John Lux got his start in Florida working for Walt Disney World, but after leaving the mouse’s house, he was drawn to a career in film production. Since becoming involved with Film Florida, Lux progressed from volunteer to treasurer before being named the full-time executive director in 2016.
Lux is Fluent in Floridian. As an advocate for the film, TV, and digital media industries, he is aware of the natural benefits our state offers to digital creators, but also of the incentives that can help move filming away from Hollywood studios, and bring that money to smaller communities. Lux speaks to the influx of money and notoriety seen by the city of Clearwater after it was featured in the hit film Dolphin Tale.
On this episode of Fluent in Floridian, John Lux discusses how the Sunshine State’s industry growth stacks up to our coastal neighbors across the South East. He also talks about some of the many memorable shows that were shot in Florida, as well as the engagement of companies like EA who help to expand the video game industry in the state.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders, talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m Chris Cate and in this episode created by SalterMitchell PR, it’s lights, camera, action. I talked to Film Florida executive director, John Lux. In our conversation, we talk about many of the great TV shows and movies filmed here in Florida and how the film industry benefits our state’s economy. We also discuss Hollywood’s increasing reliance on tax incentives and how that has impacted the number of productions in Florida. We also cover Florida’s video game industry and much more and you can hear it all right now.
Chris Cate: John, thanks for being on the show. I’m a movies junkie. I’m excited to talk about Florida’s ties to the film industry but before we do, I want to get to know you a little bit better. Are you from Florida or did you move here?
John Lux: I’m actually born and raised in the Chicago area. I’m a Midwest guy and moved to Florida in 1998 to work in the film and television industry, but I still kind of consider myself a Midwest guy. I still refer to the Chicago area as home even though I’ve been here now more than 20 years, but I’m originally from the Midwest.
Chris Cate: Once you were in Florida and working in the film industry, how did you ultimately get connected to Film Florida?
John Lux: Well, I had always been aware of the organization but honestly, I was kind of your textbook example of complacency in terms of, I just assumed somebody else was handling it. I assume somebody else was taking care of it, doing it and getting involved in so I really didn’t get that involved. It wasn’t until the fall of 2013 that I was asked to volunteer at a workshop forum and I checked a bunch of people in and Film Florida did it in Central Florida and I checked a bunch of people in, I listened and I got engaged and I got motivated. At the beginning of 2014, I really kind of dove in and at that time, I was working for a company so just like everybody else within Film Florida, I volunteered my time. I joined the organization and volunteered my time and jumped in, initially helping with more kind of the social media strategy of things at that time. Film Florida didn’t really have much of a strategy.
It was a little bit scattered at that time so I helped them formulate the strategy for social media marketing and those kind of things and then got involved on the executive board in 2014, I was the treasurer and then the head of the marketing committee. Then as things happen in the industry, I mean the company I was working for for 18 years, decided to go in a little bit different direction and it didn’t include a role that fit me and so I was looking for employment and at the same time, we had been talking within Film Florida that for the organization to continue to grow and do what it wanted to do, somebody needed to focus on it all day, every day, not just on a volunteer basis like had been the case for at that time, 18 years or 16 years or so. The timing worked out and we figured out how I could come on full time as the executive director. I’m the only full time person within the organization.
We’re membership based so everybody pays their membership dues and that’s how we are funded, is entirely through our members and they’re all volunteers and put in as much time as they possibly can but my kind of see my role is to keep the train on the tracks and keep things moving forward. I obviously need all the help in the world from people and bring everybody in as needed on certain tasks, but they have a comfort level that while they’re doing their full time job that somebody is looking out for the organization and continuing to push forward and whether it’s small little tasks or whether it’s some of the major endeavors that we take on. I got involved in very early 2014 but I’ve been in this role as the executive director since June of 2016.
Chris Cate: For our listeners who don’t know what Film Florida is or exactly what it does, can you describe your organization’s mission?
John Lux: Sure. Film Florida is a statewide not for profit and we are membership based. We see our role as trying to grow and strengthen the film, television and digital media industry. We have members from Pensacola all the way down to the Keys, literally tip to tip of the state and everywhere in between. Our members include primarily industry professionals and companies that work in the industry, that’s obviously a very large part of our membership. It also includes a lot of local film commissions, some smaller associations that kind of want a statewide voice so they have joined our group, a couple of labor unions, a couple of colleges and universities, some students and then a number of people that just support the industry. I mean we have a couple of tourism properties. We have a couple of transportation people.
