On location in Miami-Dade County with Film & Entertainment Commissioner Sandy Lighterman
I have been involved in the film business from a very young age. I was an actress in the Miami area during my pre-teens but then decided I preferred to be behind the camera. Luckily a producer by the name of Rob Cohen took me under his wing and during summers and holidays I was a PA of sorts and absorbed the business from behind the scenes.
I had started producing TV commercials by the time I was 17 and after college I was fortunate enough to go directly into producing full time. I moved to Los Angeles and was swept into the Advertising Agency end of the business but that lasted only a short time.
I left the agency to pursue my love of film and TV and was fortunate enough to quickly work my way up the ladder on that side of the industry. I then moved back to Miami and opened my own production company, Sand Films, and produced TV commercials, documentaries, music videos and feature films.
I truly loved the business but by the time my sons entered middle school, and being a single mom for almost all their lives, I needed to stay more grounded for their sake. I left the business and took a job at the Miami-Dade County Office of Film & Entertainment under the former Director, Jeff Peel.
Under Jeff’s tutelage, I learned the governmental components. After my first two years Jeff decided to retire and I moved into the role of Miami-Dade County Office of Film & Entertainment Commissioner.
"The favourite part of my job is the notion that I am still producing projects, but now for the greater good of Miami-Dade County."
This job was a perfect fit for me. Having an undying love for the film and the entertainment industry, coupled with a new found fondness for breaking down governmental barriers while protecting the County, constituents, business owners and tourists. I had found my dream job.
What does this role involve exactly and what do you enjoy most about it?
I have been in the position of Miami-Dade County Office of Film & Entertainment Commissioner for nine years. Branded as FilMiami, our office is a full service film commission providing location and logistics assistance, government liaison, production information and referral sources. I market and promote Miami-Dade County as a premier destination for TV, film, photo and digital media projects.
Additionally, we create film friendly policies for county departments and work with most of our 34 municipalities on their policies as well. I also work with other state-wide industry stakeholders to create programmes for the State’s consideration. And I work closely with local universities, colleges and some high schools on developing real-world curriculum for their students (I have served as the Chairwoman of the Miami-Dade College School of Entertainment and Design Technologies for the last eight years). I also work on attracting to our area film and entertainment related conferences and festivals as well as, of course, production projects and ancillary businesses to locate in Miami-Dade County.
And finally, I created and manage the Miami-Dade County TV, Film and Entertainment Production Incentive Programme that was sponsored by Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Sally Heyman. It was created to bring more production activity to our area.
"Location managers and producers will say our office – we are like a back office for any production."
The favourite part of my job is the notion that I am still producing projects, but now for the greater good of Miami-Dade County. I love helping marry projects with decision-makers that bring the dreams to reality. And of course, I love that the result of attracting projects that gives local crew and cast jobs. The ancillary effect of seeing Miami on the big and small screen is the cherry on top.
What can you tell us about Miami Dade County as a filming destination?
Miami-Dade County has very diverse locations (see below), deep and experienced cast and crew base. We have several sound stage facilities and when those are totally booked up, we have plenty of large warehouse spaces to be stage stand-ins.
What locations are most commonly used by foreign film and TV productions when they come and film in Miami-Dade County?
- 140 Flagler Street Building
- Miami Beach
- The Everglades
- Crandon Park Beach
- Rural areas
- William Powell turnaround on the Rickenbacker Causeway
- Miami International Airport
What are the more unusual locations that Miami-Dade County has to offer that our readers would not necessarily associate with the region?
- The NW 58 ST wetlands – 400 acres of hills
- An ancient Spanish Monastery
- The Chateau Artisan (a French Castle)
- The Cruz Building (our French Quarter Cheat)
- The Ingraham Building (one of our New York cheats)
What locations worldwide can Miami-Dade County easily double for?
- Cuba (Magic City TV series)
- Tennessee, Indiana (Feature Film: The Sex Drive)
- Panama (Feature Film: The Laundromat)
- Santa Domingo (Feature Film: Bad Boys 2)
Many TV Commercials cheat Miami for the Bahamas, Afghanistan (old land fill) and the desert (private sand making company).
