WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Florida officials want to recoup the $20 million in taxpayer funds they invested in Digital Domain now that the visual effects studio is facing bankruptcy.
The Tampa Bay Times reported Saturday that Gov. Rick Scott directed the state's Department of Economic Opportunity to hire lawyers to represent the state in bankruptcy court. He said the company broke its contract by not notifying the state it was filing for bankruptcy.
The $20 million awarded in 2009 was part an incentive to bring the company to Port St. Lucie with the promise of hundreds of high-paying jobs. Digital Domain Media Group also partnered with Florida State University's film school to build a branch campus in West Palm Beach.
But the company shut down all of its Florida operations, closed its new animation studio in Port St. Lucie and laid off about 280 employees last fall.
The production company, which was founded by James Cameron, has produced visual effects for movies including "Titanic," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and the "Transformers" series.
State and local officials had hoped the company would draw filmmakers from all over the world, giving the Sunshine State the ability to compete with California and New York with the backing of an established Hollywood entity.
The state moved forward with the funding incentive even though its lead public-private business screening company, Enterprise Florida, rejected it. Digital Domain pulled in a total of $40 million in cash and land from state and local economic development funds. The company also has a $40 million bond issue with the city of Port St. Lucie, but that money must be paid back eventually.
It's just the latest twist for the embattled company.
Florida State University President Eric Barron made a pitch this week to keep his school's digital film program in West Palm Beach, even though the partner company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Digital Domain also helped Florida State establish a new bachelor's degree program related to digital media production.
Barron said talks are under way with four other companies interested in replacing Digital Domain.
The board that oversees Florida's 12 public universities is considering whether Florida State should be required to move the program to its main campus in Tallahassee. Besides losing its business partner, the program has drawn opposition from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, which is only 30 miles from West Palm Beach.
A three-member committee will study the issue and make a recommendation to the panel.