Made in Florida: From the Sunshine State…to the silver screen
The rich history of movie-making in the Sunshine State
By Bill DeYoung
From the good, the great and the Oscar-nominated to the cheap and the cheesy, Florida has made numerous contributions to the production of motion pictures over the decades. Time and again, Hollywood has come calling to utilize and immortalize the Sunshine State’s unique scenery, greenery, landscapes, cityscapes – and people.
To paraphrase the title of one successful movie made here, there’s something about Florida.
“There’s more to Florida than just the beautiful palm trees and blue water,” explains Susan Doll, co-author of Florida on Film: The Essential Guide to Sunshine State Cinema and Locations. “The midland, with all the horse country, can look very much like the Midwest. You have great urban areas, which could represent any city in the world.”
Doll, a professor of film studies at Sarasota’s Ringling College of Art and Design, has been writing about movies, and the movie business, for decades. She is also a former blogger for Turner Classic Movies.
“Florida doesn’t get into the film history books like it should,” Doll says. “I’ve read a lot of film history texts because I teach it. And if Florida is lucky, it gets a sentence.”
Call up your favorite streaming service, and the Sunshine State is everywhere, from A movies to B. Florida’s sparkling beaches provided the scenery for a dozen big-budget films, including the comedies Summer Rental (1985), Spring Break (1983), Sex Drive (2008) and Spring Breakers (2012). And the 1960 romantic comedy Where the Boys Are, shot on location in Fort Lauderdale, immortalized the seaside city forever as a mecca for Spring Break hijinks.
Miami Beach opulence had major roles in everything from the 1959 Frank Sinatra-starring A Hole in the Head to ultra-violent mobster movie Scarface (1983) to the melodrama The Bodyguard (1992) to the 1996 farce The Birdcage.
Ocala, Yankeetown and Crystal River served as locations for the Elvis Presley musical Follow That Dream (1962); director Tim Burton shot Edward Scissorhands (1990) in Lakeland, Lutz and Land O’Lakes; tiny Micanopy was the star in 1991’s Doc Hollywood; as was the Panhandle village of Seaside in The Truman Show (1998).
In the less-tangible department, sharp-eyed viewers can spot Wakulla Springs, Silver Springs and Marineland in 1954’s horror classic Creature From the Black Lagoon. Underwater scenes for numerous Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies were shot in those same locations (although the bulk of the films were created on Hollywood sound stages and backlots).
“And Florida,” Doll says, “can stand in for other parts of the world. PT 109, the John F. Kennedy story, that was shot in Florida because it could double for the South Seas.” And Miami stood in for a fictitious Iron Curtain country in the Woody Allen-penned comedy Don’t Drink the Water, starring Jackie Gleason. “That one was really not very good,” Doll laughs. “But Gleason loved Miami.”
When MGM chose to turn Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling into a movie in 1946, the company – including A-list star Gregory Peck, who played Florida pioneer Penny Baxter – set up camp in the Ocala National Forest. It was, reasoned producer Sidney Franklin, the only way to get that “real Florida” look.
In a 1996 interview, Peck looked back fondly at his time in the forest more than 50 years earlier:
“I remember the whole experience very well,” the then 80-year-old actor reminisced. “We went out there in March or April, and it was a long, long shoot. We must have been around there three or four months. There was a local fellow who was a hunting guide for rich corporate types who would come down from Detroit and places like that, in the piney woods there, who was in a way our technical advisor. Because he was himself a kind of Penny Baxter.
“His name was Troy Hudnell and he knew the lore of the piney woods, the hunting and the fishing, and he had a nice cabin, and a couple of kids and a nice wife. He had us out there on a Sunday for fresh sea bass, and venison out of season. And pies and cakes – they just laid out everything for us.”
The Winter Film Capital
“From an historical perspective, Florida tried to provide other models for large-scale film production outside of Hollywood,” Doll explains. “Even before Hollywood, when the silent film companies were based in New York, they couldn’t film in the winter because of the weather.”
