The Next Page: Pittsburgh -- we can make it here
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What changes a city?
How do you build a thriving economic sector? What tilts a city at a tipping point to live up to its full and glorious potential?
Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
Lions Gate producer John Dellaverson is a Hollywood bigshot. A University of Pittsburgh alum who is still in touch with his New Castle roots, he came to town last month to speak to my students at Pitt and also meet with people eager to create a film business here. John talked with Gov. Ed Rendell and other leaders about the need for film tax incentives, because those who work in the industry know -- while they seem like an indulgence to many citizens -- they're absolutely essential in the cutthroat, migratory film business.
But while John confirmed the enormous benefits of these incentives to a regional economy, he knew that this was only part of creating a sustainable, thriving entertainment industry.
As he went to numerous meetings and saw and heard about the many resources in this region -- the universities, WQED, the Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Civic Light Opera, etc. -- he repeated what other expatriates who visited have said: There is great potential here -- but someone has got to sew all this up. Someone has to get everything to work together to transform these nonprofit resources into a lucrative business.
So what is the answer? At the risk of oversimplification, I state it in three words:
Invest in talent.
OPPORTUNITIES PAST AND PRESENT
If you look at Pittsburgh's two greatest successes -- its predominance in the industrial age and its current ascent in the medical arena -- you can see clear illustrations on how investing in talent is what made the difference.
A hundred years ago, this was the Silicon Valley of the Industrial Revolution. We talk about the importance of keeping young people here, but back then if you were 22-year-old Charles Hall with an idea about the process for making aluminum or 21-year-old George Westinghouse with the idea for an air brake, you came to Pittsburgh to get your ideas funded.
Too often people look at these past successes as inevitable. They forget the risk involved which led to Pittsburgh becoming perhaps the richest city in the world in 1905.
And the same holds true for our predominance today in medicine. After World War II, the University of Pittsburgh had a decent if unremarkable medical school. As case in point, in 1941, when the March of Dimes was giving out research money to institutions around the country, they gave to researchers in New York City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Los Angeles, but no money came to the University of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh's business and philanthropic leaders, however, decided that the steel industry would not last forever and gave $26 million to medical-related programs at the University of Pittsburgh, which attracted talent such as a 33-year-old doctor named Jonas Salk. He was able to assemble a talented young team, including Dr. Julius Youngner, who had previously worked on the Manhattan Project. The Pitt team managed to conquer last century's most feared disease -- polio.
True, Pittsburgh was unable to retain Dr. Salk, who went to California to start the Salk Institute in San Diego, where the biotech industry then took off. But that initial investment in medicine has paid off handsomely, as anyone who follows the achievements and revenues of UPMC will attest. UPMC has been able to organize what was once a disorganized sector and make it more efficient, attract and retain talent, invest in research -- and then export the resulting intellectual property.
The same approach should be done in what we in Pittsburgh call "the arts" -- but which people in Hollywood refer to as "the business."
IF YOU ARE TALENTED, DO YOU HAVE TO LEAVE PITTSBURGH?
Recently, in filming "My Pittsburgh: A Tale of Two Cities," a documentary about Pittsburgh reinventing itself, I got to talk to one of Andy Warhol's nephews, Marty Warhola, who works in a family scrap metal business not far from the Warhol Museum. I asked Marty what would have happened if his Uncle Andy had never left Pittsburgh. Marty, who has his uncle's engaging smile, paused and said that he would probably have gone into the family produce business.
But then he conceded that his uncle was a genius, and surely he would have figured out something.
Ironically, Andy Warhol learned to draw because of the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, at his museums and at the college which bears his name. And he is one of scores of talented people who have come from this region.
What other city has produced the likes of Andy Warhol, Gene Kelly, August Wilson and literally hundreds more who have gone on to make a name and fortunes for themselves and those who have invested in their talent elsewhere? This is not a coincidence. It is a legacy left to us by the foundations of the industrial titans that help to provide an unusually rich cultural life to this city.
When he was nominated for his Academy Award for directing "Chicago," Rob Marshall told the Post-Gazette he would like to thank Pittsburgh for providing him an incredible buffet of the arts growing up, "the symphony, opera, ballet, Public Theater, Civic Light Opera, great old movie houses." The question becomes: Do you have to take the buffet "to go" to make your dreams come true? (One notable exception is Fred Rogers, and even he went to work at NBC in New York before coming back here to do children's television.)
