Is Pittsburgh The New Hollywood?

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Photo illustration by Chuck Beard

Pittsburgh is on track to become a major player in the entertainment industry, generating jobs and revenue. But there are challenges to realizing this dream.

By Melissa Rayworth, Pittsburgh Magazine

In 1914, a ruthless villain tied a distraught damsel to the cold steel of a railroad track. She screamed in horror as a train thundered toward her. All seemed lost. But somehow, she miraculously escaped in the nick of time.

Nearly a century later, another train thundered along a railroad track--perhaps the very same one--and once again, all seemed lost. The train, loaded with explosive chemicals, raced out of control with no one aboard to stop it. But astonishingly, two heroic men stopped it in the nick of time.

One flick was filmed as a grainy, silent black-and-white serial. The other as a multimillion-dollar, high-tech blockbuster. But they share the same pedigree: Both were shot in Pittsburgh.

In the decades between 1914's The Perils of Pauline and 2010's Unstoppable, plenty of on-screen drama has unfolded here--especially picking up during the course of the last 40-some years. Angels descended from heaven to save the Pittsburgh Pirates' season in Angels in the Outfield (don't you wish that'd really happen?). Zombies shambled through an Evans City cemetery in Night of the Living Dead then besieged Monroeville Mall in its sequel, Dawn of the Dead.

And a scrappy young steelworker earned the chance to become a professional ballerina (and inspired a generation of young women to take scissors to their favorite sweatshirts) in the '80s classic Flashdance.

We've played host to everything from Oscar winners (The Silence of the Lambs) to box-office disasters (the locally beloved but critically panned Striking Distance).

In the past three years, we've seen more bright lights and film trailers than ever before. A growing number of big-budget productions with A-list stars have been coming to town.

Last summer, bloggers posted a running tally of Katherine Heigl sightings during the filming of One For the Money. And as cameras rolled for the thriller Abduction, teen girls were busy tracking heartthrob Taylor Lautner from the North Hills to the South Hills with the precision of FBI agents.

In November, when the holiday movie-going season kicked off with three films shot here in 2009 (Unstoppable, The Next Three Days and Love and Other Drugs), a critic from the Hollywood Reporter said Pittsburgh was "evidently Hollywood's favorite location."

And beginning this month, the Fox-TV series "Locke & Key" will shoot its pilot inside the sprawling mansion at Hartwood Acres. The plan is to film an additional 13 episodes there, with hope that a second season will follow.

But there's more happening than just star-sightings and film-induced traffic jams. Something else is beginning to bubble: Our long history as a movie-making location is beginning to grow into a solid industry.

Ask the major players, and they'll tell you that the Pittsburgh region is positioned to potentially become an entertainment hub--a creative "greenhouse" for film, television and digital productions.

It won't be simple to make the leap from popular location to full-blown center of movie making. But we have the seeds of that transition in place as you'll see in the pages that follow.

And we might just be reaching that pivotal moment when the hero takes control of the thundering locomotive and accomplishes the impossible.

Location, location, location

"Find me a blue house next to a red barn." That's the kind of request Pittsburgh Film Office director Dawn Keezer hears from producers who are considering shooting in the Pittsburgh area. For many years, physical locations were the deciding factor in bringing film production to our area. The nonprofit film office, founded in 1990 and supported mainly by its annual "Lights! Glamour! Action!" fundraiser, keeps detailed files of places that are available to use as shooting locations. And they use those files to help achieve their mission: To motivate filmmakers to shoot here. The folks at the film office also help filmmakers working in this area find all the resources and manpower they need to produce their films, which sweetens the deal.

Although tax incentives are now the biggest factor (more on that later), our locations remain a truly potent draw. The rivers here are looking better than ever; some of the small towns around western Pennsylvania remain idyllic, and Pittsburgh city neighborhoods offer distinctive storefronts and houses. We do history with ease: In the 1984 release Mrs. Soffel, which starred Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson, the clocks were wound back to 1901 here in Pittsburgh. Last year, Eric Roberts came to shoot the gangster flick A New York Heartbeat, set in 1957 and due out in late 2011.