We have a couple of just general lawyers and so we have memberships that range from $50 in a year for individuals that just want to be part of the team, all the way up through, I think our highest level is $10,000 of a member and of course, we would never turn away any more than that but our most popular membership obviously, is the individual $50 membership. From a corporate standpoint, our most popular membership levels that are $500 and $1,000 per year and its people with certain access and discounts to different things throughout the country, trade shows, film festivals, access to all of our member committee and councils so they truly have a voice. Our members drive the agenda so if a committee comes together and believes that an initiative for the organization to tank is this, they bring it to the board of directors who meets every three months and says this is what we would like to do with our time, do we have approval and if there’s budget needs, those kinds of discussions then we move forward.
We always encourage people to get involved because we’re fighting every single day to bring more projects, more jobs, more money to the state of Florida and so obviously, that benefits everybody. We’re only as strong as our membership allows us to be because obviously without the funding of our members, we don’t have the ability to do a lot of different things and so obviously, we hope people will join and basically not do what I did, which was sit back until somebody else’s handling it, they’re good. They’ll let me know if they would need any help. We need help every day.
Chris Cate: I know one of the things you’re constantly advocating for is to be adding tax incentives to, or bring tax incentive to Florida so that you can draw more business from the film industry and just when I think about the diversity of Florida and the beauty of our state, it seems like an ideal location for TV shows and films, but apparently tax incentives play a bigger role in choosing a location than anything that actually appears on screen. Is that just the reality of the film industry right now?
John Lux: Yes. As an organization, our primary goal is to market and promote the industry, the state of Florida, our members. When we go to trade shows, conferences, those type of things or just general promotion, we’re obviously focused right now on what we do have as opposed to what we don’t. What we do have is great locations, great weather, long history of experience and infrastructure that while is lessening as years go on given the challenges that we have, we still have an infrastructure here. We focus on those things at the most. Unfortunately though, a lot of people have those same things. A lot of places have weather, now it might not always be sunny but maybe your project doesn’t need always sunny Florida. A lot of places have good locations. They have good weather most of the year. When we talk about some sort of program to bring more projects here, it’s one piece of the puzzle.
No one would ever argue that if we don’t have a program that no work is ever going to come to Florida because that’s not true, but it is also very true that without some sort of program to attract more business, we are essentially competing blindfolded with an arm tied behind our back because there are 30 other states in America that have some sort of program to attract business. We are the only state in the southeast that doesn’t have a program so if you go not talking beyond the southeast, you’ve talked about from New Mexico up to Delaware, every single state along the southern coast, the southern border has a program and so in essence, there is a roadblock to get to Florida because all of those other states have programs. They all. a lot of them have coastline. A lot of them have good weather most of the year. A lot of them have experienced maybe not as much as ours but in the end, our business is no different than any other business in the world.
It’s value based and if you can get more for your dollar in Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi or Texas or Louisiana or North and South Carolina, if you can get more for your dollar, chances are a company is going to go there. You take First Man, that the film that came out last year and is up for a number of awards. Dave came to Florida and they shot a small portion on Space Coast. They spent less than $5 million and then they went up to Georgia and they spent more than $25 million and employed 3,600 people. They spent more than $770,000 on lodgings, $1.9 million on transportation, rental cars, those type of things, $2.9 million in hardware and lumber supplies, almost a million dollars on food and local catering and restaurant. I would like to see that money on the Space Coast as well, not just a small portion but I would like an entire film.
When we have the challenge of competing with other states, we get little bits and pieces of those type of films and television series, but we’re really missing out on the major economic impact when a feature film comes to a location and spend anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000 a day in a location. Television series are very similar in their spending and that they stay even longer than a feature film. Those are the type of economic impact numbers that we’re losing out in the state of Florida because we’re just not able to compete at the same level that some of these other states are right now.
Chris Cate: What is an example of a movie or TV show that was mostly shot in Florida, that does really make that case for having film incentives to draw future movies to Florida?
