Orlando never turned into Hollywood East, a magnet for film and TV production. But the region is a strong lure for commercial production.
"National TV commercials have filmed here continuously, thankfully," said Alan Levi, a University of Central Florida graduate who has been an Orlando location scout since 1994.
"We are green year-round. It's the source of our magic and my career," he said. "Our oak-lined streets and older restored homes are perfect, classic 'Anywhere, America.' Directors, producers and ad agency people always ask for 'Anywhere, America.' That's exactly what and who we are."
In recent months, Levi has worked for Audi, Honey Nut Cheerios, Burger King, AutoNation, Marriott Vacation Club and Ciroc Vodka.
"Unlike Miami, we are blessed to have very few palm trees, which are definitely not 'Anywhere, America,'" Levi said. "On the inside, we love restored homes with bright, white kitchens with lots of natural light." Orlando neighborhoods College Park, Delaney Park and Lancaster Park "are ideal locations for filming inside and out year-round," he said.
The Orlando Film Commission tracks projects by the number of days they permit for production. Film and TV projects have gone elsewhere because incentives — tax credits from the state — dried up. Commercials, which shoot quickly and don't rely on the enticements, offer a more hopeful story.
Orlando Film Commissioner Sheena Fowler says the agency has been successful in focusing its efforts on commercials.
"Clearly we are seeing the results with a 21 percent increase in commercial permitted production days over last year," she said. Commercials alone accounted for 125 days, up from 103 the previous year.
Advertisers that have shot locally this year include AutoNation, Olive Garden, Chuck E. Cheese's and Tommy Hilfiger. Fowler said experienced local crew and talent along with the sunny weather make Orlando an ideal destination for commercials.
Yet Fowler can provide only part of the picture because her numbers don't include productions done on private property, such as a studio, TV station or theme park. Local TV stations said the top sectors for local TV advertising include auto, legal, retail, restaurants, health services and financial.
"All sorts of local stuff is being done," said Tim Bartlett, general manager of Adrenaline Films in Orlando. "Publix does great quality work. I assume Publix spots are being shot here." (Publix had no comment and cited "strategic and proprietary information.")
"Those kind of regional players and people coming from up North have an effect on our business," Bartlett said. "All boats rise with the tide. If our company isn't doing the big production, the one down the street is. They're hiring local people. It benefits everybody in our community." He said commercial production is "doing well — it could be stronger."
The work has been steady through the years, said Tom Macaluso, senior vice president/creative director at the Anson-Stoner advertising agency in Winter Park.
"You still need video content. Whether it's a commercial on Channel 9 or YouTube, you still have to produce the content," Macaluso said. "The same amount of work is getting done. It's just moved around with digital and interactive. Some of that new work is just different."
Directors from out of town use Orlando because it's a friendly place to work, the location is adaptable in look and shooting can happen in the middle of winter, Macaluso said.
"You can deal with whatever we call cold," he said. "Film production in commercials is one bright spot in the industry."
Attorney John Morgan, one of the most familiar faces on Orlando TV, estimates that his firm produces 80 commercials a year, and that number has increased to showcase 12 areas of practice. He goes to WESH-Channel 2 to make the commercials, which can feature saved backdrops of his office, home or outside.
"The best ads have been about the family," Morgan said. "I think people like family, dogs, American pie, the idea of us being together at work."
Viewers can expect more family ads. "My final son just passed the Bar. I have a grandson named John. We'll see what he does," Morgan said. "Probably the most successful commercial has been the one with Emma the dog. People were writing the dog. We were getting 2,000 emails a week when the ad was running."
Walt Disney World has about 35 commercial shoots a year, a spokesman said.
At the Universal Studios Florida Production Group, about half a dozen commercials have filmed this year, said vice president/general manager Pamela Tuscany. One was for the Multi-State Powerball Lottery, and the rest were for Universal parks. In previous years, Universal hosted Florida Natural Juice, the Florida Lottery, Party City and Gold Bond.
"Commercials have been a core business for Central Florida," Tuscany said. "Commercials have held their own, and they continue to do so, but there's a big but there. Commercials use the same equipment as a feature film or a TV series. They use the same crews, and if they are not there, we are putting ourselves in harm's way."
The fight for incentives will resume next year before the Florida Legislature, Tuscany predicted. "We'll be very vocal that the incentives are important to jobs," she said. "Bottom line: It's jobs."