Hitting the Mark: Central Florida’s Entertainment Industry Thrives As It Evolves

[Original article appeared in Industry Magazine, May 2005]


Like any good movie, the story of Central Florida’s entertainment industry is filled with triumphs and disappointments, surprises and suspense.

In the late 80s and early 90s, TV shows like “Superboy” and “The New Leave It To Beaver” and studio feature films like Parenthood filmed here, fueling optimism about Central Florida’s entertainment future.

The zeitgeist gave birth to the handle “Hollywood East” (a phrase generally reviled by those actually in the industry here).

But according to Suzy Allen, Vice President of Film and Entertainment for the Orlando Film Commission, the phrase “Hollywood East” was a misnomer from the get-go, first coined by a wag at an Orlando magazine, then repeated and thusly popularized by a OrlandoFilmCommission_logopolitician.

“It was never the intent of the industry to be that.  [Soundstages at Universal and Disney] were never built to drive their own production.”

Nevertheless, she says, the industry and supporting infrastructure quickly grew around those locations and business thrived.

Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990 and soon its soundstages housed shoots for features like Matinee (1993).  Steven Spielberg brought the production of TV’s “SeaQuest DSV” to Orlando and eventually, Nickelodeon moved their headquarters there as well.

Early on, Disney’s MGM Studios were home to the third incarnation of “The Mickey Mouse Club” and later, the Golden Globe and Emmy-winning HBO miniseries, From The Earth to the Moon.From_the_Earth_to_the_Moon_Title

But a de facto climax to studio feature and television production came just before turn of the century with The Waterboy in 1998 and Instinct in 1999 (ironically Instinct, a Universal picture, shot at Disney’s MGM soundstages while The Waterboy, a Disney film, lensed at Universal).  Since that time, the roar of studio feature filming here has become a whisper.

Why the abrupt drop off?

It’s no mystery to Kim Dawson.

The veteran producer owns SkyDog Productions, based at Universal Studios Florida.  Dawson produced all three live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies in the 90s and more recently the theatrical feature Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius (2004) starring Jim Caviezel.

The short answer, says Dawson, is runaway production.  “Runaway production” is the term for television and film projects that film somewhere other than Southern California due to favorable economic incentives.

In the heady early days, Central Florida’s family friendly reputation, along with competitive production costs, drew a fair amount of shooting to the Sunshine State.

But soon Canada got production-savvy, offering even greater economic incentives to companies shooting in the Great White North.

“Six or seven years ago, Canada got aggressive [about courting production]”, says Allen.  “That played a major role in projects leaving California, but not coming to Florida.”

Since then, the tables have turned yet again; a host of other countries have gotten in on the act and now, between rebates and favorable exchange rates, even runaway production powerhouse Canada doesn’t have the draw it once did.

But wait… In yet another plot twist, traditionally non-production states like South Carolina, New Mexico– even Ohio– have attempted to grab a piece of the runaway production pie with attractive production incentives.

Most of these states had no existing film industry to support the business they attempted to woo.  Nevertheless, they continued marketing in a haze of ‘if-they-come-we-will-build-it’ optimism.

“Louisiana had no infrastructure four years ago, no film labs, no stages… but they still got aggressive,” says Allen.

Which brings us full circle to Central Florida.  With its vast infrastructure, deep talent pools, and experienced crews, what does the future hold?

According to Pam Warren, Marketing Director and General Manager for Universal Studios Florida Production Group, while the future looks rosy, the present looks pretty darn good itself.

In the last eighteen months, two modestly-budgeted theatrical feature films shot on Universal’s sound stages, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector and the new Haxan Films horror/thriller Altered, due in theaters later this year through Rogue Pictures, the genre arm of Universal specialty unit Focus Features.

Wrestling franchise Total Nonstop Action Wrestling has made its home on Universal’s soundstages after first trying out the TNA_Wrestlingfacilities nearly four years ago.

And, Warren says, plans are in the discussion stage to bring an English-language telenovela to Universal as well.

Still, in enumerating big-name projects, it’s easy to overlook the value of what happens here every day.  Even without the major studio feature production of the early days, says Allen, the show goes on.

Commercials represent the bread-and-butter work that keeps the production machinery moving while schools like Full Sail, UCF and Valencia Community College’s film programs, and the DAVE (Digital Animation & Visual Effects) School turn out scores of highly trained talent each month.

And we can’t have this discussion without at least touching on independent film.

The title ‘independent film’ is tricky.  It’s about as specific as foods labeled ‘low fat.’  The label can be applied to both art house films and exploitation flicks, and everything in between.  Films budgeted at $200 and $20 million (and everything in between).

Independent film can happen anywhere you find the nexus of funding and creative talent.  Fortunately, Central Florida has both.  And while ‘important’ films get the headlines, direct-to-video genre films like Death Mask and Deadly Species shot here and eventually gained real estate on the shelves of video stores like Blockbuster.

But the potential good news goes even beyond Central Florida’s burgeoning indie scene, says Allen.

New technologies like rapidly-evolving cell phones and video gaming systems are opening new markets that require digital and interactive content.  The aforementioned schools, along with the UCF’s new Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA), could play a large role in supplying talent to the Central Florida companies seeking to fill that growing need.

And so as the credits roll, not unlike in The Empire Strikes Back, we’re left with more questions than answers:

Will state incentives draw big budget studio features back to Central Florida? With the area’s robust industry and solid numbers, should that even be a concern?  What will be the next ‘breakout’ feature film entirely funded, shot, and produced here?

As the plot continues to develop, at least one thing is clear: Central Florida’s entertainment industry has proven itself to be a star with staying power.




Central Florida has played important roles in feature films over the years.  Here now, a few highlights from its resume…

Central Florida Regional Airport

Both Passenger 57 (1992) and Wilder Napalm (1993) filmed scenes at this airport

Tinker Field

Historic Tinker Field served as a stand-in for St. Louis’s Busch Stadium in the opening scenes of Parenthood (1989).

Orlando City Hall (R.I.P.)

R.I.P. because this structure was imploded (with a little pyro thrown in, of course), in the opening sequence of Lethal Weapon III (1992).

Orlando Citrus Bowl

The Bourbon Bowl sequence in The Waterboy (1998) was filmed in the Orlando Citrus Bowl with UCF students serving as most of the fan extras.


– Matthew Porter

2 responses to “Hitting the Mark: Central Florida’s Entertainment Industry Thrives As It Evolves”

  1. get more says:

    Independent motion picture suppliers are demonstrating how the key companies do not will be the exclusive judges of what the general public prefer. As soon as you add to that distribution on the web, media, internet pages, from chat to whole films. It is just a brand-new world. Some of it good, some not.

    • admin says:

      Well said. I think the new rules are yet to be written. But the thing is, I don’t they ever will be. Or put another way, I don’t think anything will ever settle into a ‘new normal’ for the entertainment business. Disruptors (a good thing) will be continue be a major force. In the past, filmmakers and other creatives could break out of the noise by ‘breaking the rules.’ From here forward, I think anyone who wants to win in the industry has to have the courage and conviction to write their own rules. Identify your audience. Connect with them and serve them. Period. That could be done a million ways and, now, is. – Matthew

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