CBS orders pilot for TV drama based on Tampa military scene

February 8, 2016

TAMPA — As a city that hosts MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa is no stranger to military drama.   The base is the only military center in the U.S. with two four-star commands, both key players in America’s power projection at a tense time.   U.S. Central Command oversees the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. U.S. Special Operations Command synchronizes the global war on terror. Another lower-level headquarters, Special Operations Command Central, oversees commando missions in the Centcom region. There are two Air Force refueling wings that put men and women in harm’s way. And dozens of other mission partners.   On Monday, a mass casualty exercise ahead of the upcoming Tampa Bay AirFest, scheduled at MacDill on March 19 and 20, showcased all the action that takes place on base. And Congress and the Defense Department Office of Inspector General are looking into whether Centcom cooked the books on intelligence in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.   Then there is the ongoing drama that started when the biographer of the CIA director sent emails to a Tampa oncologist, uncovering an affair, ending the director’s career and sparking a lawsuit that has ensnared a sitting cabinet member, several former high-ranking military leaders, and the Washington press corps.   That’s all real-life drama.   Now it looks like CBS is thinking about milking the Tampa military scene for TV-style drama.   But a lot has to happen before that becomes a reality before shooting takes place in Tampa.   Last week, Variety reported that the network has ordered a pilot called “Four Stars,” which the entertainment newspaper describes as a “family military drama” that “follows two powerful rival families in the military community of Tampa, Florida, who make decisions at the highest levels of national security.”   The potential series comes from writer Becky Mode, executive producer with Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly and R.J. Cutler. Cutler would direct, according to Variety.   Though the producers want to do a show about Tampa, real-life political drama may prevent that from happening.   “Typically, anything network-wise, especially television, does not usually go anyplace unless there is some sort of incentive,” said Dale Gordon, executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission. “We are currently at a disadvantage because we don’t have any state film incentives.”   As it stands, the pilot’s producers are planning to shoot Four Stars in March, said Gordon.   In Louisiana.   “I talked to a production executive from CBS today and they said it is a fast-moving project,” said Gordon. The producers are shooting in Louisiana, she said, because they were not aware that Hillsborough County has some incentives to offer.   “They were very intrigued,” said Gordon, adding that the producers are weighing whether it is worth it to visit Tampa soon to see what opportunities exist here.   “Hillsborough County has given us $483,000 to attract high-impact productions like this,” said Gordon. “At this point, we would be looking to offer about 10 to 15 percent of their local spend in Hillsborough County.”   By comparison, “it should be noted that’s not anywhere near what a state like Louisiana or Georgia can offer, which is closer to 30 percent. But we have a lot to offer by way of locations and climate,” said Gordon. “We are very user friendly.”   The issue of film incentives may not rise to the level of Sunni-Shia friction in the Centcom region, but it has created a drag on film and TV production in the Tampa area, Gordon said. She pointed to the decision by producers of “Live By Night,” a Ben Affleck film that takes place in Ybor City, in Brunswick, Georgia. Georgia is a leader in film-incentive packages.   Losing out on a TV series is especially difficult, Gordon said, because a successful show can run several years, locking in a lot of work for local crews, actors and others.   Those working in the industry point to a Florida Office of Film and Entertainment report that says the $296 million in incentives added $4.1 billion to Florida’s gross state product — a 15 to 1 return — and created over 170,000 jobs paying more than $900 million in wages.   But those opposed to using public money as a production lure quote a study conducted by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, showing the state gets back just 43 cents for each dollar it awards in tax incentives to productions. That amounts to a loss of almost $170 million on the $296 million investment.   The study is accurate, film industry proponents say — but misunderstood. It counted only direct government revenue from tax receipts rather than overall economic impact.   Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, a proponent of increasing state funds for the film and TV industry, said the state’s lack of incentives sends the message “Florida is closed for business” when it comes to the TV, film and digital media industry.   On Wednesday Gordon, Hagan and other local politicians, long with film, television and digital media leaders will host a news conference at the State Capitol to advocate for the Legislature’s to support bills paving the way for incentives. They also plan to meet with state officials and will note that CBS is interested in a series of Tampa.   Since 2013, lost film projects have cost the state more than $650 million in revenue, according to an industry media release.   Joining the news conference will backers of the bills, Republica State Sens. Nancy Detert and Jack Latvala and Rep. Mike Miller, along with Film Tampa Bay, economic development organizations, and vendors affected by the loss of films in the Tampa Bay region.   Even if the state were to come up with money, it remains to be seen how much cooperation military officials would give to a series, should it be ordered, that might shine a negative light, especially on four-star commanders.   Locally, officials at MacDill don’t have a lot to say about the pilot.   “I can say that the proper office to consult on a project like this would be the public affairs office but ... this is the first I heard of this project,” Army Lt. Col. Robert Bockholt told the Tribune.   Bockholt added that producers would have to contact the office of Defense Secretary Ash Carter to gain Pentagon support for any TV series.   “No one has reached out, nor approached the Department of Defense for any kind of support to my knowledge,” said Navy Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a Centcom spokesman.   Officials from CBS did not respond to requests for comment. Officials from the Pentagon did not comment by deadline.   There was no word on what story lines the “Four Stars” team will pursue. Or if there will be any characters based on those involved in the scandal involving former CIA Director David Petraeus. Dr. Scott Kelley received the emails considered threatening by he and his wife, Jill, who turned the emails over to the FBI’s liaison at MacDill.   Petraeus, also the former Centcom commander, was forced to resign from the CIA after his affair with Paula Broadwell, the biographer who sent the emails, became public. Broadwell was cleared of any wrongdoing in that case.   One thing is certain, though.   With so much going on in Tampa and MacDill, there’s plenty of material here to work with.   Howard Altman | Tribune Staff