What are the advantages of filming in the Miami-Dade area?
Location managers and producers will say our office – we are like a back office for any production. We can approve simple permits within 24 hours and most others within 48 hours (unless it’s shutting down major roads or bridges). Even turn-around times at the Port and Airport are relatively fast. Our office coordinates all County police hires and liaises and gets quick answers on approvals for not only County departments but for the municipalities we issue permits for. My staff hold the hands of our production clients to make their experience in Miami-Dade County a positive one.
Please tell us about the Florida statewide and any Miami-Dade County filming incentives currently available to foreign or out-of-state producers?
The State of Florida has a Sales tax exemption programme. The Florida Office of Film & Entertainment offers a point-of-sale Sales Tax Exemption to qualified production companies producing content in Florida. Qualified Florida expenditures include:
- Production equipment rental or purchase
- Real estate rental (studio, office, location fees)
- Set design and construction
- Computer and software (production related)
You can save up to 7.5% in just a few business days. Apply online at filminflorida.com
Miami-Dade County also has the TV, Film and Entertainment Production Incentive. This is a performance-based grant programme that is based on Miami-Dade County-centric criteria. Each project’s eligibility is determined on a case-by-case basis and each project/grant agreement will be required to go before the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for individual approval. After the grant is approved, the rebate will be distributed after the production provides proof of their local spend, hires, etc.
"Don’t come during Superbowl 2020 unless you have booked your hotels way ahead of time."
The production project must spend a minimum of USD1 million in Miami-Dade County on qualifying payroll and qualifying expenses. Additionally, each project can include qualifying ancillary expenditures from businesses that are located within the Miami-Dade County boundaries. The maximum grant amount that will be awarded per production project is USD100,000. Click here for more details.
How many ‘location shoot days’ did Miami-Dade county record for 2018?
Approximately 6622 production days.
What other stats or economic impact data can you give us about incoming productions filming in Miami-Dade county?
- Production Hotel room nights was approximately 10,000 nights
- Crew Hires was approximately 12,000
- Cast hires was approximately 3500
What has been your most difficult location assignment or request to date and why?
It’s happening now. We have had Bad Boys 3 filming here for 10 days. The production needs full closure of the MacArthur Causeway (that’s the causeway that connects Miami Beach to Mainland Miami via the MiamiPort tunnel) for their ‘money shot’. It’s difficult as it lies within three film permitting jurisdictions. February to April is also our busiest time of year with a number of large events (Ultra Music Festival, South Beach Food and Wine Show, Gay Pride Festival) taking place. Miami Beach is only willing to close the causeway early in the morning. The Port can’t close the tunnel in the morning because of the disembarkation of 30,000 passengers between 6am and 12 noon. We are still working on a solution.
Are there any particular tips that you would like to share with our readers about filming in Miami-Dade?
Don’t come during Superbowl 2020 unless you have booked your hotels way ahead of time. Our busiest time for events is January to April. This coincides with the highest hotel room rates. If you have a lower budget project, my suggestion is to come between June and mid-December. Hotel rates are at their most affordable then.
What would you recommend crew and cast do to have fun and relax on down days or pre / post filming in Miami-Dade County?
That’s a loaded question! There is so much to do and see here: Airboat rides, Wynwood Arts District, Perez Art Museum (has the best view and breeze of anywhere), Frost Science Museum, Brickell City Center, Crandon Park beach (looks like the islands), Virginia Key Beach, Paddleboarding, Oleta State Park and the Everglades National Park.
What do you do to relax and chill out yourself after looking after a big production coming in to shoot in Miami-Dade County?
I love spending time with my adult sons, my close friends and my dog Bella the Bassett Hound.
What was the last film you saw and loved?
Film: Greenbook. TV series: Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
If you hadn't become the Film & Entertainment Commissioner, what other job would you like to have done?
Well I’d probably still be a TV & Film producer. But if you are asking if I had chosen a totally different career path, probably a lawyer that negotiated deals.
Thank you Sandy. It has been great talking to you and finding out what makes Miami-Dade such a great location filming destination.
Click here to contact Sandy.
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