University of Tampa works to get film students Hollywood internships

By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff

Hillsborough’s loss is Los Angeles’ gain, but film students at the University of Tampa are winners either way.

Their hopes of finding internships locally were fueled by two major productions that filmed in the Tampa area this year — Tim Burton’s “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” in February and actor Bryan Cranston’s “The Infiltrator” in April. Some of the estimated 140 UT film students found work on those sets.

But for the third year in a row, those long-term hopes were put on hold when the state Legislature rejected measures to replenish the state’s empty pot of film and television tax incentives and to provide additional incentives to productions that hire students from Florida universities.

So Gregg Perkins, chairman of the UT Communication Department, traveled to Los Angeles last month in search of Hollywood internships for students in his film program.

“If they can’t get internships here they need them there,” Perkins said.

Thanks in large part to UT alumni already working in the film industry there, the school is setting up an internship program that will send students to Hollywood.

For Dale Gordon, executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission, the news is bittersweet. Connections these students make in Los Angeles will likely lead to jobs there rather than here, Gordon said.

“I commend the University of Tampa for both growing their film program and also looking for new opportunities for their future graduates,” she said. “However, this is all too familiar a story of our new and upcoming talent having to leave the state after graduation to seek employment.”

Perkins called it a “brain drain” — those students with the highest potential are forced to leave the state if they want to work on major motion pictures or television series.

“I can’t tell you how many students tell me they’d love to stay in Tampa or Florida but cannot get a gig here,” he said. “So they go to those states with productions and those are the states with tax incentives.”

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During his trip, Perkins held a get-together for UT graduates now living in the LA area and working in the entertainment industry. Around 30 attended and agreed to help qualified students from their alma mater get internships with their companies or one with which they have a relationship.

Another dozen who could not make it to the event also pledged their support.

“They were all excited about helping the careers of current students,” Perkins said. “UT will finally have a real presence in L.A.”

Among those at the mixer was a producer for the reality show “The Amazing Race,” a veteran editor of Hollywood films, an entertainment lawyer who works in Netflix feature film division, and an executive from the Gersh Agency representing on-screen talent and writers.

“Each is real success story,” Perkins said. “They graduated right from UT to the school of hard knocks by moving to LA with nothing but their car and a little bit of money for a few months rent. They are role models for our students, proving hard work pays off.”

Perkins joined the University of Tampa in 2007, when there were around 70 students in the film program. Today, that number has more than doubled.

Some students land internships in Hollywood on their own. But with UT providing assistance now, Perkins said, the film program might approach the stature of the big names in academia.

“It will make us more competitive with schools like Pepperdine and Syracuse that have robust internship programs in Los Angeles,” he said. “On some level we are just catching up with what has become practice for other film programs.”

And still, there is hope that some students can land internships later this year on another project that might use Tampa in its filming.

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Production companies make public incentives a condition when they’re considering a location for filming, trading on the local economic boost they can deliver.

Incentives from the Hillsborough County Commission helped land some filming for the “The Infiltrator,” a story that takes place largely in Tampa but that was filmed mainly in England, where government film incentives reach as high as 25 percent.

Production has been postponed on “Live By Night,” based on a best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane about Prohibition-era rum-running in Ybor City, directed by and starring Ben Affleck. The movie was originally slated to begin filming in early 2014 but was delayed when Affleck accepted starring roles in “Gone Girl” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

Production now is set to start in November, most likely in Georgia, which offers up to 30 percent back in tax incentives. Set designers would make Georgia scenery look like Tampa.

Now, with more time, film commissioner Gordon said she hopes she can find a way to get Tampa at least a few shooting days even without incentives.

Still, even if she does, student interns on the set would have to leave Tampa to pursue a film career unless a film industry takes hold here.

The University of Tampa had 45 student interns working on “The Infiltrator” through a partnership arranged with help from Gordon.

With connections they made, some of these interns have landed job offers after graduation. None is in Florida.

“Our state Legislature needs to understand that without the long-term commitment of a funded state entertainment incentive program, our fresh talent will go elsewhere,” Gordon said. “We cannot afford to lose our next generation of high tech workers and innovators.”

For now, Perkins at UT is looking beyond what could have been. His top priority is his students. And the connections he made in LA bode well for their futures.

“Los Angeles is where the work is and students will now find it easier to find work there,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”

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