As A-Rod Battles His Neighbor, Miami Beach's Film Renaissance Hangs in the Balance | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


As A-Rod Battles His Neighbor, Miami Beach's Film Renaissance Hangs in the Balance

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"This city's got everything you'd want for movies," George says. "The water, the exotic plants and trees, and that magical evening light."

But Miami has never quite gotten its act together. As early as 1921, Griffith wrote Miami Mayor Everest Sewell to complain that Florida's "lack of studio facilities must necessarily discourage many producers."

In the late '50s, it was Miami Beach's turn to star. From his penthouse at the Fontainebleau, Frank Sinatra cranked out classics such as A Hole in the Head, Lady in Cement, and the crime flick Tony Rome. Jerry Lewis shot the slapstick The Bellboy at the same hotel. And Sean Connery's James Bond found a gilded corpse in his room in the 1964 blockbuster Goldfinger.

"Movies and movie stars were attached to hotels like the Fontainebleau," says Christina Lane, a professor of film studies at the University of Miami. "It made this really interesting link between Miami Beach's hotel scene and Hollywood."

That peak wouldn't last, though, for the same reasons Griffith complained about. Without proper studios, the string of productions came to an end when stars like Sinatra and Lewis moved on.

Miami Beach slipped from the limelight for nearly two decades, until a murderous Marielito named Tony Montana shot and snorted his way across Ocean Drive in Scarface. Released in 1983, the movie put the Beach back on the map. The next year, Miami Vice cemented the city's reputation as an Eden for pastel-plastered drug dens.

But after Don Johnson hung up his white linen suit in 1989, Miami Beach didn't get much onscreen action. Movies such as Bad Boys and True Lies provided brief bumps in the '90s. The industry made a comeback in the '00s, but slumped badly after the recession hit in 2008, with permits dropping to a low of 929 a year, says Graham Winick, the city's film and event production manager.

That has clearly turned around this year. Upcoming movies such as Iron Man III and Michael Bay's Pain & Gain — based on a New Times article — promise to splash South Beach on screens around the world. Miami Beach has also starred on the small screen, from Magic City, Burn Notice, and Charlie's Angels to reality shows like The Real Housewives of Miami and Bad Girls Club: Miami. In the past year, Winick's office has issued 968 permits, and productions have generated more than $87 million for the economy — double the haul from three years earlier.

"This industry is creating jobs; it's filling hotel rooms," says Bruce Orosz, owner of ACT Productions and chairman of Miami Beach's Production Industry Council. "It's bringing an enormous amount of capital and cash directly infused into the city."

Thanks largely to that boom, South Florida now accounts for more than 70 percent of the growing film industry in Florida, which is forcing its way into the top five moviemaking states in the country, behind just California, New York, Louisiana, and Georgia.

"The fact that we have a couple of these shows here now is huge," Libbin says. "In our heyday, we had Miami Vice and modeling agencies lining Ocean Drive. Then things fell off the table... but now we are recovering."

Behind the renaissance lie serious tax breaks. Two years ago, Florida approved a five-year, $242-million tax credit program for productions in the state. It's also cheaper to shoot in Miami Beach than anywhere else in Florida. While Miami-Dade charges $100 for a film or photo permit anywhere in the county — and many municipalities tack on their own fees — the Beach charges nothing. Compare that to a minimum fee of $625 to shoot in Los Angeles. The airtime and local spending by crews give the Beach enough return without permit fees, Winick says.

That may be true, but the city's pro bono deal with Hollywood isn't necessarily the win-win officials make it out to be. The Beach's resurgence wouldn't have happened without another byproduct of the recession: the hundreds of gorgeous but empty palaces across the city.

In the wake of the real estate bubble's explosion, overextended celebs and sketchy businessmen have used the industry to turn their underwater mansions into cash cows — whether neighbors like it or not.

As he opens the gate to his Mediterranean-style villa, Irwin Friedman can't help but rib the wealthiest man in Major League Baseball, who is in the midst of an epic slump. Later tonight, Rodriguez and his Yankees will be knocked out of the playoffs yet again. Seeing vulnerability, Friedman knows when to throw a nasty curve.

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Michael E. Miller

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