Fort Lauderdale – It’s like a twist of fortune script straight out of Hollywood: a long-neglected package goes from the incinerator to the Superfund site to the movie studio.
Fort Lauderdale commissioners approved the deal Thursday night, paving the way for a state-of-the-art, $164 million movie studio to be built on city-owned land where no one else seemed willing to build.
The property, 61 acres at the intersection of Sunrise Boulevard and Northwest 31st Avenue, once housed an incinerator that left soil contaminated. The site was cleaned up two decades ago, but has not attracted any investors so far.
According to the business plan, the studio would be fully built by 2025.
“I think the idea of a movie studio in Fort Lauderdale will bring jobs and new business development and add a bit of glamor to an already exciting community,” Mayor Dean Trantalis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Friday. “It’s going to be a game changer. They will do feature films, videos, TV commercials and everything in between.
As part of the deal, the investors will lease the land for what some might consider theft: $50 for 50 years, with a 50-year renewal option.
The team behind the project: studio owner Christopher Ursitti, co-founder and managing partner of Los Angeles Center Studios, a 20-acre film studio in the heart of downtown Los Angeles; Michael Ullian, redevelopment expert and brownfield redevelopment specialist for over 20 years; and award-winning film and television director and producer DJ Viola.
The proposal, submitted to City Hall in April, calls for a full-service film, TV and streaming production studio with up to 12 sound stages, indoor and outdoor movie sets and a backlot for outdoor filming. Also in the plans: An office building and a mill where film and production sets can be built. A full-time accredited film school would also operate on site.
They say a movie studio is on the way, said Sandy Lighterman, Broward County’s new film commissioner who served in the same position for Miami-Dade County for 14 years.
“I came here to market Broward County as a place to grow and attract content creators,” Lighterman said. “I’ve spoken to Netflix, HBO, Warner Bros. They’re all interested. They want to know when it’s going to be built.
Buzz around the new film studio has reached Los Angeles, New York and beyond, according to Lightman.
“I was in Los Angeles in June and they were thrilled to know that we were going to have state-of-the-art sound stages here,” Lighterman said. “Around the world, there is a shortage of performing space. They can’t create stages fast enough because there’s so much content being created. It’s going to get a lot of attention and bring a lot of production to Broward County.
Not only will filmmakers come, but so will tourists, Lighterman said.
“About 23% of tourists come to the state of Florida because of what they’ve seen in movies and TV shows,” she said. “It’s definitely a thing. Think Miami Vice. It was the whole start of Miami being sexy. I aim for that to happen here.
Fort Lauderdale brought in experts from Deloitte & Touche to review the proposal. The consultancy says the project is viable, with an expected rental income of $12-18 million.
The report included this caveat: interest rates are unpredictable and if they were to rise above 7.65%, the project’s cash flow under the proposed structure may not be sufficient.
“We are really looking forward to starting construction,” John Milledge, the lawyer representing the investors, told the commissioners.
The mayor asked what would happen if they started construction on the 350,000 square foot complex but never finished.
“If it’s released or dropped or if we go bankrupt, those are all defaults. [of contract]said Milledge. “We have to build it in three years. If we don’t, you get the property back. If they build it and go bankrupt, the city inherits the building.
If the movie studio goes bankrupt, the city could turn around and lease the site for another use, Trantalis told the Sun Sentinel on Friday.
“These are massive soundstages,” he said. “These vast expanses of interior space can be used for other purposes.”
A statewide rebate program aimed at luring film crews ended in 2016 after critics complained it was a Hollywood doc that siphoned off taxpayer dollars.
But the mayor says there is talk of bringing him back.
“There is a movement underway in Tallahassee to bring back the incentive program that they allowed to expire,” Trantalis said. “I hope the governor and state legislators will heed this call.”
In an effort to attract the film industry, Broward County set aside over $1 million for its own rebate program.
Any studio that films in Broward and spends between $500,000 and $1 million will receive a $50,000 rebate check. If they spend more than $1 million, they’ll get a check for $100,000.
“Broward is doing everything it can to help,” County Commissioner Steve Geller said. “I met these people when they were looking to go elsewhere. They looked at Buffalo, Nashville, Georgia. And they were impressed with Broward and how movie-friendly we are. They felt welcome here.
Before the vote, city commissioners asked for more details about the film school.
“You can sleep at night knowing this is real film school,” Milledge said.
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But details are still being worked out, including how many students the school could accommodate. The film school will be affiliated with a local college, but Milledge hasn’t been able to say which yet.
“We’re not far enough along to say how many students and so on,” he said.
Under current plans, the sound stages, production offices and film school will not be built on top of the capped landfill.
The first soundstage could be operational within a year, Geller said.
Lighterman says she’ll do her part to make sure the new Fort Lauderdale movie studio stays busy.
“Broward is a hidden gem,” she said. “People just don’t know. That’s why I’m here. I want to make us shine. I want to put us on the map.
Susannah Bryan can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan