The Seeds of Digital Hollywood are Sprouting in Pinellas

August 09, 2017 by DAVID MORRIS | VISUAL ARTS
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The movies aren’t what they used to be. The recording and editing that once took a small army of technicians can now be pulled off, more or less, on the phones that nearly all of us carry. And instead of having the schlep to the downtown multiplex to enter a cinematic world, you can find enthralling stories on a screen that’s probably no more than three feet away from you right now.

While Hollywood has held onto its economic clout more effectively than the music or publishing industries, this technological shift has still had its effects. Maybe the most exciting has been the ability of filmmaking to explode out of California, opening up doors for tens of thousands of young filmmakers to create work that might never have been financed by a big studio and not only have it seen, but, through channels like Amazon and Netflix, make money from it.

The St. Pete-Clearwater Film Commission, under our guest editor Tony Armer, has made a bold move to capitalize on these trends – and to try, as well as they can, to mitigate the loss of state-level film subsidies since 2015. The Film Commission has recently started what it calls the Digital Creator Studio, which works closely with filmmakers making digital-first projects locally.

Filming in St. Petersburg, Florida from Barry Baker on Vimeo.

To get a sense of how the program works, and what its potential is, we talked to two filmmakers who have benefited from it – as it turns out, pretty hugely. One of them, Brad Kidwell, is a film industry veteran, who came to St. Pete to explore a new path to success. The other, Tony Ahedo, is a passionate young upstart looking for a leg up on an infamously challenging career.

Kidwell, who has experience spanning from shooting commercials to theater directing, is the founder of the appropriately-named Big Promise Studios. Before setting up shop in St. Pete, he spent busy months in Los Angeles researching the options for a new kind of kid’s programming. He was initially skeptical of YouTube as a possible platform. “I wanted us to be a serious original programmer, I didn’t want us to be mingled with cat videos.”

But then, he says, “I ran across two or three different people . . . and they had independently done shows, and they got the attention of [big studios], and they picked them up to do something with them.” So he’s decided to launch Big Promise’s first series, the preteen-targeting School Bus Diaries, on YouTube.

Though he was already based in Tampa Bay, Kidwell found that it was the perfect place to create the new project for a different reason: the costs to shoot here are very low, from crews’ pay needs to food costs. Location shooting, in particular, is a steal – location permits can be $600 or more per location in L.A., but in Pinellas, they’re often free.

Shooting for less is part of Kidwell’s filmmaking philosophy, and he found even more to love once he connected with the Film Commission and the Digital Creators Studio – which, despite its name, is much more than a single location. Ahedo set Kidwell and his team up with low-cost time in a series of local studios, a hugely valuable perk.

“It’s given us a greater edge,” says Kidwell, “And given some of the local talent the chance to work on a good soundstage and get a feel for the professional level.”

“That’s what a film commissioner does,” says Kidwell. “He goes out and makes things happen.”

 

While Kidwell is a seasoned expert, the Digital Creators Studio might be even more helpful for local filmmakers just starting out. Tony Ahedo graduated from the film program at Ringling College just a couple of years ago, but with help from the Film Commission, he’s already helming a praised TV series. The unlikely title of his project is Barry Baker: Aspiring Serial Killer.

Ahedo’s series follows the title character as he gets up to comedic hijinks in his quest to become a successful psychopathic killer. That might not sound like an easy sell, but Ahedo thought the mix of comedy and horror would be eye-catching, and he was right. After debuting the first episode at St. Pete’s Sunscreen Film Festival, Ahedo found local financial backing and was off to the races.

Ahedo had originally intended to move to a bigger film industry center after leaving school, but all the support for his brainchild has kept him here – just one more major way the Film Commission is having a serious impact on fostering a local film scene.

Unlike Kidwell, Ahedo has mostly bypassed YouTube, instead making his show available on Amazon Prime and, soon, Netflix. But he’s gotten similar support from the Film Commission, which helped him get free studio time, and even gave him a grant for marketing. The show is set in Florida – though it’s not pinned down to a single real-world city – which makes it a double whammy for promoting film in the state.

Still, in addition to the show, he’s kept working elsewhere, mostly in Atlanta. He’s not the only actor or director who now has to travel to get paying work, but Ahedo thinks the programs being put together by the Film Commission could eventually help attract serious filmmakers who aren’t part of the Hollywood machine – even without a film subsidy.

“A big feature film, $200 million, they might really want to get that 30% back.” He says. “[But] a $100,000 movie, they might be more willing to shoot here, because of all the support.”

Just as with Kidwell’s local actors, working in Barry Baker has helped Ahedo hone his skills. He says he’s now working on a feature film, though he’s tight-lipped about the details, and he hopes he can work on it in Pinellas.

“I grew up here, I love the area, and I don’t think it’s been tapped out yet.”

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