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Movie makers are busy in Northwest Florida

Filmmaker Steve Wise on the set of the short film "Sur’vi."
Courtesy photo
Filmmaker Steve Wise on the set of the short film "Sur’vi."

Suppose there is a mass die-off of honeybees in a small town on the panhandle, and then the bees come back to life. And they were not happy. That’s the premise of the movie Zombeez, a film that was made entirely in Northwest Florida.

Pensacola would never be mistaken for Hollywood. It probably would have a tough time masquerading as Hollywood, Florida. However, there are filmmakers working and making movies here in the local region.

“There are a lot of filmmakers in Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City. There are a lot of actors here,” said Elesia Marie, the writer and director of Zombeez. “Which is why we wanted to shoot here in the area. We wanted to give an opportunity to the actors we have here locally, the crew that we have here locally, who generally have to go to Atlanta or New Orleans to act. But we have so many talented people here in Northwest Florida we were like ‘Let’s make the movie here, for us,' and we were very excited to be able to give them the opportunity.”

Before this, Marie, who has lived in Northwest Florida for about 10 years, was primarily an actor. She wrote the story for Zombeez during the pandemic and, frankly, didn’t think anyone else would want to make the movie. So she hooked up with a producer and got behind the camera for the first time. After that, finding a crew wasn’t hard.

“Yeah, once they saw the script they were like ‘Oh my gosh this looks like so much fun,’” said Marie. “It’s definitely a cheesy, B-movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And really when you find good people who support you, everyone comes together and makes it happen.”

Fellow filmmaker Derek Diamond echoes Marie's sentiments on local creatives.

“We have a great (filmmaking) community in Pensacola and around the Northwest Florida area,” he said. At a young age, Diamond became fascinated by the movie-making process.

“I was a freshman in college at Pensacola State and I had no clue what I wanted to do,” said Diamond. “I liked movies but I never considered it to be a career. And I found a brochure for what was then known as the PSC’s Digital Video and Broadcasting Program. And it was almost like it was calling out to me. I would read it, put it down, and then a few minutes later I’d pick it back up and read it again. And I’m like ‘I’ll try a few of these classes, and if it doesn’t work out then I’ve got some electives.’”

Diamond has directed and released two short films:“The Parker Syndrome” in 2019 and“The Feature” in 2023. He’s also helping as a producer on a film called “The Walker."That movie is in post-production and was written and directed by Stephen Wise.

“Northwest Florida has a very small but very active film community,” said Wise. “It is very tight-knit and people are always doing projects. So there are resources here to basically ‘crew-up.'"

Steve Wise with actors Jason London and Corin Nemic.
Courtesy photo
Steve Wise with actors Jason London and Corin Nemic.

Wise, who attended film school at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, has been living in the Panhandle for about a dozen years. It was when he arrived in northwest Florida that he knew he needed to create his own films.

“I had actually produced several short films for other people, and I said ‘nah, I need to be doing my own projects,’” said Wise.

That led Wise to make his first short film here in2017. He wrote, produced, and directed the movie "Sur’vi."

“What I initially wanted to do was just tell a simple story of two people in a room talking and having a conflict," he said. "Just a little drama. What ended up happening was it was five characters, including a child, in the woods, in a fantasy setting, with fight scenes and make-up effects.”

Sur’vi was selected to be shown at film festivals around the country, winning awards for best fantasy film, best short film, best costume design, and even best movie poster.

“I’ve been fortunate that several of my projects have gotten into film festivals and have been shown on the big screen,” said Wise. “And to be sitting in there and see (the audience’s) reactions. It’s very satisfying.”

Derek Diamond has also had the experience of watching his films with an audience.

“I get butterflies that are probably the size of eagles,” said Diamond. “It’s also an exciting thing. I like to sit in the back of the room and listen to the audience’s reaction, watch their facile expressions to see what hit, what didn’t hit, thinking that will help with the next go round.”

Another thing these filmmakers have in common is they all have “day jobs." Finding the money to make their projects can take time, and is almost as much work as actually producing the movies. Before making Sur’vi, Stephen Wise made a promotional video for an IndiGoGo crowd-funding campaign with the film’s star Anna Faulkner. Eventually Wise was able to raise the thousands of dollars needed to complete the film.

While making Zombeez, Elesia Marie also had to find ways to make their budget go further.

“The only way we were able to make it is because so many of the crew took pay cuts to make it happen,” said Marie. “The cast took pay cuts as well. We had people who worked for free. I worked for free. That was really the only way we were able to make it. Just people who were passionate about it and donated their time or just took cuts in what their usual rates would be.”

Marie is currently negotiating with distributors and streamers to make the movie available and possibly make some of that budget back. But is there any money to be made creating short independent films in northwest Florida?

“That’s a tough question because I want to say yes,” said Diamond. “In my experience, I haven’t been able to make money off of it yet, but I definitely think it’s possible. But I think you have to have the right team, you have to have the right investors, you have to have a lot fall into place for that to happen.”

Movie making has become a family business in Derek Diamond’s household. His wife Samantha is raising money and holding casting calls for her first film, "Plain Jane."

To get a wider picture of the film community in the area, you can go to Emerald Coast Film Group on Facebook. It’s a very active, public group for film makers, crew members, and actors.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.