For the record, it's possible to turn the clock ahead as well: For Robocop and The Road, we provided the future (though not exactly a cheerful one).

And consider: Downtown (where the spires atop PPG Place became the glittering lair of an evil genius in Inspector Gadget) is just 40 miles from the quiet back roads of Kittanning, Pa., which served as rural Kentucky for the FX network's "Justified." In between, you'll find locations that can double for anything from San Francisco (Desperate Measures) to Ukraine (The Oksana Baiul Story).

Over time, Keezer says, producers have concluded that "we do New York better than New York does"--even for a movie about something as iconic as Rockefeller Center's Christmas tree. To fake that, she says they used Mellon Square Park across from the Omni William Penn Hotel, and it worked like a charm for Sally Field's directorial debut, the 1996 TV-movie The Christmas Tree.

Pittsburgh also excels at playing its present-day self in such movies as Smart People, Wonder Boys, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and She's Out of My League. The producers of Abduction opted to use the suburban beauty of Hampton Township, partly because the high school has panoramic windows in its art room and spacious cafeteria.

Paul Haggis shot extensively around the city while directing The Next Three Days, taking full advantage of the textured beauty of areas like the North Side.

As filming progressed, even the film's star, Russell Crowe, found himself "enthralled with the city and its architecture," says WTAE-TV anchor Sally Wiggin, who talked to Crowe during his stay in 2009. She recalled that as she taped an interview with him, "he even maneuvered us so that one of the beautiful old churches in Sharpsburg was over his shoulder as a backdrop."

But these days, gorgeous locations are only the first step. Producers also expect us to show them the money.

We Give, and We Get

Pennsylvania's tax-incentive program for filmmakers, launched in 2004, was one of the first in the nation. And with the addition of new legislation in 2007, it's become one of the country's most competitive, according to Keezer. It's the main reason that the region is currently so popular with Hollywood (Pittsburgh is one of the top two production centers in the state).

Here's how it works: Producers apply in advance, committing to spending 60 percent of their budget on eligible purchases here in Pennsylvania. They pay taxes--sales, payroll and so on (no tax exemptions)--while working here and get no money upfront.

Drew Levinson, a native Pittsburgher, works closely with the producers of visiting films, and says he routinely connects incoming productions with everything from florists and caterers to lumber yards.

After the project is completed and all expenses have been evaluated by an independent auditor, the filmmaker can then submit paperwork to be reimbursed by the state for 25 percent of the money spent here. The local businesses and residents keep all that they were paid.

Just how big is that money?

According to Keezer, the three star-driven films that came in 2009 hired a total of 633 local crew members. They spent more than $1 million on car rentals, more than $1.7 million on construction supplies and more than $1.2 million on local groceries and catering supplies. They also paid more than $1.4 million to local people and businesses for use of locations.
And the total number of hotel rooms paid for by the three productions was 40,159.

Since July 2007, the tax-incentive legislation has increased film-related spending in southwestern Pennsylvania by more than $78 million, according to Steeltown Entertainment Project. This Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, founded in 2003, connects local filmmakers to entertainment-industry leaders with ties to this region. Steeltown is a major engine behind developing the region's film industry.

Also, film production also has been a boon for local actors' wallets. This summer, more than 500 extras were hired to populate a scene at PNC Park for Abduction.

Local production also gives non-union actors here the coveted chance to earn their Screen Actors Guild membership, says Pittsburgh-based casting director Nancy Mosser.

And some of the least glamorous jobs are the most lucrative: More than 100 Teamsters from Local 249 drove full-time for film productions in 2010, transporting supplies to the appropriate location.

People Power

Those truck drivers are part of the next step in growing the local film industry. Movie fans know all about the glamorous work done by actors and directors, but the reality is that a movie gets made by an army of people. Drivers, electricians, carpenters, seamstresses and a huge variety of crew members are vital to the process.

Over time, the Pittsburgh region has developed a reputation for having world-class film crews--another major reason why a growing amount of production is happening here. Hollywood crews save money without sacrificing quality by hiring locally rather than bringing a crew here and housing them during the shoot. Not every region that offers tax incentives can make the same promise.

