Pittsburgh's budding screenwriters make their pitches at Steeltown Film Factory


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The plot line for the Steeltown Film Factory remains the same, with fledgling filmmakers writing screenplays judged by Hollywood players with Pittsburgh ties. But the character development of the competition itself, now in its fourth year, is growing stronger, much like the group that organizes it.

Filmmakers submitted more than 250 scripts to Steeltown that script readers in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and New York City cut down to 12 quarterfinalists. The dozen hopefuls had to pitch their scripts to three panelists Saturday, and after rewrites five of them will move on to the semifinals next month.

Last year's winner, Carnegie Mellon University student Yulin Kuang, had her short film "The Perils of Growing Up Flat Chested" screened last month at Lionsgate studios. The film by second-place finisher Chris Preksta, best known for directing the "Pittsburgh Dad" shorts, was picked up by a Web production studio founded by Disney chief Michael Eisner.

This year's crop of stories -- including one about a grief-stricken boy counting all of Allegheny County's bridges, another about a woman who falls in love with a robot, and a comedy by WDVE-FM disc jockey Randy Baumann -- is next in line. Steeltown itself has high hopes for where it is going as a leading promoter of the Pittsburgh film industry.

Screenwriter Carl Kurlander co-founded the group in 2003 and has helped build its profile by bringing fellow Pittsburgh expats back to the city to act as Film Factory judges. Over the years they have included names such as "Good Will Hunting" producer Chris Moore and "Two and Half Men" director James Widdoes. On Saturday, the judges were Rusty Cundieff, the "Fear of a Black Hat" actor-director; screenplay consultant Asher Garfinkel and film editor Doug Crise, a Smithton native and 1990 University of Pittsburgh grad whose latest film is the acclaimed "Spring Breakers" by Harmony Korine.

The film competition, Mr. Kurlander said, "brings the talent back and brings the community together."

The city cannot depend on Pennsylvania's film tax credits alone to attract movies anymore -- the $60 million in credits offered statewide is gobbled up immediately, and many states offer such incentives. Similar to the way Steeltown fosters budding screenwriters, it is now looking at fundraising partnerships to seed long-term production work around the city.

"Pittsburgh can be a hub. We talk about the life sciences, the eds and meds -- entertainment has the ability to be the new industry here," said Shawn Fox, a Steeltown board member and Oxford Development Co. executive.

In the meantime, the film competition goes on. The panelists widely praised all 12 of the scripts -- which were chosen blindly without the writer's names affixed -- with especially kind words for "Two Thousand Bridges," by Carnegie Mellon graduate student Laci Corridor, about a boy who counts bridges after his father dies in war; "My Date With Adam," by Dennis Schebetta, a Carnegie Mellon School of Drama staffer, about a wedding planner who falls for the perfect guy (unfortunately, a robot); and "Meet-Cute" by Brandon Clemens of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, about a perplexed man who meets the perfect girl at a speed-dating event.

Mr. Baumann's "Tire Stem Sushi" is about a guy who parks illegally in the Strip District to pick up sausages for a Steelers tailgate and suspects his tires are slashed by a sushi chef. Panelists pressed him to work on the ending but praised his dialogue.

"There's a lot of funny stuff in here. Writing funny can sometimes be hard," said Mr. Cundieff, a director on two dozen episodes of "Chappelle's Show."

Mr. Garfinkel said his half-Japanese script reader loved the "Sushi" script.

Five winners will be announced later to move on to the second round April 20. The winning scriptwriters will be chosen at the Film Factory finale May 11 and awarded a trip to Hollywood to meet with Steeltown advisers, as well as up to $30,000 to make their film in Pittsburgh.

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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