Cast and crew on "American Pastoral," including director Ewan McGregor (center back), prepare between takes on the North Side.
By Barbara Vancheri / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It didn’t take a win in Cleveland and a loss in Buffalo, just a stroke of the pen to put Pittsburgh back on the TV and film playing field.
Letters for multiple TV and film projects have gone out to studios and production companies to give the go-ahead for tax credits for the 2015-16 year. That clears the way for a second season of “Outsiders,” if the WGN original series premiering Jan. 26 is renewed, along with other high-profile productions still to be announced.
“Outsiders” follows an Appalachian family living off the grid and above the law on a Kentucky mountaintop homestead. The series, shot here in the summer, used Millvale as a stand-in for a small town at the foot of the mountains. Sets were built at the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh’s Henry Kaufmann Family Park in Monroeville, with stage work at 31st Street Studios.
Filming of “Downward Dog,” an ABC half-hour comedy pilot starring Allison Tolman and a mixed-breed pup, wrapped in December. It was created by Pittsburgh’s Samm Hodges and Michael Killen of Animal Inc., Downtown, as a Web series, and it’s much too early to know whether it will be picked up as a television series.
“We’re set up to have one of the best years we’ve had in Pittsburgh, and we’re thrilled that Gov. Wolf and Secretary Davin were able to get signed commitment letters out as soon as they could, because we’ve all been waiting,” Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, said Monday.
Dennis Davin is Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development secretary. Gov. Tom Wolf last week signed off on $23.4 billion that includes financial relief for school districts, social service providers and county governments, and the partial budget triggered the approval letters, a spokesman said.
The budget standoff is now in its seventh month, but the bottleneck no longer is blocking TV or film projects that want to set up shop in Western Pennsylvania.
“Last week, DCED approved projects under the Film Tax Credit program. Once a project is approved, they will receive a commitment letter from DCED but will not receive the tax credits until the work is completed and DCED receives an economic impact report and audit for each project that is awarded a tax credit,” explained Lyndsay Kensinger, director of communications for Pennsylvania DCED.
The stalemate already cost Pittsburgh “American Gods,” the Starz series based on Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel. Fremantle Media, the production company, would have opened offices here in December for a shoot beginning in early 2016; that project is gone, but others received the financial green light for tax credits that have become essential for many projects.
“We lost that work due to the budget impasse, which was disheartening and disappointing,” Ms. Keezer said, adding that she was thrilled that the new letters have gone out. She declined to be specific, deferring as usual to producers announcing their projects, but said, “It’s a mix of television and feature films, and people are going to be really excited when it’s all announced.”
Ask any producer what brought him or her to Pittsburgh and the tax credit is one of the attractions.
“Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania are top of mind for anyone deciding where they’re filming right now. And it’s because of our talented crew. It’s because of our successful film tax credit program, and people have realized they can come to southwestern Pennsylvania and get the look they want, get the work done they want, and they tell all their friends,” she said by phone.
“People keep coming back and back and back, and that’s what we encourage and welcome. The fact that we’re now being successful in the TV arena is great, too, and if we could keep the film tax credit program at a level that doesn’t require a shutdown every time there’s a budget impasse — delaying approval — you would see this work happening year-round in an even bigger way.”
Lakeshore Entertainment, for instance, first came to the Pittsburgh area for “The Mothman Prophecies,” returned for “One for the Money” with Katherine Heigl and then in fall 2015 with “American Pastoral,” starring and directed by Ewan McGregor but with no release date yet.
One of Ms. Keezer’s goals is to make the film-TV tax credit program a multi-year one, possibly by the 2016-17 budget approval. “We have support from both sides of the aisle … but the budget impasse took up everybody’s time and energy.”
Four years ago, “Jack Reacher” executive producer Jake Myers talked to a meeting of the Pennsylvania Film Industry Association in Pittsburgh and said, in an ideal situation, state leaders build longevity into their tax credits. That creates a sense of security among producers weighing one state against another.
Today, Pittsburgh often finds itself competing against New York, Georgia and Louisiana along with Canada, which has re-emerged as a strong contender due to its incentives and the exchange rate favoring Americans.
TV writer Rob Owen contributed. Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.
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