Jacksonville – a day’s journey south via Henry Flagler’s East Coast rail line – became the Big Apple’s frigid temperature stand-in in the first decades of the 20th century.
Between 1908 and 1922, Jacksonville was home to approximately 30 studios, cranking out silent films for the insatiable American market. The city became known as the “Winter Film Capital of the World.”
Metro Studios made history’s first Technicolor film, a silent comedy called The Gulf Between, in Jacksonville in 1917.
In 1920, Eagle Film City, a small complex in Jacksonville’s Arlington neighborhood, was purchased by aspiring filmmaker Richard Norman, from nearby Middleburg.
Norman, who was white, was chagrined at the lack of opportunity he saw for black Vaudeville and stage stars in the movie business; he also, frankly, saw making films for an underserved market as a business opportunity.
Rechristened Norman Studios, his company became the southeastern center for “race” films, portraying African Americans as real people, doing real things, as opposed to the comical, and so often offensive, stereotypes perpetuated by the rest of the industry.
An attempt by producer Lewis J. Selznick to turn Hobe Sound, a beach community near West Palm Beach, into “Olympia-Picture City,” with a 10,000-acre film compound at its center, was abandoned when the bottom fell out of the Florida land boom in 1925.
Similarly, plans for a studio complex in southern Hillsborough County were scrapped. Today, the streets of Sun City still bear the names of stars and directors of the silent era, including Mary Pickford Drive and Charlie Chaplin Avenue. “I’m sure the people who live there have no idea what it means that they’re driving down D.W. Griffith Boulevard,” Doll says.
In Jacksonville, none of the studios – including Richard Norman’s – survived the transition to “talkies” at decade’s end.
In a 2019 interview David Norman, the movie pioneer’s grandson, described a letter discovered among Richard Norman’s personal effects. “He was replying to an editorial, and he outlined his thoughts on what should happen with ‘race’ films,” Norman said, “and how they should be produced and perceived. It was very uplifting, and it showed how he felt in his heart about that whole process, and how they (African Americans) should be presented in ‘race’ films. He felt it should be more positive.”
It was, Norman explained, a great source of pride for him and his family. “I can’t tell you the feelings I felt when I came across the letter,” he said.
(The Norman Studios compound – including the “little house” where David Norman spent the first five years of his life –were designated a National Historic Landmark in 2016. Efforts are underway to turn the site into a museum.)
Meanwhile, New York movie-makers were hurriedly relocating all business to Southern California, where the weather was balmy year-round.
In the early ‘30s, would-be movie mogul Aubrey M. Kennedy purchased the roomy San Remo nightclub – shuttered during Prohibition – on Weedon Island, in Pinellas County. A writer, director and producer who’d worked on a dozen silent pictures, Kennedy bristled at the rigid studio system that had quickly taken root in Hollywood.
This, according to Doll, was the beginning of the “Golden Age” of movie-making, when the eight major studios controlled every aspect of their productions – even the actors, who were salaried. Studio backlots could be dressed to look like any city in the country, and it was – almost always – deemed expensive and unnecessary to shoot on location in places like Florida.
“Kennedy City” was to be converted into a soundstage, offices and a carpentry shop, and in 1933 Kennedy convinced the great silent film comedian Buster Keaton, who was chafing under the studio system, to move to St. Petersburg and make films for him. The carrot? Complete creative control.
“He comes here to make the city his home for at least the next five years,” the local paper crowed in a front-page story about Keaton’s arrival.
However, explains Doll, “they did not know how to adapt him to sound, and he was miserable.” The dour-faced physical comic – “second only to Charlie Chaplin in drawing power,” according to the St. Petersburg Evening Independent – went back to California after just three months.
Although three low-budget, imminently forgettable dramas were completed at Kennedy’s complex, which was re-named Sun Haven Studios, the writing was on the wall. “The climate along the Gulf Coast – the humidity – was a big issue with the equipment,” Doll says. “They were going to build this big studio, and in the meantime, they’re shooting outside on location, and the makeup that they used would melt in the afternoon, and bugs would stick to it.”
