BACK FROM THE DEAD 


There was something ruefully familiar in the air at the Jan. 7 opening of Vicon Entertainment’s $3 million House of Moves motion capture studio – a third of which came from Orlando tax dollars – at the University of Central Florida’s Florida Interactive Education Academy. It wasn’t just the scenes of the untold destruction of a virtual metropolis playing out on the screen overhead, nor the awkwardness of virtual naked men wrestling, accompanied by narration telling us “the knee that was put into the side wasn’t quite as strong as we’d like it to be.”

House of Moves is, as the city loves to point out, a major player in film post-production. The company has worked on such pictures as Titanic, Men in Black II, Spider-Man 2 and The Polar Express, as well as a slew of popular video games. At the opening, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer chimed in with his cluster-speak sales pitch for the city’s pipe dream of a downtown creative village – which he promises will lead complementary companies, highly paid “knowledge workers,” increased hotel stays and a general rising tide to lift all ships – it was clear what was happening.

“We’re adding building blocks to expand our digital-media culture,” said Dyer. The city wants House of Moves to anchor that creative village and help lead the resurgence of Orlando as an entertainment dynamo.

In other words, the illusory vision of Orlando as Hollywood East was once again rearing its ugly head. Only this time, it’s digital.

That cyclically recurring slogan – “Hollywood East” – has plagued Central Florida for the past two decades. It finally (we thought) died on the heels of the economic downturn that followed the broken dot-com bubble. That, and Canadian financial incentives that drew film productions out of the states and into the Great White North. In 2004, Gov. Jeb Bush tried to revive the state’s film industry with a $3 million incentive package. Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist increased that amount to $25 million.

Florida’s Don Davis Entertainment Industry Economic Development Act of 2007, which took effect in July 2007, offers extensive rebates for businesses that choose to pursue their film and digital enterprises in-state, ranging from 10 to 22 percent in cash back on their projects.

In its heyday, Hollywood East was supposed to turn our tourist-trap burg into a anchor of the film production world where feature films and top-rated television shows were taped. Today, however, Central Florida suffers the humiliation of straight-to-DVD sequel infamy, reality television and commercials. Once again, Orlando is trying to position itself as a real entertainment Mecca, but not so much as a place where artistic integrity reigns. Rather, we want to become the land of post-production, a la House of Moves – with an undercurrent of Larry the Cable Guy.

“I think the term `Hollywood East` was kind of a detriment, because it set an expectation by people and organizations that had nothing to do with the industry,” says Suzy Allen, vice president of film and digital media development for the Metro Orlando Film and Entertainment Commission. “The industry never planted a flag and said, ‘We want to be Hollywood East.’ That was kind of put upon them as an expectation that was really unfair. It’s like taking Simi Valley `near Hollywood, Calif.` out of Simi Valley and saying ‘We’re Simi Detroit.’ It just doesn’t happen.”

According to a 2004 study published by the Metro Orlando Film and Entertainment Commission, the film and entertainment industry was producing 3,400 jobs at 383 companies locally, generating $845.5 million in combined sales revenue that year. However, the average film company only employed two people and generated $250,750 in annual sales revenue.

Allen insists Orlando’s on an upswing, although that upswing largely consists of an embarrassment of clichés: National Lampoon’s RoboDoc (featuring David Faustino), Sydney White (with Amanda Bynes), Ace Ventura 3 (without Jim Carrey), Beethoven: The Reel Story (dogs!) and Bring It On: In It to Win It (cheerleaders!).

Allen says that even if the films coming out of Orlando are less than savory, she doesn’t care; money is money. “Honestly, I’ll be the last person to throw judgment on any job employing 150 to 200 people for 60 days,” she says. “So, regardless of the content, these people are making a real day rate and they’re employing a lot of them. It’s hard to cast a stone on, ‘Oh, we’ve got Beethoven but we don’t have Mission: Impossible.’ People are still getting paid the same amount of money and working the same amount of days.”

Douglas Lorah, who co-founded the Green Room Orlando website (www.greenroomorlando.com) with girlfriend Kim Burke in 1998, says that although the death of the first Hollywood East dealt a deep blow to the local film industry, all is not lost.

“`T`here were a lot of people that moved here from L.A.,” Lorah says. “And when the studios like Nickelodeon and some of the other bigger companies bailed on the area, they got soured. There still are some of those people out there. But I think with Full Sail and UCF and kids coming out of a lot of the other schools around here, it’s bringing new blood into the industry.”

The industry’s changed, he says. You’re no longer required to purchase surplus film stock and expensive cameras. It’s all gone digital. It isn’t always that creatively rewarding, though.

“They do get paid well when they do work,” Lorah says of the area’s film employees. “It’s feast and famine with the film industry. “There’s plenty of people who will do steady work with commercials in town – maybe not as much as you would see in Miami. It’s film, but it’s not feature. It’s not as creative and it’s not long-term.”

Universal Studios Orlando remains a large part of the multimillion-dollar end of the puzzle, even though the dwindling of television productions at Nickelodeon’s studios in 2002 has been a source of frustration among many local film technicians. Terri Hartman, publicity director for the production group of Universal Orlando’s film and television division, laughs off the “Hollywood East” stigma. “I moved here from Houston,” she says. “Houston was supposed to be the third coast.”

And yet the show still goes on. Allen says that she’s excited about a new reality show called Bridal Bootcamp and the full commercial season going on right now, and she’s optimistic about the future of interactive media in the area. House of Moves, she says, has already received extensive interest from both New York and Atlanta. House of Moves has said that it expects its first-year revenues to be close to $500,000. Calls to the motion-capture studio asking if the facility had been used since its opening went unreturned by press time.

“We’re Orlando. We’re Florida,” Allen says contentedly. “I think you go anywhere in the world and there’s a lot of pride in that. We’re not L.A. We’re not New York – never were gonna be. That was never the intention. We are a great, strong and thriving third market.”

bmanes@orlandoweekly.com

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