It was 1968's Night of the Living Dead that first proved a movie made here with a local crew could capture enduring attention nationwide. It sparked the growth of training programs for technical staff that continues today, too.

The film's co-producer Russ Streiner, who's now chairman of the Pittsburgh Film Office, works closely with fellow Night of the Living Dead creator John Russo to train technical crew members at DuBois Business College in Clearfield County, Pa. And Tom Savini, the film's makeup whiz, now supervises the Special Makeup Effects Program at Douglas Education Center in Monessen.

As training opportunities and experience have grown, the unions involved in film production in the Pittsburgh area have, too.

And this region has another secret weapon: Solid training programs provide a wide pool of talent. Don Wadsworth, professor of voice and speech at Carnegie Mellon University, worked closely with leading actors Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy on the set of Warrior, which was shot here and is due out later this year. He coached these actors, one Australian and one British, to bring a Pennsylvania sound to their voices.

And he traveled to L.A. to take the California edge off Chris Pine's voice for Unstoppable, also set and shot here.

CMU's acting program has long had an impressive reputation. Blair Underwood, Holly Hunter, Zachary Quinto and Aaron Staton from "Mad Men" are among a long roster of its high-profile graduates.

When Hollywood filmmakers come to Pittsburgh to cast, "the directors are always impressed with what they see from the local actors," says Pittsburgh-based theatrical agent Deb Docherty. "They're pleasantly surprised."

But here's the rub: For the moment, those directors cast locally only for secondary roles and extras. Is it possible that will eventually change?

Hollywood on the Mon?

It's going to be a challenge, says Docherty, to convince Hollywood producers that they can find leading actors here in Pittsburgh. For now, local actors must leave and find success in New York or L.A. before getting cast in substantial roles in the A-list films that shoot in Pittsburgh.

Despite increasing production here, CMU still sends its graduating drama students to those cities for industry showcases. And currently, it's a similar experience for costumers and other designers--they can get a bit of experience on projects here but can't vie for major jobs until they've earned some credits in Hollywood.

But there are signs the tide is changing. Increasingly, says Nancy Mosser, actors with roots here are choosing to move home after stints in New York or L.A. because more work is available locally. They supplement work on feature films and TV episodes with commercials and corporate videos.

After nearly two decades of hiring actors for everything from Lorenzo's Oil to "The West Wing," Mosser says, "The past five years have been busier than ever."

So here's the key: In order to provide steady employment for the talented people who live and train here, filmmakers must be encouraged to produce their films here from start to finish, says Steeltown's co-founder Carl Kurlander.

"We have an opportunity to build a real industry," he says. "But you've got to have strategy for developing an overall film and TV and digital industry, which involves workforce development with training, making sure everybody is working together."

That includes state government, local government and business leaders in this region who can choose to invest in growing this industry.

It's also vital that Pennsylvania's tax-incentive program continues. "We just lost our governor, and we don't know what the new one's going to be doing about this," says Docherty. "We all have to sort of let our representatives know that we need to keep this going."

Kurlander is banking that it will happen. After building a successful career in Hollywood as writer of St. Elmo's Fire and producer of the TV show "Saved by the Bell," among other projects, he chose to move back to Pittsburgh several years ago and work toward building the local film industry. He has chronicled that experience in the film My Tale of Two Cities.
Kurlander points out that plenty of others are doing the same such as Lisa Smith, a former producer for VH-1 and MTV who recently returned to Pittsburgh, and Heide Waldbaum, a production manager on James Cameron's Avatar.

"These are people who really have all the talent and all the credits and all the ideas who are choosing to move to Pittsburgh," Kurlander says. "We've got to live up to it and make sure they have work to do."

There may be some perils during Pittsburgh's journey toward becoming an entertainment-industry mecca. But despite the challenges, perhaps the engine is unstoppable.

Melissa Rayworth writes about a mix of cultural issues--from sexual politics and popular culture to home design and parenting--for a variety of national news outlets, including The Associated Press, babble.com and salon.com.

Copyright 2011 WiesnerMedia. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan Wayne published on January 21, 2011 12:52 AM.

Hollyburgh: Pittsburgh's Film Scene Is On Fire was the previous entry in this blog.

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