Pittsburgh goes Hollywood

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If I were to describe for you a city whose name had become synonymous with the manufacturing of a certain product but then, abruptly, because of technological advances and economic incentives provided elsewhere, was humbled by a creative disruption that seemed to change everything, what city would you think of?

Pittsburgh and the steel industry?

Or maybe Hollywood and the film business over the past few years.

Ironically, while Pennsylvania legislators recently debated whether to uncap the state's $60 million annual limit on film tax credits (they didn't), in Los Angeles Steven Spielberg predicted the imminent "implosion" of the Hollywood film industry and TV and film producers at the annual Producers Guild of America conference lamented the demise of the Hollywood-based entertainment business. Even the Los Angeles Times chimed in with coverage that included the headline "Gold Rush Out of L.A. In Search of Tax Credits," with a lead sentence that read, "Californians, beware: Film producers are increasingly sizing up rivals in emerging regional production centers outside of Hollywood, from Pittsburgh to Atlanta."

I must confess some complicity in the Times story, having moderated a panel at the Producers Guild's conference entitled "Beyond Hollywood: The Promise Of Regional Production Centers," using my hometown of Pittsburgh as an example. With Lionsgate producer John Dellaverson, "300" producer Bernie Goldmann and "American Pie" and "Promised Land" producer Chris Moore, we described how southwestern Pennsylvania not only had attracted films like "Dark Knight Rises," "Jack Reacher," "Promised Land" and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," but also is becoming an emerging player in the entertainment industry by developing innovative models for co-financing film and TV shows and growing its own talent pool.

Rapid changes in technology and new platforms such as Netflix and others also have had an impact. But while Hollywood always has struggled with technological changes, now we are living in an age of opportunity in which the means of making films have never been more democratic and the consumption of media is at an all-time high.

On our panel we explained how this is playing out in southwestern Pennsylvania.

For example, "Blood Brother," the winner of the Grand Jury and Audience awards at Sundance Film Festival, was made on a shoestring budget by two young documentary filmmakers in Pittsburgh. Chris Preksta's Web series, "Pittsburgh Dad," has attracted more than 10 million views and is shot entirely on his iPhone. Emmy Award-winning producer Bob Kusbit is working on "Pittsburgh's Next Reality Star" with the WQED-Steeltown Incubator, which will give southwestern Pennsylvania part ownership in the show and any intellectual property that arises from it.

Film tax credits have had the greatest influence on the exodus from California. As recently pointed out by Pittsburgh Film Office Director Dawn Keezer, since Pennsylvania's film tax credit became competitive in 2007, the Pittsburgh region has seen 50 feature film and television productions shot here and almost $500 million in spending.

However, when the annual $60 million in tax credits is used up, which now happens well before the end of Pennsylvania's budget year, productions go elsewhere. If Pennsylvania at some point joins the 12 states that have uncapped tax credits, the numbers of film and TV shows filming here, and the resulting economic impact, would increase significantly and create even more jobs in our film industry. There already are 18,000.

But while tax credits are essential, if regions like Pittsburgh aspire to build truly thriving film and TV production industries, they have to invest in the talent, workforce and infrastructure to support them from the ground up.

They'll invest in creating content, too, as that's where the big money lies. Just ask one of the leading entertainment companies, Comcast, which now owns NBC and Universal and is headquartered in Philadelphia. Like Comcast, other outlets and studios don't care where content comes from.

Tyler Perry now makes all his movies and TV shows in Atlanta and Robert Rodriguez makes his films in Austin, building on the tradition of media pioneers like Fred Rogers and George Romero, both of whom produced films and TV shows in Pittsburgh. (Even former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is joining the club, becoming CEO of a Christian film studio based in Dallas, Texas.)

How does all this reflect Steven Spielberg's forecast that the Hollywood film industry will "implode"? Mr. Spielberg was talking about the lack of focus in Hollywood today on developing original voices, on betting on the new.

People like Chris Moore, whose two most successful movies -- "Good Will Hunting" and "American Pie" -- grew from Boston and Michigan, respectively, believe that while Hollywood will not fade away anytime soon, regional entertainment production centers will come into their own, which is healthy for the industry. Should the Legislature uncap Pennsylvania's film tax credit in the future, Pittsburgh could become the Hollywood of the East (excluding perhaps New York) and a major force in the television shows and movies we all watch.

How poetic it would be if Pittsburgh, which knows a little about how an industry can be disrupted by competition, were to take advantage of new technology, economic incentives and lagging creativity in Hollywood to make entertainment our new steel. What once seemed like something out of a movie suddenly seems closer than ever to becoming Pittsburgh's reality.


Carl Kurlander is a screenwriter ("St. Elmo's Fire"), TV writer/producer ("Saved By the Bell") and president/CEO of Steeltown Entertainment Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to build a sustainable entertainment industry in southwestern Pennsylvannia (www.steeltown.org).


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