The Next Page / Pittsburgh, the rising entertainment industry star
With interest in Pittsburgh already high, the city can become more of a capital for movies, TV and digital entertainment
August 10, 2014 12:00 AM
Russell Crowe on the set of 'Fathers & Daughters' in Pittsburgh.
Schenley grad and author Jesse Andrews.
J. Monroe Butler II/Post-Gazette
CMU graduate Zachary Quinto
Uptown company Savage Visual Effects worked on "The Fault in Our Stars," starring Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley.
By Carl Kurlander
I recently received some congratulations when LinkedIn announced the 11th anniversary of the Steeltown Entertainment Project, the nonprofit we formed to build a vibrant and sustainable entertainment industry in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Few could have foreseen 11 years ago that Pittsburgh would become a go-to destination for Hollywood films and a center for innovative, homegrown productions. The city is playing a starring role thanks to the efforts of many, including legislators who passed competitive tax credits, great local crews and the Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania film offices. The surge also has been fueled by a group of civic leaders and passionate Pittsburgh expats who shared Steeltown late co-founder Ellen Weiss Kander's belief that Pittsburgh has what it takes to become a world-class player in the film, television and digital media industries and that "entertainment could become Pittsburgh's new steel."
In Los Angeles last year, Steeltown moderated a Producers Guild of America panel discussion called "Beyond Hollywood: The Promise of Regional Production Centers." We could not have predicted then that not only would every panel member -- "300" producer Bernie Goldmann, "Promised Land" producer Chris Moore and Film Finance Co-Chairman and Lionsgate producer John Dellaverson -- be part of projects that would film in Pittsburgh this year but that the region would be on track for a record year of moviemaking.
This all raises the question: Just how far can this go? What will the next decade look like, and what can we do as a region to make sure that entertainment is a vibrant and sustainable industry here for years to come?
First, let's look at some of what has been happening here recently:
■ In the spring, Russell Crowe, who shot "The Next Three Days" here with Lionsgate in 2009, was back for a new movie, "Fathers & Daughters," in which Pittsburgh stands in for New York.
■ Antoine Fuqua, who grew up in Homewood and went to Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, is directing "Southpaw," a boxing movie produced by The Weinstein Co. that filmed in Indiana County and Downtown this summer. The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, who was here with "Love and Other Drugs" a few years ago.
■ Mr. Goldmann, a Squirrel Hill native and Allderdice alumnus, is back this summer filming "The Last Witch Hunter," a Lionsgate film starring Vin Diesel. It is using 31st Street Studios in the Strip District.
■ Steelers co-owner and Legendary Pictures Chairman Thomas Tull, whose "The Dark Knight Rises" turned Mellon Institute into Gotham City Hall, hoped to shoot one of his new films, "Brilliance," here this summer. But Will Smith dropped out of the project at the last minute to star in "Game Brain," a film based on University of Pittsburgh writing professor Jeanne Marie Laskas' GQ article about the Allegheny County pathologist who helped discover the concussion-related brain injuries of Steeler Mike Webster.
■ The old Pittsburgh Schenley High School in Oakland was reopened for "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," the novel-turned-film by Schenley graduate Jesse Andrews. Filming also has occurred at Mr. Andrews' old house in Point Breeze. This is Mr. Andrews' first screenplay, but he told me that his agent already had him meet about another project with fellow author and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" writer/director Stephen Chbosky. Mr. Chbosky, an Upper St. Clair native who filmed "Perks" here, has said that he hopes to shoot his follow-up project in his hometown.
■ Mr. Moore, the "Promised Land" producer whose credits also include "Good Will Hunting" and "American Pie," produced "The Chair," a new series on the Starz network that follows two directors making different movies in Pittsburgh from the same script. The series will showcase this region as an emerging filmmaking center.
Teaming with Mr. Moore as producers were Steeltown, Point Park University, the Pittsburgh Innovative Media Incubator (a WQED/Steeltown venture) and Before the Door Productions, a venture of Green Tree native and Carnegie Mellon University graduate Zachary Quinto (Spock in "Star Trek") and his business partners, CMU alumni Neal Dodson and Corey Moosa.
