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Profiles of Summer: Hollywood Connection

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  • | 4:00 a.m. September 16, 2009
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Florida Studio Theatre: Let this be a warning to you. Next time you have something fun, fresh and funny brewing, call Jeanne Corcoran’s office.

Had Corcoran known about this summer’s Sarasota Improv Festival, she’d have contacted executives at Comedy Central sooner.

“They told me to give them a better heads up next time, that way they’ll have time to get scouts out here,” says Corcoran, her cat-like eyes sparkling at the prospect of a major cable network scouting Sarasota for comedy talent.

Whether or not Comedy Central was merely placating her doesn’t matter. It’s Corcoran’s job as director of Sarasota County’s Film & Entertainment Office to court television and film executives. If you work in Sarasota show business and have big ambitions, you want Corcoran in your corner, an advantage that didn’t really exist two years ago.

Corcoran, the former production manager for the Nevada Film Office, was hired in 2007 to helm the county’s reorganized film commission, which, for years, was handled by a bookkeeper at the Sarasota Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.

Despite the office’s low profile and nominal budget, the bureau oversaw the filming of two major productions in 1998 — the Woody Harrelson film “Palmetto,” which filmed on Casey Key and in downtown Sarasota, and the Gwyneth Paltrow/Ethan Hawke romance, “Great Expectations,” which famously turned the Cà d’Zan mansion into Ms. Dinsmoor’s captivatingly rundown estate.

“Those movies filmed 12 years ago,” sighs Corcoran, exasperated. “The industry has undergone a lot of changes since then. The incentives game has taken over.”

Corcoran can talk for days about the incentives game. After 15 years in Las Vegas, coordinating more than 700 projects a year, very little riles Corcoran, especially now that she’s returned to Sarasota, her hometown, which is, by comparison, a tranquil utopia.

“Incentives are like the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Corcoran says. “Florida used to be the No. 1 filming state in the country, but we’re a balanced-budget state, which means we’re not allowed to spend in the red, which means we can only give away so much money.”

Unlike states such as California, Michigan, Louisiana and New York, Florida’s incentive coffers are dry. This year, when the state announced it had $10.8 million to invest in film-and-entertainment projects, 48 projects lined up. Within three hours, however, the money was gone and 36 projects had bailed.

“Believe me,” says Corcoran, “projects love to shoot in Florida. We have good weather and much less-expensive labor and crew.”

Corcoran grew up in Sarasota, but left the area in 1992 to work in Las Vegas, where she worked as a writer, actor, producer and creative director in a variety of media, before taking a job with the Nevada Film Office in 1998.

“Las Vegas is the most exhausting place to live in the entire world,” says Corcoran, who is married to her high-school sweetheart and has two sons — one in Portland and one in Raleigh, N.C. “After 15 years I wanted to get out of the toaster oven and back to the tropics.”

It was a coincidence that she ended up back in Sarasota, or “kismet,” as Corcoran likes to put it. After contacting the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), a network of 350 film commissions worldwide, Corcoran was given three East Coast commission choices.

“It was like ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’” Corcoran laughs. “One was too big. One was too small. And one was just right.”

Out of the 55 candidates who interviewed for Sarasota position, it was Corcoran who stood out the most.

“The area is really fortunate to have someone of that caliber,” says Florida Film Commissioner Lucia Fishburne. “Jeanne understands economic development. She understands work-force development. She understands education. She’s connects on all these different levels and that is such a valuable asset for a community to have.”

Like a Realtor, Corcoran is tasked with selling Sarasota’s charms. Unlike a Realtor, she can just as easily sell its blight.

Although the white sand beaches on Siesta Key might work well for a romantic comedy, the industrial rubble off U.S. 301 provides a better backdrop for a psychological thriller.

In 2007, her office, a division of the Economic Development Corporation, invited a dozen A-list location managers to Sarasota to tour the county’s back waters and bayfront. The crew included managers from “Iron Man,” “X-Files,” “Transformers,” “Spider Man” and “Mission Impossible,” to name a few.

She’s currently in the middle of nailing down a list of high-powered production executives scheduled to visit Sarasota in October for a similar scouting tour. She won’t name names yet, but the group’s list of credentials include this year’s biggest summer blockbusters — “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” “Julie & Julia,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Star Trek.”

“Sarasota County is a big jigsaw puzzle of resources,” Corcoran says. “We’re doing a David-and-Goliath thing here in terms of budget and manpower. We may be small compared to our bigger cousins in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, but we’ve got a great team mentality and we’re not afraid to piggyback off other film commissions.”

Did you know?
• Little-known independent films are shot in Sarasota on a regular basis. Here are three that filmed here over the last two years:

• "The Jonestown Defense," which is about a once-wealthy Florida businessman whose life crumbles in an economic depression.  

• "Prime of your Life," written by Nicole Abisinio and Brandon Cotter, is the story of a 20-something slacker girl who falls in love with a handsome rebel at her best friend’s funeral.

• "Deadly Closure," which wrapped in May, is a mystery/thriller about a Sarasota photographer who waited 20 years to avenge the murder of her parents. It’s the first feature by Sarasota residents Alan and Laura Roberts and includes a cameo by “Dallas” actress Audrey Landers.