Actor Quinto, local groups back 'The Chair' film project



Two movies, two directors, same subject, very different result.

It's been known to happen: competing films about asteroids, Wyatt Earp, Truman Capote and Christopher Columbus have been released back-to-back, and two films about Hercules will open in the next six months.

But what if two different movies were shot from the same script -- in Pittsburgh, no less -- and viewers got to watch the entire moviemaking process from start to finish?

And vote on which one they liked better?

That's the premise behind "The Chair," a new 10-part television series that will follow two young directors, each with an $850,000 budget, as each shoots a film about young college students coming home to Pittsburgh for their first Thanksgiving break.

While this sounds an awful lot like a reality show, it isn't, said one of the producers, Zachary Quinto, the acclaimed young actor -- and Green Tree native -- who took a day off from performing on Broadway in "The Glass Menagerie" to return to Pittsburgh Monday to promote the project.

"The language is important. This is a documentary about something worthwhile that is being created," Mr. Quinto said in an interview at Clear Story Studio on the South Side, where a launch party and presentation was held for investors. "We are not faking anything," added Chris Moore, a seasoned Hollywood producer and lead backer on the project who gave a presentation about why Pittsburgh was selected as the site for the show.

As Mayor Bill Peduto, Family Communications Inc. president Bill Isler, Grant Oliphant of The Pittsburgh Foundation and Cathy Lewis of the Sprout Fund looked on, Mr. Moore explained that economics were one factor -- "Pennsylvania has a nice tax credit for film production companies," he said. But while Mr. Moore was overseeing the production here of the film "Promised Land," he discovered a large talented film production community already in place -- and the allure of Pittsburgh itself.

"It's beautiful here," he said.

Mr. Moore said the series would be broadcast on "a premium cable channel," yet to be announced.

Mr. Moore starred in the hit HBO series "Project Greenlight" with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Carl Kurlander, an indefatigable booster of Pittsburgh and president and CEO of Steeltown Entertainment Project, described him as a longtime adviser who helped bring the 2012 film "Promised Land," with Matt Damon and John Krasinski, here.

Besides being one of the producers on that film, Mr. Moore was also a producer on "Good Will Hunting" and "American Pie." Mr. Kurlander, he said, helped him see the possibilities of the region as a center not just for films but television production.

With added financial support from Steeltown, Point Park University -- which has a well-known film school -- and WQED/Steeltown Incubator, the series will start shooting in early February.

The two directors have been selected. One is Anna Martemucci, a State College-based writer and actress, who wrote the script for an independent film, "Breakup at a Wedding," produced by Mr. Quinto. Her fellow director and rival on the show will be Shane Dawson of Los Angeles, who has between 7 million and 9 million subscribers on his YouTube website and has already developed a pilot for NBC.

The two directors will receive plenty of mentoring from Mr. Quinto, who starred as Mr. Spock in the recent reboot of the "Star Trek" film franchise, and who has received raves for his performance as Tom Wingfield in the Tennessee Williams play now on Broadway. He and two fellow CMU classmates, Corey Moosa and Neal Dodson, have created a media production company, Before the Door -- named for a famous acting exercise at CMU's drama school -- that has been involved in such films as "All Is Lost " with Robert Redford and "Margin Call."

While "The Chair" may not be a reality show per se, it should be noted that Pittsburgh is currently the setting for two of them: "Dance Moms" is filmed in Penn Hills, "Farm Kings" in Butler County. At any rate, "The Chair" is all part of the region's emergence as a major film and television production center in recent years, said Mr. Kurlander.

Last summer, there was a bit of a flap when it was revealed that the project received $225,000 in money from Allegheny County's Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund, which is funded by casino taxes. Pennsylvania requires 55 percent of a casino's profits to be paid to the state, and a small portion of that state money goes, in turn, to the Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund.

Then-county council member Matt Drozd objected to using casino money for film production instead of, he argued, bricks-and-mortar projects that create long-term jobs.

Mr. Drozd is no longer in office, but Eric Montarti, senior policy analyst at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, still wonders if a reality television show shot in Pittsburgh will generate the same benefits as money used for infrastructure improvements.

Mr. Peduto seems to think so.

"It's exciting because it has the potential to boost a region that is already welcoming to film production, with lots of homegrown expertise already here," he said. "A show like this can raise our profile nationally and internationally."

Mr. Kurlander said the project's backers went to Allegheny County for funding "because we felt this project could be a game-changer," noting that Steeltown chalked up a success when it partnered with Margaret Loesch and The Hatchery in raising money for R.L. Stine's "The Haunting Hour: Don't Think About It," which is now making a profit.

With Point Park's film school students as a resource along with an existing community of seasoned film professionals, "The Chair" will get all the help it needs -- and give back some.

"Steeltown has always felt that Pittsburgh needs to invest in the talent it nurtures, and this project is a way to do that," said Mr. Kurlander.

Mackenzie Carpenter, mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.


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