Years of filming low-budget shorts in and around Pasco County finally paid off for Christopher Leto when investors offered $250,000 to fund his biggest movie yet, a horror thriller called “The Ritual.”
Yet when filming starts later this month, it won’t happen anywhere near his Land O’ Lakes home. Instead, Leto and his crew are heading south to Sarasota County where he can take advantage of film incentives like a 20 percent rebate on certain purchases, and waived costs for government services.
“I met with the film commission there, and they were amazing,” Leto said. “Everything I asked them to do, they would bend over backward to help me get what I needed.”
But if he had a choice, Leto would’ve much preferred to stay right in Pasco County.
“I didn’t want to go to Sarasota to shoot my movie,” he said. “But they have incentives that are really nice.”
Pasco has what officials here call a simple permitting process with no fees, and a requirement to carry an insurance rider that costs around $85. But don’t expect too much help beyond that, because Pasco County not only lacks incentives for filmmakers, it lacks an actual film commission.
The work instead is handled through Pasco’s Office of Tourism Development, a department led by Ed Caum, who admits he is forced to wear so many hats, the film industry is almost an afterthought. Which is probably why the county’s website still links production companies to the closed mailbox of Eric Keaton, who hasn’t been with the county since last year.
“I’m not making any excuses, but I’m probably one of the only people on my staff trained to” update the website, Caum said. “And I’m always sitting in on meetings and doing other work, that I can’t seem to get to it.”
Pasco has never been ignored by filmmakers, which can offer a little bit of everything when it comes to locales. It has beaches on the west side of the county. It has historic structures throughout Dade City. It has virtually untouched forests.
However, it’s been a long time since a major production dug in roots in Pasco County … almost 25 years, when a rather unknown director named Tim Burton brought Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder here to film “Edward Scissorhands.” And it could be even longer before something else follows, especially after the Florida Legislature last week decided not to renew statewide incentives to attract major productions.
That leaves smaller, independent productions. But even they may be endangered, as the infrastructure for busy filmmaking markets will likely migrate to states that offer financial incentives to lure major films.
That could be troublesome for Kelly Mikes, an independent film producer who lives in Lutz. She worked with writer R. Presley Stephens to film “You Will Love Me,” which included some exterior shots in Pasco. Without the skilled crews available to work on set or location, filming here could become difficult, if not impossible.
“There aren’t a lot of outside resources in this area, because there just isn’t any competition,” Mikes said. “Those who are here are charging exorbitant amounts, and not everyone can afford to pay that.”
Keeping film production locally cannot only keep jobs in the area, but can also provide a much-needed boost to the economy. The Motion Picture Association of America claims that for every dollar in incentives offered by government officials to attract film, the return on investment is, at the very minimum, $5.60.
Sometimes, that return could be as high as $20.
That means even $5,000 in incentives could generate an economic boost of between $28,000 and $100,000. Incentive packages generate revenue for businesses like retail outlets and hotels. They provide paychecks for workers who make their home here.
But that can’t help Pasco quite yet, Caum said. Implementing such a program, maintaining it, and getting the word out to filmmakers it exists, requires a full-time commissioner. And there’s no money for one of those.
“That is a sophistication level we need to get to,” Caum said.
He hopes he can start sharing some ideas with Pasco County commissioners about promoting film production around September. However, the tourism department will still have to find revenue sources to pay for it.
Still, even without statewide incentives, there’s no reason why Pasco couldn’t eventually find its legs in the film industry to keep up with Hillsborough County for now, and maybe even someday reach the levels of Pinellas County, which has churned out films like “Dolphin Tale” and “Magic Mike,” Caum said.
It couldn’t come soon enough for Leto, who would like to keep productions from his Reaper Films company right at home.
“It’s a beautiful place to film,” Leto said. “But more importantly, it’s close to home, and I want to stay here.”
Published May 7, 2014