To: Mark Douglas, News Channel 8
Regarding your assessment of Pinellas County Film Commissioner Tony Armer and what you cite as a conflict of interest in funding the Sunscreen Film Festival, the Film Commission’s presence at the Movie Market in Cannes France, and Tony Armer’s short film being presented there, I believe you will benefit from my perspective as both a filmmaker who has attended Cannes with accreditation for my own short film presented in that same venue, The Short Film Corner, and as the former Executive Director of The Clearwater Film Festival.
It is no surprise to see an investigative journalist seek out corruption and ask questions about what may appear to be untoward at first glance. Your profession demands this. Your report, however, is suggestively misleading because it is not fully developed. Many readers will mistake this lack of development in your reporting for corruption when there is none. I believe your interpretation of events, because you may not comprehend the complexity of the film business, and lack first-hand knowledge of the Cannes Film Market, leads you to believe that Tony Armer is somehow taking advantage of taxpayers.
Here is my viewpoint.
The reason the Film Commission funds the Sunscreen Film Festival as a sponsor is that in doing so it promotes local support for the hundreds of actors, writers, directors, producers and others who want to work in film and do that work in Pinellas County. Tony and his associates built the Sunscreen Film Festival into the strongest film related business on the west coast of Florida, if not the entire state. In addition to showcasing the work of local artists, it is now an established platform for film enthusiasts to connect and collaborate, not only here, but in California, through its west coast edition. Advertising through Sunscreen is the first good way for the Film Commission to reach an audience of filmmakers.
The business of the Film Commission is to promote Pinellas County through film. Here is the first line of their mission statement: The St. Pete/Clearwater Film Commission serves Pinellas County, Florida supporting and working to bring commercials, TV shows, feature films and digital media projects to the area. There is no way to do this without advertising directly to those who want to create film. The film festival showcases the area by bringing in people from all over the world and promoting those films that are shot here.
When people watch a film shot on site in St. Pete or Clearwater Beach they may start planning vacations based on that. Dolphin Tale is a prime example. Filmmakers think the same way, asking “Where can I go that has everything I need to make my film?” If the Film Commission is not out front giving filmmakers the answer – “Pinellas County, come here, we have everything you need.” – They go someplace else.
Your statement to readers is “You paid for it.” I say, no you did not. As soon as the tax collector has your money, it isn’t yours anymore. The bed tax you refer to in your news reel is paid by visitors, not locals, unless they are staying in local hotels. The county tax collector delivers the money to the county who allocates it to various government entities, like police forces, public works, and the visitor’s bureau. Qualified individuals running these agencies then use their budgets to decide the most prudent ways to spend them.
Yes, the Film Commission is funded through tax dollars, but if they did not support their local festivals and did not participate in Film Markets at other festivals, you must ask – How would anybody find out that Pinellas County has the infrastructure to support filmmakers of all budgets? How would you get that message out? How would you get anybody to come here to make a film, a commercial, or a TV show? How would you suggest the Film Commission spend their budget to complete their mission?
By tapping into the reach and reputation of the Sunscreen Film Festival, and participating in the biggest film market in the world at Cannes, the Film Commission harnesses two of the best places there are to promote the county in both tourism and film production. That is not a conflict of interest. If anything, it is in the best interest of the Film Commission, Pinellas County tourism, and the film industry workers who call Pinellas County home, to have a Film Commissioner who is a cheerleader and champion for their cause.
You cite Tony’s film, A Running Start, as a possible conflict of interest. This was his thesis film to complete his MFA for the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Submitting a 12-minute film to the Cannes Short Film Corner is in no way a conflict of interest. Having screened my own work at The Short Film Corner, and what it takes to gather a crowd to watch a short film when there are about 5,000 others to watch, is an uphill battle at ninety degrees. Based on my own experience, I am certain that showcasing this film was not his primary function in Cannes. Working the Film Market is a 14+ hour a day commitment. Tony already has the connections and reputation to do anything he wants with a short film and presenting it here is the least expensive way to be considered an accredited filmmaker in Cannes.
I am confident the trips to Cannes were taxpayer dollars well spent and worth every cent to get the message out that Pinellas County is a great place for filmmakers to do business with talent for hire. If, by any chance, Tony was able to show his short film to a few acquaintances, it advertised the county and our local talent more than it promoted his own skillset. Screening that film advertises Pinellas County as a filmmaking destination. Again, this is in the best interest of the county.
You cite “curious ties” between Armer and the Sunscreen Film Festival. My question is – What is curious about the festival being associated with the person who founded it? When the position of Film Commissioner was vacated the county sought out the most qualified person to fill that position. Based on his background in running a film festival for a decade, learning the film business as it relates to Pinellas County, and achieving an MFA in filmmaking, thereby setting an example for other filmmakers and those of like ambition, and holding a business degree, who was better suited to helm this office than Tony Armer? Obviously, nobody was, that is why Tony Armer has the job.
The Film Commission is doing the right thing. They hired a person who knows and understands the challenges of the film business in Pinellas County and are utilizing their budget to take advantage of the smartest avenues to spend money to fulfill their mission. Your suggestion that this is an expense and not an investment is irresponsible sensationalism without merit.
It would be wise for yourself and Representative Corcoran to realize that a return on investment, in any business, is not automatic. Relationships such as these take time, effort and money. The return on investment can only be measured as projects are completed, and offering up information about projects which are hopeful, but may not flourish, would be reckless. Maintaining silence until a deal is done and in action is a prudent step for the Film Commission. Your impatience and insistence of results is akin to that of the harried sales manager who demands that his team sell something “right now,” when that crew knows it to be impossible without careful cultivation.
Your tone also suggests that Mr. Cenac’s and Mr. Downing’s responses to your queries are dismissive and evasive. You would do well to realize that when no issue exists there is nothing to report, and therefore, nothing to be said.
Best of luck in your future endeavors,
Tony Armer posted this recently on his LinkedIn page. I think this kind of says it all: Amazing Premiere Friday night for hashtag#BernieTheDolphin. The movie filmed in St. Petersburg and Clearwater earlier this year and was a direct result of attending the Marche du Film tradeshow in Cannes of 2017. As a result we have not one but two films shot in Pinellas County. The sequel to Bernie is filming right now! Lionsgate has released the film in the theaters in the US and it’s also available on demand.