You Paid For It: Pinellas bed tax dollars pay for annual trips to French Riviera

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Maybe you didn’t spend two weeks on the French Riviera this spring, but your Pinellas County bed tax money sure did.

In fact, since 2015, it’s become an annual pilgrimage. Every May, Pinellas County’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau sends the Pinellas Film Commissioner to the Cote d’Azur to wine and dine movie makers at the Marche Du Film trade show that accompanies the annual Cannes film festival.

“Don’t be fooled by the destination name,” said CVB Executive Director David Downing. “The Marche Du Film is the world’s largest film industry trade show.”

Maybe so, but Tony Armer’s annual trips to the Cannes have nearly doubled in cost since he started flying there courtesy of your tax money three years ago, hoping to convince filmmakers to shoot their movies in Pinellas.

The cost of those trips has climbed from $29,604 in 2015, to this year’s taxpayer tab of $52,797. That includes about $5,000 for a two week apartment rental, registration fees, airfare, per diem expenses of $156 a day for Armer’s spending money and a swanky soiree that Armer threw this year for 150 invited guests.

Armer’s evening cocktail and canape affair funded with your tax dollars cost $14,088, which Downing insists is a real bargain on the French Riviera.

”This is scrappy,” Downing told us. “This is lean and mean.”

The return on investment for that cocktail party and all the other networking Armer conducts during his two weeks in Cannes is hard to calculate. So far, not a single movie making dollar has landed back in Pinellas as a result of the French Riviera trips, but Downing insists that millions are heading this way.

“Right now, the return on investment we have about 11 million dollars worth of projects in the pipeline over the next 24 months,” Downing said.

Downing couldn’t point to a single contract or guaranteed deal with any moviemaker as evidence those movie deals will actually result in Pinellas-based productions that help our local economy. His staff at the CVB did point us to Nashville University professor and filmmaker David Deborde, who told us he’s working on a deal to bring a $5 million dollar film to Pinellas in 2018, based on introductions that Armer made for him in Cannes.

But, Deborde said the financial backer for his film, who is based in London, hasn’t yet signed off on this script or committed to production.

“I think it’s important for our viewers to understand how this thing works, it’s never ‘I’m bringing my film there tomorrow,’” Downing said.

Downing refused to allow us to interview Armer for this report even though his role is to promote filmmaking in Pinellas worldwide and he recently performed interviews for Tampa Bay area print and radio reporters and anchors on the same topic.

“I’m happy to speak with you,” Downing said.

Armer abruptly cancelled an interview appointment weeks ago. He sent an email indicating he’s not allowed to speak to us, but did offer his written perspective on the use of bed tax dollars for his annual pilgrimage to Cannes.

“As a film commission, you have to be at film events,” Armer wrote. “There’s no better use of funds than to attend this trade show and do events like this.”

Meanwhile, Armer’s tourism promotion boss at the CVB insists that while a trip the French Riviera may sound like a dream assignment on your tax dollars, for Pinellas County’s Film Commissioner it’s all work and no play.

“These days are nine hours long just on the showroom floor itself and there are evening activities as well, sometimes up to 16 hours a day,” Downing said.

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