Mr. Hollywood Florida

With a little smoke, a few mirrors, and an ego big enough to reach California, Craig Marquardo wants to build his own movie-making empire in South Florida

His father, Marquardo surmises, helped teach him the business end of movies, which often relies on "smoke and mirrors, and a lot of talking. I won the skills you need in this business from him, from listening to him bullshit. I used to believe everything he said, and later I found out none of it was true. I didn't learn that part from him, though, the how-to-be-a-liar part. But all the rest, yes.""All the rest" must have included a rancorous desire to take on political appointees whom Marquardo judges ineffectual.

In a series of lengthy letters written to Gov. Jeb Bush and circulated among state legislators, Marquardo has asked that new legislation designed to promote film and television production in Florida be scrapped.

The legislation provides incentives that allow both film producers and the local businesses they hire to escape taxes when they work in Florida. Several other states, including North Carolina, Georgia, and California, also have such incentives, which in Florida can save filmmakers roughly $25,000 per $10 million in production costs.

Dealmaker Craig Marquardo runs Fathom Motion Pictures from unpretentious offices in Hollywood, Florida
Joshua Prezant
Dealmaker Craig Marquardo runs Fathom Motion Pictures from unpretentious offices in Hollywood, Florida

The state system to promote the lucrative industry also includes a state film commissioner, whose $600,000 budget and $70,000 salary come from taxpayers, and 49 local film commissioners paid wholly or in part from county budgets to act as liaisons with the industry.

Marquardo's complaints about Florida stem from his conviction that state bureaucrats and politicians could make much more from the industry if they tried.

As it stands Florida's film industry is tied with Texas' as the third largest in the U.S., bringing about $600 million per year from film and television productions, commercials, and music videos. By comparison industry accountants report a $25 billion annual revenue in California and $5 billion in New York.

Marquardo says Florida could approach New York as a focal point over time but not without changing how the state lures production.

Producers and filmmakers "don't need tax breaks, although they're happy to take them, obviously. But they're already rich," insists Marquardo. Instead they should have up-front cash.

The tax incentives aren't large enough to become the deciding factor in a studio's decision to shoot a film in Florida, anyway. "People come here because it's Florida, and the weather's nice, and they'd rather shoot here than somewhere else."

Marquardo points to a Warner Brothers film called The Breakers, starring Sigourney Weaver and Gene Hackman and now shooting in Palm Beach, to make his point. The story is set partly in the famous Palm Beach hotel of the same name. The film would have been made here with or without the incentives, according to a film publicist speaking for Clifford Townsend, the executive producer. She would provide no other information about the movie.

According to Marquardo, politicians like the tax incentives as a way to help local businesses, which might luck into lucrative short-term contracts with film producers on location in Florida.

Such contracts mean tax-free work for them, too. Pulling out a list of wages paid on film sets in Florida, he points to the most common: a makeup artist, for example, can earn $2500 a week. A hairstylist gets $3000 a week; a costume designer can make $40,000 for 16 weeks; a dog-handler can make $30,000 for about 11 weeks, according to the list. "Why should they get to avoid taxes when everybody else has to pay them?" asks Marquardo.

Instead he proposes an "entertainment incentive fund" of millions to be collected by taxing the film industry. The money would provide cash incentives upfront that might attract even more filmmakers here, a system employed by both Canada and Australia, he notes. The Canadian system has reportedly boosted the industry there by five times since 1990, now creating $10.5 billion (Canadian) in annual revenue.

Marquardo also recommends creating incentives for private investors in the fund and extra funding for films that remain here in postproduction, paying for crew, restaurants, hotels, and other services.

In scalding language that made him no friends in the state film commissioner's office, Marquardo wrote to Bush: Commissioner Rebecca Mattingly "is in over her head. The advisory board is not experienced enough to advise her. The commission structure in the state is cluttered."

Bush ignored the Marquardo letters, but Mattingly, a former Disney executive, left Marquardo a "furious" telephone message, he says.

"Why should Mattingly make $70,000 a year to do nothing but travel around?" Marquardo asks, bristling at news that Mattingly has just returned from a Los Angeles trip to promote Florida's film industry.

Mattingly didn't provide requested records of her travel. Of Marquardo, she would only say, "He has a lot of ideas. So does everybody in the business." She wouldn't elaborate.

Miami-Dade Film Commissioner Jeff Peel says Mattingly is doing a good job.

"She's done a remarkable amount of work getting her house in order," he says, recalling that a state bureaucracy appointed by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles to promote films was cited for corruption and mismanagement and shut down before being restructured by Bush last year.

Peel, who earns $80,000 per year, says the current legislation on incentives "is the only thing we had a prayer of passing in the legislature. Marquardo has a point of view, and he's forceful about making it, but there is a reality he doesn't get. Given the political climate and the incentive the industry has been clamoring for, this is absolutely the right thing to do. It's a token. The competition is so fierce between us and Canada right now that we felt we had to do something."

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