Location, Location, Location: What Sandy Lighterman Knows Best

Working behind the scenes to woo Robert Downey, Jr., to a tropical paradise sounds like a dream job—but, like movie magic, that description is not exactly what it seems. Enticing the latest Iron Man production to shoot scenes in South Florida was a time-consuming but ultimately rewarding process for Sandy Lighterman, the Film Commissioner for Miami-Dade County. She and her Filmiami staff not only match scripted locations to local landmarks, but help encourage such big-budget productions—as well as much smaller ones—to think of Miami-Dade County as a cinematic backdrop.

Think of Miami (or the way it’s often portrayed on television or film), and palm-dotted expanses of beachfront where the famous and fashionable play likely come to mind. Lighterman, however, can see her city as “New York, Chicago, Los Angeles [or] ‘anywhere USA.’” It’s just a matter of knowing how and where to look. Beyond edifices that can replicate other metropolises, South Florida filming locations can be as diverse as “a Caribbean island, jungles, farmland, and even a huge man-made hill.”

As for Iron Man, Lighterman recalls that Filmiami “started wooing them back in early fall of 2011. Originally they wanted to shoot the sequences they are going to shoot in the Miami area in San Francisco or Ohio.” Convincing the production to film in Florida required “sending many photo packages, meeting with Marvel in Los Angeles, and taking the producers, production designer, lead location scout, and local location managers around to work on their logistics to get them to come here. And they would not have come if the State of Florida did not have the attractive film production tax incentives that began in 2010.”

The superhero superblockbuster is just one of several movies to feature South Florida on screen. Rock of Ages, Step Up 4 Revolution, Marley and Me, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Up in the Air, and Dostana also illustrate the region to millions of moviegoers worldwide and provide evidence to future filmmakers of the area’s potential shooting locations. To create that showcase, Filmiami, the cooperative effort of the Miami-Dade County, Miami Beach, and City of Miami film offices, is “a full-service film commission providing location and logistics assistance, government liaison, production information, and referral sources. We attract productions by sending out photo packages to match locations they are looking for in their scripts, storyboards, or concepts. In addition, we understand the production side of the business so we can provide assistance with budgeting and crew and vendor lists.”

Sandy Lighterman

Filmmakers initially searching for the right “look” for scenes or whole movies or, later in the process, location managers with a specific locale in mind turn to Lighterman. Often she is asked “to break down scripts for their locations and then put photo packages together so that [filmmakers] can see that we do have the types of locations the production is looking for. We then refer the productions to local location scouts so that they can further their search. We just try to attract [people to area filming locations] but don’t want to take away any potential jobs from our location managers/scouts. Our locations photo database has over nine hundred locations. We work closely with both out-of-town and local location scouts and managers. That’s a huge part of our job as a film commission!”

The time frame for finding the right place to film often is short, especially because of budgetary concerns. Lighterman explains that “TV commercials and still photo shoots sometimes scout a week or two ahead of their arrival, but more and more they arrive last minute, and we are scrambling along with them to help them secure County locations and get approvals for permits. TV series usually clear their locations about five to seven days in advance, unless the scene is more complicated. Feature films and independent filmmakers usually have a bit more time for prepping,” giving Lighterman and her staff “time to secure off-duty police officers [or] fire department personnel (for anything with pyrotechnics, fire, etc.) and get clearance with [for example] public works, the airports, seaport, or transit. We coordinate with all County departments to get approval for the permits that we approve.”

What could be better than working with the film industry in a locale renowned for beckoning beaches and electric nightlife? According to Lighterman, the job is not always glamorous. Much of her time requires meeting “with prospective producers and creative [consultants] regarding upcoming projects, working with County departments streamlining the permitting process for productions, [and] speaking with studio executives, independent filmmakers, TV commercial producers, digital media outlets, and photographers regarding upcoming projects that might come to our area and try to persuade them to shoot in Miami-Dade County. Also, I meet with the Mayor’s staff and advise on policy that affects the film and entertainment industry.”

Such meetings and paperwork can be rewarding because they result in “attracting productions to come and shoot in Miami-Dade County and assisting productions in their logistical needs. It’s wonderful to be involved with economic development where we are helping to create jobs and keep residents employed.”

Occasionally, however, a request comes along that is a bit more daunting, although not much can throw Lighterman, who “began in this business at a very young age” and “was a film and television producer for more than twenty years prior to joining Filmiami.” One of the more unusual requests recently crossing her desk was “for an alligator to crawl out of a manhole.” Alas, this request had to be denied. “Unfortunately, our manholes lead to our sewers,” which would create hazardous filming conditions, “so we could not accommodate that request.”

She more often deals with the everyday challenges of film production. “For Rock of Ages we needed to close a main street artery nightly on and off for a couple of months. Burn Notice has an explosion almost every week, and they have road closures.” Lighterman compliments the “great team that works in my office that makes it all seem easy (though it might not be!). Also our County departments work cooperatively with our office, and that makes our job much easier and more seamless” for the productions’ logistics.

Lighterman realistically assesses the future of the entertainment industry in Florida while hoping for continued sunny skies. “Our industry will continue to grow as long as the State of Florida legislature continues to support and fund the State production tax incentives and the State Office of Film and Entertainment. Those elements are key to the entire state benefiting economically from this industry. If the incentives are properly funded, then Hollywood and the global industry will have the confidence to keep sending productions our way. This also will assist us in building more of a permanent financial infrastructure so that productions will start originating from here instead of Hollywood or other places. Being able to finance and originate content from Florida is key to securing a continuous and successful film and entertainment industry.”

Lighterman’s confidence in Filmiami’s role within the industry, as well as the local economy, is well founded. After all, she convinced visionary entrepreneur Tony Stark to set up shop in Miami.

Filming Burn Notice in Miami