INVESTING IN TALENT
Imagine for a moment: What this city would be like if local investors had bet on "Pippin," which Stephen Schwartz wrote while attending Carnegie Mellon; or the plays of August Wilson which, though set in Pittsburgh, were all initially staged elsewhere; or "Lizzie McGuire," the TV series created by Mt. Lebanon native Terri Minksy; or the recent show "Heartland" about the world of transplant surgery, which fellow Mt. Lebo grad David Hollander set in Pittsburgh?
"Night of the Living Dead," made here in 1968, cost under $120,000 to produce and grossed what some estimated at $30 million. But producer Russ Streiner once told a film class of mine that when he and George Romero went to the banks to get financing for their follow-up films, they were told that the bank "didn't give loans to movies or gas stations." The irony of course is that both the movie theater and the gas station were invented in Pittsburgh.
Make no mistake -- investing in entertainment content is risky. It depends highly on access to distribution. Like oil wells, only a few of the many pay off. But in this day where the entertainment industry makes more than the steel and the automobile industry, it is an area for this region to take seriously.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
So what is to be done?
1) Pass the film incentive legislation. And please make sure you talk to end users who know the industry like John Dellaverson, Squirrel Hill native and producer Bernie Goldmann ("300") and Churchill native and manager Eric Gold (Jim Carrey). They have all have made efforts to bring projects back here.
2) Take intellectual property seriously. There are many opportunities here if we just develop them. For instance, the Disney production "High School Musical" has sold 7.2 million DVDs, spawning a touring show and even a Disney on Ice version. But we could have done a reality version of this show that might have been equally successful.
The Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High Musical Theater have been around for almost two decades. A couple of years ago, I went to my first awards ceremony at the Benedum and was bowled over by the combination of talent and high spirits. It left me convinced that there was a TV show there.
In my Hollywood days, I would have gone to a studio and pitched it. But this being Pittsburgh, I worked with Van Kaplan of the Civic Light Opera and WQED's Deb Acklin and filmed a half-hour, zero-budget TV show, using a crew of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon students.
The end product was good enough to air on WQED. But if there had been serious investment in this idea, instead of the current Disney "High School Musical" mania, kids across this country might have been watching Pittsburgh teenagers behind the scenes at high school musicals.
3) Bring the talent back. As part of "A Tale of Two Cities," working with the PG's Chris Rawson, we asked those from Pittsburgh who worked on Broadway and in Hollywood to assemble in Times Square and in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, respectively. Remarkably, in each case, literally hundreds of people showed up -- people who grew up in the Pittsburgh region, went to school here, worked at WQED, etc. (See www.thepittsburghmovie.com.) Pittsburgh has done a great job incubating talent. But we must find a way to get these people to bring their creativity back.
To that end, listening to many of these expatriates, the Steeltown Entertainment Project is now trying to launch the Steeltown Film Factory where those with a track record of success in film and television would mentor emerging talent to help produce shorts films about Pittsburgh. (See www.steeltown.org.)
4) Invest in emerging talent (i.e. young people). The entertainment business attracts and is often driven by the efforts of young people. I was 24 when I wrote the screenplay for "St. Elmo's Fire." The 35-year-old head of the studio said I should go back to Pittsburgh and raise the money for the film. I didn't do that, so Columbia pictures bet $10 million on a film that made $60 million worldwide and many times over that on DVD and elsewhere.
WHAT PITTSBURGH NEEDS MOST OF ALL IS A HIT
-- a film, a TV show, an Internet company to take off. But to get that hit, we must do what people in Hollywood and Silicon Valley do and what has worked here in the past with manufacturing and medicine -- take a variety of bets on talented people with good ideas. Growing a sector requires:
Mentoring from experienced professionals who have a track record of success.
Exposure to an entrepreneurial community who knows calculated risks are what it takes to launch an idea.
Venture capital to make sure that idea happens in a timely way and has exposure to the markets.
One of the most memorable moments of "A Tale of Two Cities" for me was when I went shopping with Teresa Heinz Kerry in the Strip District. One of her famous quotes is, "Places become what people dream. Dream big." When I asked her what Pittsburgh needed to move into the future, she said an "infusion of dreamers."
If we invest wisely in all the talent this city has to offer, we can make dreams come true right here in Pittsburgh.
First Published June 23, 2007 6:03 am