Pittsburgh sees resurgence of activity in movies, television
September 5, 2007 4:00 AM
VWH Campbell Jr./Post-Gazette
Mike Wittlin, president and chief executive officer of Smithfield Street Productions, watches scenes and makes notes at his office in Green Tree.
By Timothy McNulty Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Film producer Mike Wittlin used to have an office in a back lot at Universal Studios in Los Angeles before trading it in last year a new one in Green Tree.
Driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, rather than a Hollywood studio's front gates, is not the usual route to movie success. But Mr. Wittlin, like a growing number of TV and film producers, has returned to the city, sparking talk that Pittsburgh may be within striking distance of its 1990s movie-making heyday.
"As much fun as that was -- and it doesn't get more Hollywood than driving around in your own golf cart in a back lot -- you can't find a better back lot than Pittsburgh," Mr. Wittlin said. "Every neighborhood, everything you could possibly want is right here. You couldn't recreate stuff here if you wanted. The whole look and feel of the city is great."
Pittsburgh scored its latest coup on the movie front with Miramax Pictures' "Adventureland," a film by "Superbad" director Greg Mottola, a Carnegie Mellon University grad. Spike TV's "Kill Point" filmed around the city for two months this summer, and Groundswell Productions filmed both "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Smart People" here last year.
The momentum has been aided by state film tax credits the General Assembly approved in July, a deep talent pool of local actors and film crews, and boosterism from the publicly funded Pittsburgh Film Office and private groups such as Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Steeltown Entertainment.
It is getting people to reminisce about film productions a decade or so ago, when Pittsburgh hosted "Striking Distance," "Silence of the Lambs" "Sudden Death" and other films.
"The last couple years have really started to change back to the way they used to be in the '90s," said Nancy Mosser, who owns Nancy Mosser Casting, Downtown, and has been in the business since 1990. "It's really feeling hot now again."
Membership in the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 489, which represents electricians, lighting designers, wardrobe and special effects experts, carpenters and others vital to the production business, has jumped from 120 a few years ago to nearly 200, said Local 489 business manager Jean-Pierre Nutini. That's enough to support two large productions at once, but not quite enough to handle three, which was doable when the local's membership peaked at 250 in the 1990s.
Mr. Nutini is hoping more some of the film workers who left town looking for greener pastures will return to take advantage of the upswing. The same goes for movie productions themselves.
"We're spreading the good word around, so more people come," said Mr. Nutini, a 53-year-old gaffer -- lighting and rigging expert -- from Squirrel Hill. "We have the reputation for a hard-working town that can fill all departments."
Mr. Wittlin, a Mt. Lebanon native who runs Smithfield St. Productions in Green Tree with three partners, shot the drama "Bridge to Nowhere" with stars Ving Rhames and Blair Underwood here this spring. They are submitting the film to the Sundance Film Festival this month and are not yet sure if it will see theatrical release or go straight to DVD.
Smithfield's next Pittsburgh-based production, "Tremble," is a thriller penned by Larry Charles.
Budgets for Smithfield's films are typically in the $2 million range, Mr. Wittlin said, which are large enough to land known actors and require union sets. Pittsburgh also is increasingly home to smaller productions that also go the DVD route, after getting made on a shoestring.
Winter Morning Pictures starts shooting "Trapped" Friday with stars Corbin Bernsen ("L.A. Law," "Major League") and Pittsburgh's Tom Atkins. The crime drama is written by Gavin Rapp, who will also direct, using a small crew of a dozen people. Mr. Rapp, who has experience with corporate videos and commercials, will also edit the film himself.
"Our model is we want to prove Pittsburgh has a pool of talent and money. We can write the story and do everything from soup to nuts," he said.
Mike McGovern of Bloomfield shot "Carmilla's Kiss" over about 11 days last summer with borrowed cameras and other equipment in a vacant house in Gibsonia. The budget was about $70,000. After a premiere Sept. 7, he's hoping to get it into film festivals before releasing it on DVD.
Mr. McGovern's film is not the kind of economy-boosting production that gets help from the Pittsburgh Film Office, or even much attention in the press. But he didn't ask for help either, preferring to do things on his own terms.
"What are we going to do, need Fifth Avenue to be closed? We're not quite that big," he said.