Big Screen to Paradise

Many locals probably remember when the movie “Secondhand Lions,” starring Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, was filmed in Panama City in 2002. But what they don’t know is the pivotal role that Bay County Film Commissioner Julie Gordon played in bringing the production to the area.

On with the Show Bay County Film Commissioner Julie Gordon has a message for film and television productions seeking attractive locations: We’re open for business By Lilly Rockwell Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

When producers of a major motion picture were scouring the country for an appropriate beach setting that could be transformed into the Arabian desert, they settled on Shell Island. Located near St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach, the secluded 7-mile stretch of land can be accessed only by boat — a major asset for the producers, who liked the island’s pristine sand, lack of development and 180-degree unobstructed views.

Many locals probably remember when the movie “Secondhand Lions,” starring Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, was filmed in Panama City in 2002. But what they don’t know is the pivotal role that Bay County Film Commissioner Julie Gordon played in bringing the production to the area.

As one of 46 film liaisons or commissioners in Florida, Gordon works to encourage the film and television industry to come to Bay County. Whether it’s the filming of a TV commercial, a show such as HGTV’s “House Hunters,” or a major motion picture like “Secondhand Lions,” she is responsible for helping producers select the right location, recommending local crew members and acquiring the necessary permits.

Gordon is called upon to help in any way she can, whether it’s assisting a film crew in moving herds of stunt horses onto tiny Shell Island or hiring a professional sand-writer from Illinois to write “Southwest” in sand for a Southwest Airlines commercial.

“With larger projects, they will bring in their key team, their director and shooter and producers, and then we fill in support crew,” explained Gordon, 50. “We can host anything. They bring it in, and I take liberties and do the rest.”

The dollars that the film and television industry help bring to Bay County are substantial. During the fiscal year that ran from October 2008 to September 2009, the movies, TV shows, commercials, print advertisements and media reports filmed in Bay County had an economic impact of $13 million, Gordon said. In the second quarter alone of 2010, which ran from January to March, $3.4 million was pumped into the Bay County economy.

From Acting to Work Behind the Camera

Julie Gordon was a typical child of the military, moving from town to town and school to school. But one thing did stay the same: During family vacations, they would travel to Panama City Beach. Her parents eventually retired in Panama City, and Gordon was set on a career as a high-school band director.

“My whole life was music and band,” she said.

But Gordon got sidetracked after losing weight and becoming a bodybuilder in 1984. She was featured on national talk shows such as those hosted by Maury Povich and Jenny Jones. After showing off her new, muscled physique in a few magazines and talk shows, she acquired an agent, and within four years she started landing roles in movies and television shows. Gordon said her bodybuilding looks landed her parts playing tough women.

“I wasn’t going to be the dishwasher detergent lady,” she said.

Gordon also got roles because she could do her own basic stunts.

“I was a key actor, not a stunt double,” she said. For tougher stunts, she would have her own stunt double. She stayed in Panama City but found roles across the country, from Los Angeles to Orlando and New York.

While working as an actress, Gordon noticed that there wasn’t a film office in Bay County, although there were 43 other film offices in the state. She saw other counties land jobs that Bay County would have been competitive for.

“For four years, while still being on the road, I would come back and pitch, ‘Why don’t we have a film office?’ ” she said.

After lobbying the county for years, she was given the contract to be the film commissioner for Bay County in 2001, working under the Tourism Development Council.

“I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Gordon, who immediately stopped going after acting roles and focused on being a full-time film commissioner.

Gordon emphatically believes Panama City has a lot to offer the film and television industry.

“We have small-town scenes and marshes and bays and bayous, a lot of different looks,” she said. “We’re versatile.” And that doesn’t even include the beach and gentle waters of the Gulf.

Though major motion pictures such as “Secondhand Lions” receive a lot of attention, the bulk of Gordon’s day-to-day work is not helping filmmakers. As she puts it, “anything with a camera,” she gets involved with. So if an advertising agency wants to film a print campaign on a beach, Gordon can help make that happen. Or if a major news provider wants to film the beach for a report on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gordon will make sure it has the right to film at certain beach locations.

“My mantra is, I market Bay County to the film industry worldwide, and once they choose this area, I hook them up with everything they need, from Porta-Potties to walkie-talkies,” she said. “I act as a liaison between the film industry and the community.”

Still, Gordon faces a lot of competition from locations such as Jacksonville and Louisiana for film and television dollars.

“Up until now, transportation was the biggest issue,” she said. “Now, with the new airport, I see a whole new door opening.” Before, television and film crews would have to fly into Jacksonville for cheaper fares.

Advertising You Can’t Buy

Historically, states like California and New York have had strong film and television industries. They have the advantage of boasting the headquarters of some of the world’s major motion picture and television studios. Each year, hundreds of movies and TV shows are filmed in Los Angeles and New York City, where it’s relatively easy to find talented actors, experienced crew members and investors.

But as more states have started offering aggressive film incentive packages, more movies and television shows have migrated toward states such as Texas and Louisiana.

Other states are fighting for a piece of the film and TV entertainment pie because it generates money for the local economy. A film crew will eat at local restaurants, pay for hotel rooms and spend money hiring local crew members. Then, when the finished product is unveiled, “it helps enforce a good image of our area,” Gordon said.

The Florida Legislature bolstered its film and television tax incentives in 2010. A tax-credit program was established that will last for five years and total $242 million in available credits.

Gordon and other film commissioners are hopeful that this financial incentive will yield more projects. There are a handful of TV series filmed in Florida already, such as “Burn Notice” in Miami and “The Glades,” an A&E show about a homicide cop that is shot in Broward County and set in the fictional town of Palm Glade. And at the end of 2009, an independent film called “Born and Raised” was filmed almost entirely in the Panama City area. The movie itself is based in Panama City.

Though Gordon says she is happy to help anyone who calls her office looking for assistance, she notes that certain productions that might portray Panama City unfavorably aren’t embraced. Panama City is fighting its image as a party-heavy spring-break hot spot and trying to promote itself as more of a family-friendly destination.

“We are trying hard to clean up our image, and portray it as nice and upscale,” Gordon said. “While we do a lot (of business) during spring break, that’s just six weeks of the year.” Gordon helps achieve this vision by encouraging projects such as Florida Travel+Life’s show on the Discovery Channel, “Affordable Luxuries.”

“It’s advertising you can’t buy,” Gordon said.