Florida rolling out red carpet for Indies

A line forms at the box office at Old Mill Playhouse in Lake Sumter Landing. More than 50% of the movies shown at Rialto Theatre, Old Mill Playhouse and Barnstorm Theater are indie movies, according to Deborah Mills, operations director at The Villages Movie Theaters.

Lights, camera, action — especially in Florida. Due to an increase in accessible technology, independent films are reaching an audience pool deeper than ever before. And Florida may be banking on this trend. In December, the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee unanimously approved a bill that could bring more film studios to Florida. The bill introduces a rebate program that would apply to digital media projects with production budgets of $1.5 million or more; projects that qualified would be required to spend 70% of filming days in Florida. “I’m hoping that there will be a resurrection,” said Paul Cohen, director of the Torchlight Center and professor at the College of Motion Picture Arts at Florida State University. “Atlanta has gotten a spotlight because of the assistance they get with taxes, but I think the spotlight is trickling back down to Florida.”

And in a movie industry dictated by sequels and remakes, independent films are filling a gap that just keeps getting wider.

“Audiences are demonstrating that they will support a well-crafted, character-driven independent film, voting with their ticket purchases at the box office,” said Margo Lange, CEO of ArtAffects Entertainment, a motion picture distribution company.

Audiences in The Villages are no exception.

More than 50% of the movies shown at Rialto Theatre, Old Mill Playhouse and Barnstorm Theater are indie movies, according to Deborah Mills, operations director at The Villages Movie Theaters.

“Most independent films that open here end up being No. 1 in the country,” added Craig Wolf, manager at Rialto Theatre. “We’ve gained a reputation. They call us up.”

And there is no shortage of independent films to choose from.

A Shifting Dynamic

To make a film, you need people, financing, collaboration and technological support. It’s one of the most expensive art forms, Cohen said.

But expenses are decreasing.

The higher accessibility and affordability of video equipment and software, coupled with the popularity of digital streaming, has become the perfect recipe for independent filmmakers and fans.

“Before, an audience or the general public was limited to what was available,” said Brendon Rogers, executive director of the Central Florida Film Festival. “If it wasn’t on TV, video or in wide release, you weren’t going to see it. Whereas now, there’s streaming.”

Services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video have large libraries of indie movies available for streaming, and audiences are responding to the genre.

Because of this, the number of outlets independent films can turn to has boomed, said Christina Lane, chair of the Cinematic Arts Department at the University of Miami.

“This means there is a high demand for content, especially variety, which leaves a great opening for indie films and new cinematic approaches,” Lane said.

As Rogers sees it, Hollywood hasn’t really figured out how to adjust to the modern streaming world in which people can control how they get their content.

“There is no standard for whether an audience will want to see a movie or not,” he said. “You can take the biggest box office smash director or actor coming off of something that’s really hot, put them in something else, and it could tank. If an audience doesn’t want to see something, they won’t.”

Hence, the volume of big-budget remakes and sequels.

Independent filmmakers have more flexibility, Rogers added.

“An indie filmmaker isn’t limited to what they think they can make money off of on the same scale as a studio that has to recoup a $1 million, $2 million or $3 million budget,” he said. “The movie doesn’t have to go out and make a billion dollars to be a success and they’re not limited to the types of stories they can tell.”

Indie movies are smaller-scaled and targeted to a specific audience, as compared to a big-budget blockbuster that seeks to appeal to all four demographic quadrants, said Lange, of ArtAffects.

“Indie films are the voice of creative individuals and a more intimate form of expression to connect with their audience,” Lange said.

Filmmaking in Florida

In 2010, The Florida Entertainment Industry Financial Incentive Program was created to encourage the use of Florida as a filming location. It offered tax credits to qualified film and media projects.

The program expired in 2016, but it did influence growth in Florida’s market for film entertainment, according to a report by the Florida Office of Film & Entertainment.

During the time the program was active, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity certified 300 productions for tax credits, expending approximately $1.26 billion and creating an estimated 110,214 Florida jobs, according to the report.

If passed by the Florida Legislature this year, the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee’s proposed rebate program could help jump-start this growth.

Although Florida currently lacks tax incentives, the Sunshine State is a prime filming location.

The first reason is the geography of the state, according to Rogers, who has been making independent films for years.

“You have myriad of different types of locations that you could use for almost any film — beaches, urban areas, forests,” Rogers said. “The geography gives a wide variety for the types of films that could be shot here.”

The second reason is that infrastructure is already in place “from back in the heyday when Disney and Universal were in production,” Rogers said. “There are a number of different types of editing houses and production resources. The state’s already set up for that, which is great for filmmakers wanting to shoot here.”

Florida also is packed with credible film programs at schools like Florida State University, the University of Miami and Full Sail University.

“Many of these programs encourage students to find their personal voice and focus on local stories,” UM’s Lane said. “This inevitably generates movies that are not cookie-cutter and serve as a launchpad for students who truly see the world from a unique standpoint.”

People Want Good Stories

Independent films often focus on coming of age stories, true stories and niches, like the LGBTQ genre.

“Indie films offer the opportunity to create screenplays and tell stories that would not be told by big studios, either because they’re deemed too small, or because they’re of a nature that the studios don’t want to step into,” FSU’s Cohen said.

They fill a niche that needs to be filled.

“We believe the movie-going public is hungry for original stories offering quality entertainment as an alternative to the typical major studio fare of sequels and special effects-driven films,” Lange said.

And on the production side of things, there is simply more artistic freedom.

“There’s no one over your shoulder telling you what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” said actor John Travolta in an interview at Barnstorm Theater during the red carpet premiere of “The Fanatic,” an independent film in which he starred. “You’re more free to explore creative borderlines and to exceed them. You don’t get that with a big studio picture, but you do get it with independent films.”

It’s important for available content to be diverse, because there are a lot of people who need to be served, and it is important to hear all sides of a story, said Mills, of The Villages Movie Theaters. And that’s part of why so many independent films are screened and promoted here.

The Villages Makes Independent Movies No. 1

Indie movies largely succeed in The Villages, and Hollywood is noticing.

“There will be people who bring their film to a distributor, and the distributor will tell them, ‘You need to be in The Villages,’” Mills said.

ArtAffects Entertainment is one of those distributors.

“Old Mill, Barnstorm and Rialto are predictably successful at the box office with our films and are often the top-grossing engagements in the country,” said Lange, the company’s CEO.

Theatrical booker Sarah Wexler said that The Villages has been a great partner for the films she works with.

“I have a sense of comfort knowing that the entire staff is also passionate about sharing the film experience with the community,” she said. “The Villages Movie Theaters seem to have a loyal audience that enjoys a variety of film genres.”

The Villages is making small films big, Mills said.

“We’re making their indie movies blockbusters, and not just within our own community,” she said. “It’s rattling the industry.”

Senior writer Kristen Fiore can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5270, or kristen.fiore@thevillagesmedia.com.