LARGO — A little slice of Hollywood came to Largo last week, as a Lifetime Network film crew shot a scene from an upcoming romantic comedy at the Florida Botanical Gardens.
The Feb. 1 shoot was part of the production of “Lean into Love,” the fourth in a series of small-budget TV movies with an emphasis on embedding local tourism elements. The productions are being filmed through a partnership with former Clearwater Marine Aquarium director David Yates, the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater Film Commission, and producer Danny Roth.
The Feb. 1 shoot took place in the Ulmerton Road facility’s Wedding Garden on a picture-perfect day following a spate of low temperatures and high wind, and while the area was bustling for hours with cast, crew members and set workers, many Botanical Garden guests had no idea what was going on.
“We just stumbled upon this. We had no idea it was here,” Roberta Crowl of Bloomington, Minnesota, said as she walked the grounds. Her husband, Al, added, “We come here every year because it’s such a beautiful place, but we had no idea this was going on today. We just walked by very quietly on the side!”
The fact that a Hollywood production was being filmed, unnoticed, right under people’s noses is an apt metaphor for the current state of Florida’s film industry, according to Yates As the head of the Clearwater acquarium, he helped bring one of the most successful family films of all time, “Dolphin Tale,” to Pinellas County in 2011.
During a sit-down with media members, Yates explained how the elimination of statewide incentives a decade ago left the Florida film industry reeling, leading to a mass exodus of production crews to other states, including neighboring Georgia, and forcing people like Pinellas County Film Commissioner Tony Armer to get creative in coming up with alternative solutions.
“When I left the aquarium two years ago, I spoke to Tony and I told him one of my goals was to bring films to the area that you can support,” Yates said. His goal was “to bring in some good-quality films, but also to draw in tourism at the same time.”
Last fall, Roth’s RNR Media shot a scene from his film “DOA at the PTA” at the nearby SPC-Seminole campus.
Despite the lack of statewide incentives, Yates said there’s “not another county in the country, in a state that doesn’t have film incentives, doing more to facilitate filming than Pinellas County.” He noted there are two bills in the state Legislature that could go a long way toward restoring Florida’s national reputation as a Hollywood-friendly haven. “There’s only so much you can do locally,” he said.
Speaking to several “Lean into Love” cast and crew members, it’s easy to understand why they love the mid-winter assignments in the Sunshine State.
“The locations are really great, where we can get that real cinematic experience, but also support small businesses,” said Brittany Underwood, a veteran television actress who recently started directing. She said they recently shot a scene at Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach. “The small businesses are willing to offer up their location for us to film there, so we kind of help each other out. I’m from a small town in Jersey where my community is my family, so anytime I can help a community out, I love that.”
Ansley Gordon, a longtime television actress who grew up in Orlando and stars in “Lean into Love,” said she was impressed with her first Lifetime shoot in the Tampa Bay area.
“Naturally, it’s just gorgeous,” Gordon said. She added that she “always loved coming here since I was a kid” because “it’s so beautiful.”
While the brief cold snap threw some cast members for a loop, Gordon said she was prepared, bringing a “giant jacket and big Ugg boots.” Despite the cold snap, she believes “Florida is finally getting the time on screen that it deserves.”
For Armer, those words were like a Grammy Award-winning soundtrack to his ears.
“My job is to get out there and spread the gospel about St. Pete-Clearwater as a great place to make movies,” Armer said. The area was recently named as one of the top 25 areas to live and work in the country as a moviemaker by a reputable filmmaking magazine. “So, continuing to get those kind of accolades is something that really helps spread the news and the word about this area as a film location.”