John Lux: Well, we look at both feature films and episodic television because those are the major economic drivers. When you think of two recent, the most recent television series that have that impact were Ballers and Bloodline. Ballers is an HBO show starring The Rock and they filmed the first two full seasons in South Florida. Each of those seasons spent more than $25 million dollars in South Florida. They employed more than 2,000 Floridians during that time. They used a couple thousand hotel room nights just in those seasons. They filmed two seasons when there was a program that they were able to take advantage of and then when the program ran out of funding, they packed their bags and rewrote the script and now they were just approved for their fifth season so the third one outside of Florida and now they’re in California, and so they picked up and left and so we lose $25 million a season in the South Florida economy, thousands of jobs.
Then Bloodline is an even bigger example because they shot primarily in the Keys and Monroe County, and the tourism council down in South Florida in Monroe County did a study after the first season so this only impacts the first season of Bloodline. First of all, the production spent more than $30 million directly on production expenditure so that means your neighbors, my neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, that’s $30 million directly in their pockets, that is the production spending. On top of that, they found that more than $65 million in incremental tourism spending came to Florida because they saw Bloodline and wanted to check it out. Now that’s not our study. We didn’t make that up. That was the Monroe County Tourism Development Council. They found that $65 million of incremental spending, which caused an additional $1,700 in jobs and almost $10 million directly in tax revenues, just because people saw Bloodline and said, hey, I want to go check this place out. It looks really cool.
Bloodline filmed the first two seasons when there was a program and then the funding ran out, the program was ended and rather than, because the Keys was such an important part of the series, it was a character. The Keys were a character in the series, they couldn’t just rewrite the script like Ballers did. Basically, in a series that they said they wanted to run six years, they hastily did a third season, slashed the amount of episodes because they weren’t getting any reimbursement and finished the series and canceled it and it lost. Again, we lost out so again, thousands of people that work in the industry no longer have jobs and that type of thing so that’s the type of impact. I mean we could go on. I mean the original Miami Vice completely changed South Florida forever. Dolphin Tale over in Clearwater, they were averaging less than 100,000 in attendance per year, prior to Dolphin Tale coming out.
Since then, they’re averaging, average attendance is almost a million people a year so they have almost tenfold increased their attendance and on top of all the tourism dollars that are spent in the Clearwater area now because of it. Clearwater continues to set records for tourism. There’s no coincidence that they’re doing that, essentially on the back of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and so there’s a lot of examples of the economic impact based, that comes from film and television.
Chris Cate: How do you respond to people who say it’s too expensive to offer the amount of tax incentives that states like Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and other states are giving films because the states are getting so competitive with each other that they’re having to offer more and more and more, and the Hollywood is really just playing them against each other and so the benefit of the state may not be worth the cost?
John Lux: Yeah, I would agree with you that that’s not a smart financial move over the long term. What we, as an industry here in Florida are saying, and this is very important and very clear here, we are not advocating to be nearly as aggressive as some of those other states because going back to one of your earlier questions, we have other, what we refer to as indigenous incentives. We have better weather, we have better locations, we have a lot of experience. There are reasons to come to Florida, but the last four years have shown that that’s not the only reason to come to Florida and so if you give these projects, a small taste of what they could get elsewhere, some of these other things like the weather and the infrastructure and the locations are going to bring them here. There’s no shortage of work that wants to come to Florida. We absolutely agree that we do not need to be as ridiculously as aggressive as some of the other states because that’s not good for Florida and that’s our first, foremost goal is find something that can help Florida.
Beyond that, if it helps our industry, of course we’re in favor of that but the first goal is to help Florida and so we’ve crafted a number of pieces of legislation over the last couple of years that definitely return the investment to the state that they are looking for, definitely would be attractive to bring projects here to the state and so we’re just looking for an opportunity to present that legislation to the right people because we believe that we have learned from old programs, other states, we know what the legislature is looking for and we can check all the boxes if you want to, we have the most fiscally conservative program in America while still helping our state. There is no reason why you can’t have both.
Chris Cate: Like I mentioned earlier, I’m a movie junkie so I think it’s really cool to visit a location that I’ve seen in a movie and I’m sure that plays in the tourism. One set location that comes to mind is Seaside where The Truman Show was filmed. I think that’s just such a cool place to visit. Do you have a favorite Florida location though to visit, that has appeared in a TV show or movie?
