MIAMI, FL — Miami's reputation as one of America's most sizzling — frequently even edgy —destinations has been forged over decades of Hollywood blockbusters as far back as the 1930s with the first on-screen pairing of hoofers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in "Flying Down To Rio."
It was cemented with films such as Jerry Lewis' directorial debut in the "The Bellboy," which was shot entirely on location some 30 years later at the iconic Fontainebleau Miami Beach. And who can forget Al Pacino's gripping performance as Cuban gangster Tony Montana in "Scarface," Don Johnson's fashion-forward Sonny Crockett in TV's "Miami Vice" and any number of other memorable Hollywood classics, including 2017's Best Picture, "Moon Over Miami"?
In recent months, however, the coronavirus has stolen some of Miami's celluloid luster, as a number of Hollywood productions had to be suspended, postponed or even canceled while South Florida grappled with another kind of protagonist — at one point in July being described as the global epicenter of the contagious disease.
Now, as the virus relents, the Miami area once again has begun to welcome back Hollywood production crews amid new rules that cover everything including masks, wristbands, social distancing, quarantines, virus testing and hot zones. The new rules also have spawned a new way to break into showbiz — no longer as production assistants, but now as coronavirus supervisors.
"There's a lot of content that needs to be made. I'm sure you finished Netflix and Hulu and everything else. I know I have," said Sandy Lighterman, a former 25-year producer who now serves as the chief liaison with production companies as the Miami-Dade County film and entertainment commissioner.
"Because of the complications of COVID on how a film set has to operate, it's making it more expensive, and those pieces of the puzzle now have added more pieces of the puzzle," she told Patch. "The days have to be shorter because you have to be conscious of health and cleanliness, sometimes dialing back on crew because of cost, but then adding other crew like COVID supervisors and medics."
Lighterman, who is also vice president of the statewide Film Florida nonprofit screen production group, said more than 80 hotels around the Miami area are offering a variety of production options to help crews meet social distancing and safety requirements while filling the void left by lost bookings, in a program created by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau dubbed Practice Safe Sets.
"You can take over the hotel. You can use all the spaces in the hotels — the restaurants, the office space, whatever, and make it safe," she said. "They'll sequester you in a section of the hotel where you're shooting. You can keep people away from that area, so it keeps the public safe, and it keeps the production out of general harm's way of COVID."
She said some hotels have been willing to allow production companies to build entire sets in their ballrooms. "That becomes your one place for your production," she said.
Even so, Lighterman would like to see a greater financial incentive to give the Miami area an edge over other popular shooting locations in Georgia and Toronto.
"We probably have right now, about maybe 25 projects that are happening," she shared. "Normally, we probably have double that, or maybe a little less." Each has the potential to generate millions of dollars in economic impact.
Her mission now has been to spread the word to Hollywood that the Miami area's daily positivity rate and its related hospitalizations from the coronavirus are among the lowest since June as new guidelines are available to keep talent and crew members safe.
"They operate in pods of 10 or less, and then there are zones," Lighterman said of the rules. "For example, hair and makeup people that are in close contact with the talent — not having shields on — but them having shields on, and putting makeup on — to the camera and director and assistant director, who are closest to the talent. That becomes a hot zone. You have wristbands with colors. You can't cross over to the next pod."
Off-duty Miami-Dade police officers often are hired to make sure everyone follows the rules. The most popular shooting locations around Miami include Crandon Park in Key Biscayne, South Beach, a street in North Beach that looks like iconic Ocean Drive, Coconut Grove, downtown Miami and, oddly, even a couple of landfills.
"The downtown area is very popular, especially when they are shooting for not necessarily Miami — they are shooting for New York or Chicago — there's places in the Grove that have clapboard-style houses, which for commercial production is very popular," Lighterman said. "We have an old landfill that actually has a roadway on it, that has been closed for like 20 years. It's as green as green can be, and it looks like you're in the middle of green pasture hills .... The other side of it looks like Jamaica."
Another old landfill resembles the terrain of Afghanistan. "They shot with a zebra," she recalled of one production crew. "We've had elephants at Crandon Park beach. We had — you name it — cows on location."
Not all productions set in South Florida, have actually been shot here. A case in point was the 2008 Matthew McConaughey-Kate Hudson movie, "Fool's Gold" which was shot in Queensland, Australia.
"It still kills me," Lighterman confided. "It's supposed to be Key West, and you see mountains in the background."