Infinity War, which is rumored to have a budget of $1 billion. If that's true, it would be the most expensive film in history.

As support has dwindled, business owner Krams says he has gradually felt the loss of the incentives. He describes the money loss as "a rope around you being squeezed, squeezed, and squeezed until you're dead." He says he has seen a 75 percent drop in business at his lab recently, so he has had to adapt. One way is by moving some of his business to Georgia. "We have an operation now in Atlanta, and [incentives were] one of the reasons," he says.

He also says he closed a lab he owned in Orlando soon after feature filmmaking shut down there. The end of NASA's space shuttle program, a client of his firm, was the final nail in the coffin. Most of the 18 employees he let go have moved to Tennessee, North Carolina, New York, and California, all states that offer tax incentives for the entertainment industry. "You hate to see people go," he laments.

Ballers shot on location across Miami-Dade, including Virginia Key Beach Park.
Ballers shot on location across Miami-Dade, including Virginia Key Beach Park.
Jeff Daly / Courtesy of HBO

This past June 15, Miami-Dade commissioners met to consider a film and television incentive program to replace the one Tallahassee canceled. Close to 100 people in the audience wore white shirts representing the industry. Among them were locals such as Krams, Miami Film Festival executive director Jaie Laplante, and Oscar-winning producer Andrew Hevia, whose crew shot Moonlight. A couple of people representing Viacom flew in from New York to express their support for a local incentive.

Wyman, the casting director, dressed in a white pantsuit and black shirt, approached the podium and described losses she said she had seen firsthand. She had to cut staff, especially after Ballers announced it would leave for Los Angeles late last year. That meant the loss of a six-figure income for her office. "We cannot wait until Tallahassee realizes what we have lost," she told Commissioners Rebeca Sosa, Sally Heyman, and Bruno Barreiro. "We need Miami-Dade to kick in and help support this very lucrative industry. We are losing homegrown projects... due to our lack of incentives. Please, Miami-Dade, I am begging you, step up to the plate and help our economy survive and thrive again."

No one opposed the measure, so commissioners decided to proceed. The committee will meet again July 13; then, on July 18, the full commission will take up a plan to offer a maximum rebate of $100,000 per production that spends $1 million in the area. "They bring the money here and get a 10 percent rebate on it," Heyman, the proposal's primary sponsor, explains. "It's easy to calculate."

The City of Miami Beach also has a vague plan to establish a $100,000 pot, which would be backed by the city and/or private entities. It is expected to go before commissioners in late July. "This is a process that will take time to figure out," says Winick, the city's film commissioner.

Some other Florida cities and counties have already moved ahead with their own subsidy plans. Sarasota County has a $250,000 rebate incentive program. St. Petersburg is offering grants ranging from $5,000 to $500,000, and Hillsborough County provides a 10 percent rebate for companies that spend $100,000 or more on production and postproduction. "Probably the biggest case of... success was The Infiltrator, shot in Tampa for a week or ten days or so," Winick says, "because Tampa gave them $200,000, which is a very good return on investment."

And the state program might not be completely dead, offers Republican Florida Rep. Holly Raschein, whose district includes Key Largo and South Miami-Dade. She plans to fight for its return. "I don't want to lose the industry to Georgia and Louisiana... We're in big competition with Puerto Rico. You know, they're having a bit of an economic downturn, so why not film there? The Bahamas I know are a really big competitor. I would just really like to see the direction change and come back to Florida, back to film."

While incentive opponents say film industry backers should be concentrating on things like making permitting easier, supporters are hopeful about the return of subsidies. "Certainly it's given us a chance to rethink how incentives should work," Winick says. "We're looking at it from a global landscape too. We certainly think Georgia is in an enviable position because they seem to have a huge web of support, no opposition from the common enemies that the other states are facing... and basically they really support the industry and are continuing to give it money."

Back at the Mutiny, Isis Masoud says it all comes back to the Rat Pack days, the Ocean Drive resurgence, and Miami Vice. Though wily Hollywood producers have found substitutes for Miami, sometimes the real thing and the real people who know and live it cannot be replaced. "They are a part of what makes up the sordid history of Miami," she says. "Why should California or Puerto Rico get to tell these stories? Imagine if Moonlight had been shot in L.A. It wouldn't have been nearly as authentic. When Dexter was shot in L.A., the Latino actors they cast were very clearly Mexican, not Miami Cuban, and every time Dexter dropped a body in Biscayne Bay, there were mountains in the background."

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