John Lux: That is a good question. I don’t think I necessarily do. I’m always proud to see the locations that were in different films. I think I’ve been around state a fair amount. I mean, I certainly haven’t been to every location here in the state of Florida but when I see, going back, I’m a little bit, I don’t want to make it sound like this was from 50, 60 years ago, but I enjoy seeing films like Armageddon that were out on the Space Coast. I love The Birdcage. I think that movie was just so funny and highlighted some of the fun aspects of South Florida. Bloodline obviously is a great location. That is just such an iconic part of that whole series. Then the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, I mean it was just such a wonderful story and knowing some of the players, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a member of Film Florida so we have a great relationship with them and we’re so proud of everything that they have happening over there.
I mean I think I look at some of the different locations and it’s just a proudness factor that goes into all of those. I mean then you get to the [inaudible 00:20:57] side of things and say I want more. I want more of our great state to be showcased on the big, small and mobile screens because we have so much to offer and so that’s what leads a little bit of the frustration of losing some of the business because we could have so much more. Just in the last four years, unfortunately, we’ve lost over a billion dollars worth of projects that wanted to come to the state but we just haven’t been able to compete with some of the other states and so there’s a proud factor when you see those projects but there’s also a little bit more of face palm because you want to see so many more that have such great potential to be here in the state that we are unable to land.
Chris Cate: One thing we haven’t discussed is the video game industry, which Film Florida supports as well. What is something Floridians might not know about the video game industry in Florida?
John Lux: Well, they pay well and it generates a lot of money. A television series, we’re talking about $20 million a pop for a television series. It’s no different for a major video game. You look at a company like EA Sports in Central Florida and they’re another great member of ours. They’re most known for Madden and they’ve been doing the the Madden NFL game for a number of years in Central Florida and every single season that they do Madden, that’s another $20 million that’s pumped into the Central Florida economy in terms of paying employees, paying contractors. They used to do many games here in Central Florida and again, you think of $20 million a pop, that means how many more people are they hiring and how many more contractors are they working with and unfortunately, from a corporate standpoint, EA has done a few less games in Central Florida because they can go to Austin or Vancouver and take advantage of some of the programs they have elsewhere.
EA is doing well as a company. They’re good. Who gets hurt by the current situation or those that work in the industry, those Floridians that would have also been hired to do the next game and the next game at EA, the same as when we’re talking about a series or a feature film. Those people that work directly in industry are the ones that get hurt when we’re unable to land those deals and compete with those other states so the video game industry is great. I mean our industry as a whole, according to the labor market statistics, which is where these statistics come from. We don’t make them up. The average annual wage for someone that works in our industry is over $81,000 a year and when you talk about the wages in Florida, I mean it’s no secret that Florida has some pretty low wages overall and we’re trying to increase those wages on a daily basis.
One way we could do that is to better support high wage industries like ours and the video game industry is a great part of that in terms of the amount of money that people make when they work in the industry.
Chris Cate: The legislative session is coming up soon. What would make it for you a successful session?
John Lux: Sure. Well, I mean I think we’re talking with a number of legislators right now and we hope to have success and success means maybe getting back in the game a little bit. We see some of these programs that other states have and the positive impact that they’re having and we would like a piece of that and that’s what we’re hoping for. We want to compete and having some sort of program is a much larger marketing tool than it is a financial tool. Being able to go to a conference and say, yes, we have a program here in the state, let’s talk, allows us to be in a lot more conversations and so we would like the legislature to first of all, have an open mind and consider our piece of legislation. There’s been a number of things in the past that they have frowned upon in terms of programs and we have fixed those and we’ve checked all the right boxes and we would just like the opportunity to have discussions.
We’re cautiously optimistic that we’re going to have some good conversations and we hope to have some legislation filed and of course, we see where the chips fall from there, but we’ve built some wonderful relationship with some legislators. I have spoken with many, many of them over the last six months and continue to have meetings and conversations. I think the goal is to try and find some common ground on where we can work together because in the end, we all have the same goal, which is to help the state of Florida.
Chris Cate: Right, I want to transition now to the four questions we ask every guest at the end of our interviews. The first question is, who is a Florida leader you admire?
John Lux: That is a really good question. I’m trying to-
Chris Cate: At least some in the past or the present, if that helps.