And the Hollywood studios had their own distribution companies – some even owned theater chains – which meant that independents like Sun Haven were virtually blocked from competition.
Filmmaking in Florida
The all-powerful Hollywood studio system fell apart in the 1950s, when certain actors, producers and directors began flexing their newfound celebrity muscles by forming their own production companies. Under the new system, their “A” pictures were made independently and distributed through deals with the major studios.
In other words, the power was taken out of the hands of the studio kings.
Still, the center of the movie business remained in California, and although some films (and television shows) were shot at least partially in Florida in the 1960s and ‘70s, things didn’t pick up until the ‘80s.
Robert Altman’s 1980 Health was shot entirely at the Don CeSar Hotel on St. Petersburg Beach (never heard of it? Don’t feel bad: The “comedy” with Carol Burnett, James Garner, Lauren Bacall and Glenda Jackson was so critically reviled it was pulled from distribution after a few Los Angeles screenings); six years later, Ron Howard made the runaway blockbuster Cocoon in the same city.
Newly arrived in Orlando, and armed with Hollywood-sized infrastructure, Universal Studios made a spate of all-Florida films including Parenthood (again with Ron Howard directing), Mean Season and Matinee.
Second-unit crews shot scenes for The Perfect Storm, The Punisher, Ocean’s 11 and Jurassic Park III in the state, while the 1981 teen sex comedy Porky’s, Ulee’s Gold (the 1997 drama from Tallahassee-based filmmaker Victor Nunez that brought Peter Fonda his only Academy Award nomination), and Magic Mike, the male-stripper saga that became an unlikely hit in 2012, were Florida-made in their entirety.
When a film company plants its feet and stays on location for months at a time, local crew members are put to work (it’s less expensive than bringing them from California, and paying their lodging and per diem). Money is funneled back into the local economy, as company members eat, drink, sleep and shop during their stay.
And the effect on tourism can be substantial, as visitors want to see where their favorite films were lensed.
In recent years, made-in-Florida productions included such high-profile independent films as Moonlight, which in 2017 won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay; The Florida Project, winner of multiple awards in 2018, and Life and Nothing More.
But with some notable exceptions, the big-money pictures are going to other Southern states – notably Georgia, where 399 productions were lensed in 2019.
According to Governor Brian P. Kemp, Georgia netted a record-setting $2.9 billion from the film and TV industry in fiscal year 2019.
The Georgia legislature provides a 20 percent tax credit for companies that spend $500,000 or more on production and post-production.
Florida had its own incentive program beginning in 2010, with $242 million allocated in tax credits for its program, with the amount rising to $296 million. The program ended in 2015.
Today, Florida is one of 17 states that offers no statewide financial incentives for filmmakers. Seven Florida counties have developed their own incentive programs – for example, Hillsborough offers a 10 percent rebate on qualifying productions with local spends of at least $100,000; Miami-Dade has a two-tier structure, giving productions spending at least $1 million in the area a maximum tax refund of $100,000, and those spending more than $500,000, but less than a million, a maximum of $50,000.
Writer/director Sean Baker shot his $3 million indie The Florida Project over two simmering-hot summer weeks in the Orlando area because that’s where the drama was set – even though there are no film incentives offered in Orange County.
“The independent film market, and the commercial market, are still doing well in Florida,” says John Lux, executive director of the research and advocacy group Film Florida. “But commercials are one- and two-day shoots. From a commercial film and television perspective, it’s a struggle right now,” he says. “That’s not to say that no projects are coming here.”
Several Hallmark Channel movies originated in the Tampa Bay area last year, along with the upcoming Harry Connick Jr, thriller Fear of Rain.
For TV, The Right Stuff and David Makes Man are in production in the Orlando area.
Scenes for The Last Thing He Wanted, now streaming on Netflix, were shot in Miami.
Bill DeYoung is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down, Phil Gernhard Record Man and I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews. Nationally recognized for his music journalism, he has been a writer and editor at various Florida and Georgia newspapers for more than three decades.
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