‘Burn Notice’ finale brings curtain down on South Florida production companies, too

Starting Friday, Miami will see a sharp drop in sabotage, sniper fire and explosions. And that has quite a few people worried about the future.

With Thursday’s telecast of the finale of Burn Notice, the city’s No. 1 source of fictional attacks and espionage will end its seven-year run as the most successful series since Miami Vice and the linchpin of the English-language production industry.

Burn Notice’s dramatic exit (producers are touting the death of a major character) comes amid a grim stretch for production companies, which have lost three major series this summer and say they need Florida to extend its film subsidies to revive the industry.

“It feels like the rug is being pulled out from under us,” said Graham Winick, head of Miami Beach’s film office and a leading local advocate for the industry. “Things are very difficult right now.”

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature approved a budget with no new money for the incentive program, which gives television shows, movies, commercials and video games the chance to get as much as 30 percent of their local expenses back in the form of tax credits. Other companies buy those credits to reduce their Florida tax bills.

The program awarded about $118 million worth of credits last year.

Critics saw the program as offering rich subsidies for businesses famous for lavish buffets on sets and pampered stars earning seven-figure salaries. Supporters argued that without the money, Florida would continue to see its storied production business flee for Georgia, New York and other states that offer rich subsidies to attract movies and shows.

The program, started in 2004, made Burn Notice the most subsidized show in Florida history, collecting about $26 million in credits and direct payments from the state. That does not include credits for the show’s seventh season, which ends with its finale at 9 p.m. on the USA Network. In 2012, Burn Notice qualified for $6.2 million in credits, which cost Florida roughly that amount in tax revenue once the credits are redeemed.

Burn Notice reported spending $31 million in Florida to qualify for the 2012 money. Because Florida also offers shows and movies limited rebates on the state’s 6 percent sales tax, the savings were even greater for Burn Notice.

For Burn Notice, the end comes while its ratings remain strong and it has a fan base devoted enough that someone paid $625 at a recent auction for a set of spoons that star Jeffrey Donovan used to eat yogurt inside his fictional loft apartment by the Miami River. In reality, Donovan’s character, Michael Westen, lived in the vacant Coconut Grove Convention Center, which producers Fox Television Studios rented from Miami for studio space after the show’s debut in 2007.

Long one of the most popular series on cable television, Burn Notice revolved around Westen, a stoic ex-spy expelled (or “burned”) from the espionage business and forced to return home to a needy mother, reckless ex-girlfriend and a weekly series of hard-luck cases he inevitably rescued using his spy talents.

Creator Matt Nix originally pushed USA to let him place Burn Notice in Newark, N.J., since he needed rundown surroundings to sell the notion of an ex-spy forlorn and stranded in his hometown. But USA wanted something brighter, so Westen ended up being a Miami resident forced to return to his sunny, glamorous home.

Once USA renewed it, Burn Notice became the first series of any note since Vice to come back to South Florida for a second season. While other series chose Miami as their fictional homes ( CSI: Miami and Dexter), they ended up filming in California. That left Burn Notice to become the No. 1 source of business for companies like Unique Producers Services in Opa-locka, which rented lights, dollies and other equipment to the series.

Burn Notice took a lot of equipment,” said owner J.B. Jones, 82, who got his start creating fake gunshots on the hull of a boat for Flipper when it filmed in Miami in the 1960s. “We had them for seven years.”

Business picked up as Florida defied the economic downturn and ramped up its production incentives under then-Gov. Charlie Crist. In 2010, Tallahassee increased incentive funding from $5 million in 2009 to $242 million over five years, prompting a wave of shows and movies to head for Miami, including Charlie’s Angels (canceled by ABC in 2011 after one season), Magic City (canceled by Starz after two seasons) and The Glades (canceled by A&E after four seasons).

The Glades and Magic City met their end this summer, making the loss of Burn Notice even tougher for the industry. But this week brought news that the only remaining English-language series filmed in the area, USA’s Graceland, would come back for a second season.

Florida’s allegiance to show business will face a test this year as lawmakers decide whether to extend the state’s production incentives. All of the original $242 million has been committed to existing projects, though the departure of the Miami shows may free up money for new productions.

Telenovelas receive the money, too, but English-language shows and movies get the bulk of the dollars and attention in the incentives debate. Spanish-language productions require smaller budgets and revolve around the Miami area’s network of Latin media companies, including Univision and Telemundo.

Advocates say new money will be crucial to keep English-language production growing. Meanwhile, Miami is moving forward with a plan for a $14 million studio near Overtown as a way to sustain an industry that brings both jobs and exposure to the city. Critics, including some existing studio owners, see the venture as a waste of money, given the lack of productions in the area.

Burn Notice’s ratings peaked during its third season, when it drew an audience just shy of 5 million and finished 2009 as the No. 6 show on cable, according to Nielsen. (It snagged the No. 4 slot the year before, but with a smaller audience.) Though ratings have slipped in its final season, Burn Notice holds the No. 14 slot on cable this year with a solid audience of 3.6 million. Burn Notice filmed 111 episodes, the same number as Miami Vice did from 1984 to 1989.

During a recent conference call with reporters, Bruce Campbell, who played Westen sidekick Sam Axe, called Burn Notice a highlight of his career.

“We pretty much had seven strong seasons. It was a grand slam,” Campbell said. “That will always be on our résumés. You can’t take that away from us.”

Production advocates blamed the show’s demise partly on Miami’s insisting that Burn Notice find another studio after this season so that the Grove convention center could be demolished for parkland. But production costs were increasing, too, and Nix said the convention center situation had no impact on the show’s exit.

“It would have been a pain in the butt to find a new place,” he said. “But I don’t think you decide whether to make a whole new season on whether the stage space is available. It wasn’t like we said, ‘If you’re taking away our convention center, we’re taking our ball and going home.’

“When you’re ending a series, you really have a choice. You can end it on your own terms. You will invariably end it when it seems a little early,” Nix said. “Or you can be yanked off the air, and end it a little bit late.”