A brief history of filming in Palm Beach County and where the industry stands today
The movies came to Florida for the same reason as the population: the weather.
Before World War I, the movie industry had been mostly centered around New York and New Jersey. But unpleasantly cold winters led early movie companies to begin looking to the south for winter production, specifically Jacksonville, which at the time was the biggest city (50,000 people, with an infrastructure to match) on the railroad line that was a straight shot from New York City. Between 1908 and 1926, about 300 films were made in Jacksonville.
It was during the real estate boom of the 1920s that the movies came to Palm Beach. One of the first studios to arrive was Paramount, which shot The Palm Beach Girl, starring silent film darling Bebe Daniels, in and around The Breakers hotel in 1926.
Some thought was given to establishing year-round studios, but that idea vanished with the summers. The heat and humidity, unleavened by air conditioning that hadn’t yet been invented, could actually melt the emulsion on 35mm film. So Florida remained strictly a seasonal production center. That began to change in the 1980s, and since, Palm Beach County has hosted a plethora of films. There have been the excellent (1981’s Body Heat, Lake Worth, Palm Beach, Delray Beach; 1980’s Caddyshack, Boca Raton), some not so memorable (1992’s A Trace of Red, Palm Beach; 2013’s Parker, Boca Raton, Palm Beach), and a bunch that fall somewhere in between (1980’s Smokey and the Bandit II, Jupiter; 2001’s Heartbreakers, Palm Beach; 2005’s In Her Shoes, Delray Beach, Deerfield Beach).
All have been shepherded by the Palm Beach County Film & Television Commission, one of 50 such organizations in the state of Florida. These days, says Deputy Film Commissioner Michelle Hillery, the county usually attracts between two and five films a year, mostly for exterior locations. “One of our most competitive advantages is the diversity of locations that can be found here,” she notes. “From our award-winning parks, to our world-class cultural attractions and sports venues, to our white sandy beaches and natural areas.”
Ten years ago, Florida was actually the number-three production destination, after California and New York. Unfortunately, the ending of the Florida state incentive program for film production in 2016 changed that. Forty-two states have some form of a film incentive program; Florida is the only state in the Southeast without one. The incentive system has proven particularly successful in Georgia, which offers a 20 percent tax credit for productions that spend more than $500,000 in the state. The Walking Dead television series, along with its spinoffs, is shot in Georgia—and the result has been an industry that returns $9.5 billion to the state treasury.
The decision to stop the incentive program was a blow to Florida to be sure, but Hillery says production is still booming. Movies are only part of what the PBCFC does—a larger portion of its business is television and still photography. In 2018 alone, $229 million in overall production took place in Palm Beach County. In fact, PBC just saw its second consecutive record-breaking year with 576 productions shot locally, up 15 percent over 2017.
“We react to leads that come in,” explains Hillery. “Most of them are location-driven or talent-driven. Or they’re shooting a spring catalogue and are looking for warm weather. We provide an array of locations that meet the needs of the project.”
“Our community is excited to work with the production industry, and the film commission works as a liaison on behalf of both,” she continues. “We protect our municipalities by making sure the production companies have the proper insurance to film, and we also work with these companies to help them get their business done while they are here—we assist them in finding things like the best hotel room rates, catering services, studio facilities, and off-duty officer details.”
One thing many people aren’t aware of is that Palm Beach County has a pretty fair degree of filming infrastructure of its own. There are more than 100 local production-related companies and six soundstages. Additionally, the state of Florida leads the country in the number of colleges and universities that offer film and digital media programs—33 in total, graduating 5,000 students every year. While production jobs are both skilled and highpaying ($81,000 is the average annual wage for industry professionals in Florida), the challenge is keeping grads from going elsewhere for work. “We have a great education system here and top film schools,” says Hillery. “We’re educating people for the industry, but we are unable to retain them.”
Still, the county remains steadfast in the nurturing of young talent. While the Palm Beach International Film Festival has been defunct for the past two years, one of its components—the Student Showcase of Films—lives on. It’s something that was near and dear to the heart of the late Burt Reynolds, who played a huge role in the growth of production in Florida over the years and established a scholarship in his name. The SSOF juried competition recognizes outstanding high school and college students with more than $15,000 in scholarships a year and awards in areas including music videos, animation, documentaries, and film features and shorts.
With additional festivals dedicated to Jewish and African-American cinema, there are now 10 film festivals in Palm Beach County. “The most we’ve ever had,” says Hillery. And, she adds, programs like the SSOF continue to support the industry: “The Palm Beach International Film Festival gave birth to the Student Showcase of Films, which is so important because it pays tribute to
the talent found within our award-winning educational programs, with a goal of strengthening the workforce in The Palm Beaches and the great state of Florida. And in the long run, that’s what we’re all about.”