News Column

Reel deal: Group looks to build $30M movie studio in Collier

June 15, 2014

By Dave Osborn, Naples Daily News, Fla.

June 15--NAPLES -- Southwest Florida moviegoers may one day look up at the big screen at Silverspot or another local theater and see the Everglades, U.S. 41 and other familiar sites.

Spirit of Naples Studios is spearheading an effort to build a $30 million movie studio in Collier County. The project, expected to create at least 300 jobs annually once it's operational, has received the backing of film producers, executives and others who believe Naples is ripe to attract movie and television ventures.

The studio is opening an office Sunday with a small staff along Fifth Avenue South, a prominent spot to attract attention and show it's a serious effort.

Southwest Florida offers amenities high-profile actors, actresses and movie moguls enjoy, said Kyle Saylors, a producer, director and cinematographer.

"It's a gorgeous town," he said of Naples. "It definitely has the hotel capacity and the infrastructure. And it's a beautiful place to stay while you're shooting."

Saylors' recent film credits include "Veil of Tears," a documentary released this year that he wrote, produced and codirected. The movie exposed difficulties women in India face in counteracting generations of oppression.

"I lived in L.A. for six years and I moved to Nashville," Saylors said. "Productions are leaving L.A. like the plague."

Rebeca Seitz, who heads the nonprofit Spirit of Naples, said the intent is to create good, worthy, thought-provoking media. Sprit of Naples held its first film festival 2 1/2 years ago in Naples, and about 200 people attended.

Since then, Seitz said, the project has gained momentum -- especially financially. Naples benefactors who have agreed to back the effort with their money have said they don't like much of what they see on TV and at the movies.

Seitz pointed to gory movies and shows filled with plenty of blood and guts and promiscuity.

"They all believe there's something wrong with the country and this can help it," she said of the benefactors. She declined to provide names and how much money has been raised, saying some donors have asked to remain anonymous.

Spirit of Naples isn't a Christian-based studio, although the media it intends to produce will focus on more moral, intellectual themes, Seitz said.

"Spirit of Naples provides this very large way of how to change the way culture is affecting what people are watching," she said.

Spirit of Naples' 13 executive board members are a mix of lesser-known celebrities and clerics. They include Shemane Nugent, former wife of rock 'n' roll star Ted Nugent; Torry Martin, a comedian with a Biblical message; Rev. Robert Scudieri, outreach pastor, Faith Lutheran Church, Naples; and author Davis Bunn, who writes historical fiction and legal thrillers in which Christian faith plays a large role.

Seitz said Florida presently has no film incentive money available but hopes the Legislature passes an incentives bill in the next year or two. The Sunshine State continues to lose production business to Georgia and Louisiana, both of which offer incentives, she said.

State Sen. Nancy Detert said a bill she sponsored failed in the Legislature this year, and it's the first one she will introduce in 2015. It will include extra language that sets aside 20 percent for underutilized counties, which would include Collier, said Detert, R-Venice.

Detert pointed to a film project about Ybor City that now will be filmed in Savannah, Ga., because of a lack of state incentives.

"We had some extra money this year and lots of people lined up for it and the money went elsewhere," she said of why the bill didn't pass in the recent session.

"Next year, I've been promised, it will be on the front burner. The governor has been supportive. I think it will pass next year."

And if Democrat Charlie Crist is elected governor in November, Detert said, she expects that he would support her bill, too.

Detert is calling for $50 million a year for five years in incentives for filmmaking in the state.

"With filmmaking, you not only advertise about Florida, you're employing people," she said.

Detert referred to the 2011 film "Dolphin Tale" starring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman. The movie was filmed at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, as was part of "Dolphin Tale 2" that will be released in September.

"That one movie not only advertised for Florida and employed people, it saved the aquarium," Detert said. "That is a proven winner."

Seitz said she's hopeful that state incentives will become available in the future.

Getting a studio up and running would provide a proven mechanism for forging solid relationships in the industry and also solidifying Spirit of Naples' financial structure, Seitz said.

Spirit of Naples would receive money for use of its studio by outside projects, and, as a nonprofit, it would then pour that money back into projects that accomplish its mission, Seitz said.

Despite no state incentives, Spirit of Naples still can attract large studio projects from Los Angeles, she said.

Chad Gundersen, president and CEO of Dallas-based Gundersen Entertainment, said Naples is a viable site for a movie studio. Gundersen's company has a mission to create "family-friendly, morally sound and/or biblically based" films, its website states.

"I'm kind of surprised there's not something there already," Gundersen said. "Naples couldn't be more beautiful. The draw of the area would make it very easy for people to agree to come.

"Rebeca and I are already planning projects and it would only be good for us to bring some of them there."

Gundersen said he sees no logistical concerns to film in Southwest Florida since parts of Louisiana and other places aren't as accessible and do well with film projects.

A Collier studio also could supplement film ventures in Miami and other parts of South Florida, he said.

"You're less than two hours away so you'd be able to draw a lot of people from that area to come over and work," Gundersen said.

He said a Collier movie studio could be financially viable with a steady stream of work.

"When TV shows and films aren't there, there's the opportunity for commercial work and photo shoots," Gundersen said. "The idea there is to keep it very busy year-round."

Spirit of Naples has identified three properties in Collier County but hasn't committed financially to any yet, Seitz said. The goal is to find at least 10 acres with room to expand with an existing 30,000-to-40,000-square-foot building that can be retrofitted for office space.

"We would then build the 60,000 square feet of big-box studio space," she said in an email. "Ability to secure the property is of primary importance. A reasonable distance to hotels, restaurants, home supply stores, and other supporting industries is also helpful."

The nonprofit is seeking information regarding existing property possibilities and is working closely with commercial real estate professionals, Seitz said.

"We are meeting with city and county officials as well as community leaders, to see how we can best fit into the existing Collier County plan and vision," she said. "We welcome communication from others who might have information about suitable property."

Seitz said they include county Commissioner Georgia Hiller; County Manager Leo Ochs; and Bruce Register, the county's economic development director.

"It certainly is a very interesting proposal to think about movie studios," Register said, adding he plans to meet with Seitz this week about the project.

"The details, and to what extent of a durable impact it will have, are going to be a critical component from the economic development office's perspective," Register said.

Naples Mayor John Sorey said the city has few incentives to offer in building a movie studio but he supports the project.

"It would be an economic advantage," Sorey said. "If we can get a movie studio here, it would be another opportunity for Collier County."


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