■ The Pittsburgh Innovative Media Incubator also produced "The Next Reality Star: Pittsburgh" with the collaboration of MTV's "Made" producer Bob Kusbit. The project led to a new series, "Farm Queens," which will air on the Great American Country channel this fall.
■ The Fred Rogers Co., which recently won three Daytime Emmys for its animated series "Peg + Cat," has another show, "Odd Squad," coming to PBS this fall. (It should be noted that Schell Games, a Station Square company, did much of the Web presence for the "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" series.
■ If you watched "House of Cards" and "The Fault in Our Stars," you saw visual special effects created by Savage Visual Effects, an Uptown company co-founded by CMU alumnus James Pastorius.
■ Mt. Lebanon native and CMU graduate Joe Manganiello, ("True Blood" and "Magic Mike") was in town in June, when "La Bare," his documentary about male exotic dancers, played at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont. He and his brother, Nick, have a production company with several projects in development that they would like to film in Pittsburgh.
■ And there is a new generation here of emerging filmmakers leveraging the technology disruption that allows films, TV shows and Web series to be made and distributed from anywhere.
For example, "Pittsburgh Dad" filmmaker Chris Preksta is working on a feature version of his Web series. Point Park alumni Madeline Puzzo and Mark Christian are in post-production on their feature, "Cardinal Matter." Another Point Park graduate, Bailey Donovan, who co-produced the Sundance short "The Immaculate Reception" (written and directed by Pittsburgh's Charlotte Glynn), is filming his first micro-budget feature, "Back for Good," here.
Where is this all heading?
Is this all show-biz hype, or what real impact can this have on the local economy? How can we as a region make sure that the impact is deep and sustainable?
■ Workforce development. While Pittsburgh already has great crews that have attracted repeat business from studios and production companies, how can Pittsburgh grow its workforce so even more of the behind-the-scenes talent comes from this region? A recent article in The Economist said some growing movie centers, such as Atlanta, are struggling to find skilled labor to keep up with productions. Pittsburgh has many universities, arts organizations and high school science, technology, engineering, arts and math programs that could help train and produce workers for years to come and fill the jobs that these projects will bring.
■ Tax credits. When Steeltown started, few in the public knew about the tax incentives that were building regional industries in Canada, New Mexico and Louisiana. Pittsburgh found out how essential these incentives are the hard way, losing George Romero's "Land of the Dead" a decade ago. To keep people employed year round, it is vital that the state tax credits are increased significantly.
■ Regional entertainment fund. Decades back, when the region needed to incentivize folks to redevelop brownfields, civic leaders established strategic investment funds that helped drive some of the key real-estate developments we have today. People here and in Los Angeles have proposed creating such a fund to give low-interest loans to film and TV projects and entertainment and gaming companies. In some cases, the fund would invest in film, TV and digital media projects created in Pittsburgh. This fund would help drive a steady stream of projects to the region to ensure the crews and companies remain employed year round.
Hollywood studios don't care where the films and TV shows get shot, largely because they know the real money is in owning the underlying rights that they can exploit internationally. Imagine if Pittsburgh had invested in Andy Warhol paintings and August Wilson plays. Yes, it is a risky business, but in the end, that is what generates the biggest profits. It is time for Pittsburgh to invest in the talent it has helped incubate, so Pittsburgh can get a real return on its investment.
■ Post-production. How can Pittsburgh grab more of the post-production, which traditionally has been captured in cities such as New York and Los Angeles? If Pittsburgh invests in projects, it will have leverage to require that more work be done locally and that post-production, which is often shipped out, stays here.
The entertainment industry is changing radically in the digital age. No one knows where it will be in 10 years. But given all of Pittsburgh's resources, with a strategic approach putting this all together, there is a good chance that we may be able to lead the digital age in a way we once did the industrial. Whether movies are still playing at theaters (after all, Nickelodeons started in Pittsburgh) or being beamed to our Google Glasses, chances are that a good portion of the content being consumed more than ever will be "made in Pittsburgh."
Carl Kurlander (email@example.com) is president and CEO of Steeltown Entertainment Project on the South Side. He is also a senior lecturer in the University of Pittsburgh English Department.
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