From the Guest Editor, Tony Armer
Tony Armer has championed film and film making in Pinellas County as the Film Commissioner for St. Petersburg/Clearwater, the founder and former Executive Director of the Sunscreen Film Festival as well as an award-winning filmmaker in his own right.
This month he joins us as our Guest Editor as we focus on film and film making in Pinellas County. We sat with Tony and spoke about his career path to being a film commissioner and film festival founder, the new and growing importance of YouTube, his aspirations for film in the area and more.
It’s funny. When you’re a little kid or when you’re first starting college you don’t ever set out to be like, “One day I would like to be the film commissioner.” It’s not a job that you typically think of as a goal or somewhere that you’d like to end up. Growing up, I always loved movies and, oddly enough, I either wanted to be a college football coach or a filmmaker. Those were the two F’s: football and film. And I took filmmaking class in high school where we actually shot on Super 8mm, no sound. This was in the mid- ‘80s where you were actually cutting real film and editing that. It was so much fun and I really enjoyed it. Then I did a couple of film classes in college, but, again, this is the early ‘90s and you’re like, “That’s not a real job you can actually have.” So, I did communications, a business degree and didn’t really circle back around until my early thirties until I established a business career.
I had reached a point where I decided that if I’m going to do this I might as well do it now. I went out and bought a really nice camera and just started figuring it out. After a couple of friends and I made some shorts and some TV pilots and I started flying back and forth to L.A. to attend some shows and events we made our first feature film. And it was terrible. And I realized nobody would ever see this movie and that’s probably a good thing. But it was the impetus for starting the Sunscreen Film Festival. It was, “How can I meet more people in this business, living here in Florida and how can I bring people to me without having to move to Los Angeles or fly all over the Country all the time.” That quickly started snowballing as people really started discovering it and deciding that this is really something we need locally.
Many years later, after producing a ton of stuff and working on a lot of projects in a variety of ways–from cameraman on TV shows to producing independent films to producing and directing an award-winning documentary–I spoke with Jennifer Parramore one day who was the film commissioner and she said she was retiring. I was like, “What do I have to do to get your job?” I was just joking, but she said, “Well, you would actually have a pretty good shot at this; here’s the process…” So I applied and many months later I interviewed. They did a national search and hired me locally which was great.
A lot in regards to your jobs require a 30,000 foot view of the film industry and community. But do you feel like your passion is still with filmmaking or do you not prefer one over the other?
I actually approach the film commission like a producer. There’s a lot of great resources that we have as a film commission that when I am meeting with filmmakers and producers that I want to bring to projects here, I do it like a producer would. “Here is what the area has to offer. Here is what we can do. Here is how I can help.”
So, for people not familiar with the St. Petersburg Clearwater Film Commission, or film commissions in general, what does it do exactly?
A quick rundown: there’s a couple of things. One: Anything that comes to the area that needs a permit to film in any of the 24 cities in Pinellas County, all those film permits go through our office. There’s a daily administrative part of it. We had 200 projects permitted last year that came through our office, so we’re helping facilitate that. It’s not just, “Here you go, here’s a permit.” We’re working directly with the city and the filmmaker, coordinating locations and coordinating police services if they need to block a road, for example. And we’re working with the County and cities and the State and all these different entities. You need to help manage it and help put it together so that a filmmaker can actually do what they want to do. That’s hours and hours of daily administrative work so that’s why I’m not the only one in the office.
Beyond that, there’s going out and branding and marketing and advertising this area as a location. That’s a lot of what I do. I’m out attending film markets, film-related events and film festivals to meet filmmakers, to pitch and sell this area. We do that same thing in the digital space with our YouTube Channel, Facebook and Twitter. We also do things like sponsoring the Sunscreen Film Festival that bring in filmmakers into the area. I’ll meet filmmakers and say, “Would you like to come to the area for a location scout. You have a project that could work here.” So, I bring them in, we tour them around and show them the area.
It seems like many filmmakers already enjoy filming here. For example, director Tim Burton comes to mind. What does our area offer filmmakers that they may not find elsewhere?
The number one thing we always pitch, of course, is the location, great locations. Everything from the best beaches in the world to unique areas like down town St. Pete and Tarpon Springs and Old Northeast and Roser Park and Safety Harbor, Dunedin. So, you’ve got small town Main Street-type communities to go along with urban environments to go along with great parks where you can get that wooded or jungle feel. Or islands, whether it’s Caladesi Island or Fort De Soto, and have unexplored islands to traditional tourist-type beaches. In the tourist communities, you have Treasure Island and other areas that have that old-Florida feel and there’s Clearwater Beach that’s a new, modern Florida tourist area.
People have been making movies here. Go back to Cocoon in 1984. There’s a long history of feature films and commercial production here, so the crew is very important when they’re going to come from out of town. They need to know that they can show up and there’s experienced crew there that can work. They don’t have to fly-in and put everyone up in a hotel that’s coming from Los Angeles or New York or Atlanta. There’s locals that can do the job.
So, when filmmakers shoot here, they generally like to hire locally?
Yes, as much as they can. And that’s what we try to push too. We have a production guide on the website where if you’re a person who wants to work in the industry locally you can put your resume and information on that. So, when a producer comes here or working elsewhere in the world they can search through that and see what type of crew we have here and they can assemble their crews, essentially.
You mentioned YouTube earlier. How does digital content like YouTube fit into what the film commission does? And is digital content the sort of thing that is typical for a film commission to be concerned with now?
I don’t know if it’s typical, but it should be. You can get more views on YouTube than people that would go see an independent film in theatres. The way people consume video has completely changed. We had a big music video we did with a band called We the Kings. That video has over a million views on YouTube and it shows some great locations in the area. Maybe the incentive funding that we helped with that project to get it to shoot here ends up being more valuable than a big feature film because more people are going to see this video than might even see a film. So digital content is very important. People are consuming it every single day. Short-form content is very easy for people to watch. If you’re going to watch a movie, you have to take the time, sit down, you’re there for 90 minutes and attention spans are short. Everything is being consumed on our phones so you want to push that mobile digital content as much as possible. So, we make a big priority out of that.
Back to film: We talked a bit about the Sunscreen Film Festival. What was it like founding the film fest? Did you have in mind that it would become what it is today?
No, I don’t think I really knew at the beginning. I’ve always been very entrepreneurial. If there’s something I wanted to do, I just figured it out and did it. So, we just started figuring it out. When people in the community started responding to it and wanting to be involved and it continued to grow and grow, it was a nice surprise to see it really take off and now what it’s become today.
The Sunscreen Film Festival and your work at the film commission has really helped grow the profile of our area in the film industry. What aspirations do you still have for our area, though? What would you like to see happen?
Of course, I would to see us get as much production as possible. We love the big feature films. There’s a project which I’m talking to the producers now that would be a huge project with big A-list stars. Those are great but few and far between.
Outside of that I would love to see more independent film production. If we had thirty $300,000 films shooting every year, that would be amazing. Those are small micro-budget films, but if you have a lot of them it makes an impact. People are working. Who knows? Maybe we could have the next Moonlight.
For digital content, I’d really love to be able to create and grow a hub for digital content creators here. Something we’re really focusing on is not just trying to encourage, but provide tools for digital creators whether it’s for their YouTube channel, Vimeo channel or Amazon video. We want to really grow that content because it’s very shareable and can make an impact.
From the film festival perspective, for the Sunscreen Film Festival to grow, to become the Cannes of the southeastern United States. It would be ideal to grow the attendance of it, grow the audience of it, grow it out to an international scale.