John Lux: Yeah. Well, I mean I think I do certainly have a fondness for former Governor George Bush, Jeb Bush rather. I have a fondness for Jeb Bush. From a personal standpoint, he really initiated the support for our industry back in the early mid 2000s so I’d like to just pick his brain on a couple of things in terms of the state government as well as just his family, I mean the Bush family obviously is iconic in the United States and so the more I’ve gotten involved in politics, I just like to pick his brain about a couple of different topics.
Chris Cate: What is something in Florida that deserves more attention than it’s getting and feel free to mention something about the film industry, maybe that we haven’t had a chance to talk about.
John Lux: Well, I think our industry would certainly be the top of my list. I mean I think it is such an untapped market right now for the state of Florida. As we talk about our state as a whole being so dominated by the tourism industry and the positives and negatives of being so dependent on an industry, I think our industry, the film and television industry could certainly go a long way in diversifying Florida’s economy. You look at the impact it had just north of us in Georgia. I think we could have similar impacts if we all got on the same page and kind of decided that this was something that we wanted to pursue. Beyond that, I can’t say it’s not getting enough attention but I think we absolutely need to figure out our water issue, whether it’s the algae or whether it’s the red tide. I mean we talk about our commitment to tourism and I believe that it’s going to start negatively impacting the state if we don’t get that under control.
We’re surrounded by water for the most part in Florida and if we can’t take care of it and attract people, I think that’s going to majorly impact our tourism numbers. I don’t know if you’re going to see it this coming year. I don’t know if it’ll be next year. I don’t know if it would be the year after that but over the long term, if Florida continues, I think last year, it seemed like it was from about July to October, we just kept seeing pictures of the red tide and the algae, and if people keep seeing that, whether it’s concentrated in a small area or not, perception is reality and that’s the world we live in. If people perceive that our coastlines are not as beautiful as we all think they are, then I think that’s going to start having a major impact on our economy.
Chris Cate: I know we talked about movie locations earlier but in general, where is a favorite Florida place for you to visit?
John Lux: Well, that’s a good question also. I am, the truth is I’m not much of a beach guy, which is obviously very strange for someone who lives in Florida. I prefer to hang out in my pool than go to the beach. I enjoy going on cruises. That’s one thing and so from that perspective, that brings me over to the Space Coast in Port Canaveral quite a bit but I can’t say that I really have a specific area that I like more than any. I mean I have my job, one of the best benefits of my job is that I get to go to a lot of different places around the state of Florida. I mean just in the last couple of years, I mean I’ve been to Destin, Tallahassee, St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Tampa, St. Pete, Coco Beach, a lot of different locations between Palm Beach, Broward and Miami Dade County, and I enjoy, not to mention, I forgot Sarasota Naples.
I’ve been to a lot of great places in the state of Florida and I don’t know if I have necessarily a favorite because I do enjoy all of them for the different aspects that they are. I can see, I think it’s a big value because the more I talk about things in our industry, being able to reference different things throughout the state and what makes each area different including my home here in Central Florida. I think we have a lot to offer and I’m happy that I get to see all of it.
Chris Cate: Well, I have one final question that we ask every guest and that is, do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
John Lux: Well, I have to be careful how I answer this. My first loyalties are of course, are to my teams up in Chicago. I’ve always been a major Chicago Blackhawks fan and then right behind those are the Cubs, the Bears, the Bulls and the White Sox so I’m a huge Chicago sports fan. In terms of the Florida sports teams, I think I would probably lean towards the Orlando Magic just because I’ve gotten to know them better being here in the state. The funny story is when I was a young young kid, my grandparents used to vacation in Florida and at that time, the only team was the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. No matter what time of year it was, my grandparents used to always bring me back Miami Dolphins clothing and so I think I probably would lean towards the Dolphins just because it brings me back to my childhood when my grandparents would vacation in Florida and then bring me back dolphin stuff. I think probably the Dolphins or the Magic would probably be the top of my list.
Chris Cate: That’s great. Well, thank you for sharing that and thank you for spending time with us on the Fluent in Floridian podcast.
John Lux: Absolutely. Happy to share some stories and thank you for having me on. I appreciate it.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. This show was executive produced by April Salter with additional support provided by Heidi Otway, and the team at Salter Mitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, Salter Mitchell PR has you covered by offering issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy and media relations assistance. You can learn more about Salter Mitchell PR at saltermitchellpr.com You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian podcast and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.