The decision by Lionsgate Entertainment to film the upcoming eight-hour Spike TV series "The Kill Pit" in Pittsburgh next year could be just the beginning of a relationship between the company and the region.
At the moment, "Kill Pit" is the only Lionsgate project slated to shoot locally, but this small, scrappy independent television production company took similar initial baby steps in New Mexico, first filming the ABC Family series "Wildfire" there.
"Wildfire" is now filming its third season in Rio Rancho, N.M., and other Lionsgate projects followed, including the feature film "Employee of the Month" and the December Sci Fi Channel mini-series "The Lost Room," which is partially set in Pittsburgh and was created by three Carnegie Mellon University graduates, Christopher Leone, Paul Workman and Pittsburgh native Laura Karkcom. Lionsgate considered filming "Lost Room" here, but settled on Albuquerque due to economic reasons.
"The incentive program wasn't here and we couldn't figure out how to afford to bring the product here," said Gary Goodman, Lionsgate executive vice president of television production.
For "The Kill Pit," Lionsgate is using new state incentives that issue production companies up to $2 million per project from a $10 million annual grant program, after 60 percent of the filming expenses are incurred in Pennsylvania. Gov. Ed Rendell met with Lionsgate personnel to help woo them to the city and issued them an extra $100,000 in development funds to cover start-up costs.
The state's Department of Community and Economic Development secretary, Dennis Yablonsky, met with Lionsgate officials yesterday afternoon to discuss bringing more work in.
"We'll be chatting with them about what other opportunities might exist after this series is complete, and to see if we can build a long-term relationship with these guys," Yablonsky said.
Kevin Beggs, Lionsgate president of programming and production for TV, said more local productions are possible. Producers want to work in an environment where they know they won't face any more challenges than those a normal day of TV production brings.
"People go towards things that work, and when something works, more business follows," Beggs said by phone from Los Angeles. "If this goes well, which I expect it will, Pittsburgh will be on that list when we're looking to do other projects."
The Pittsburgh Film Office was pummelled with criticism from other city film officials this summer after its director, Dawn Keezer, was authorized to move to Los Angeles but remain in charge of the local office. Rival groups, including Pittsburgh Filmmakers, independent producers and union officials have been pushing for the film office to be remade, with more emphasis on local filmmaking.
Thursday's press conference announcing "Kill Pit" -- attended by state, city and county officials, U.S Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Bradford Woods) and other film office supporters -- was in part a victory lap for Keezer's methods.
The Lionsgate decision "absolutely" was a result of her move to Los Angeles, Keezer said. "So far it's working and we're hoping that continues. We think this is the first of many big announcements we're going to be making for the region."
At yesterday's press conference, Goodman said he was attracted to Pittsburgh by the state incentives, an existing base of experienced film crews and actors and the physical look of the area.
"We hope to be able to have a home here," he said. Asked about Ms. Keezer's involvement Goodman said, "I don't know if it was kismet or not, but I think Dawn came in my office just before this project came to Lionsgate and we were talking about . . . something coming out we could shoot in Pennsylvania.
"When this happened, we already had a relationship with her and it kind of flowed from that. You might say it was in our thoughts because she had just been in our offices."
Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato has been moderating meetings on possibly remaking the film office's mission. Remaking it is still "an option" he said yesterday, "but we're going to let the film organizations decide how to move forward and the governmental officials will hear from them in the next couple weeks."
Mr. Yablonsky said state officials are leaving the issue to local government. His department has contracts in place to fund the film office with $100,000 this year -- half is being issued now and the rest in the spring.
The total budget for the "Kill Pit" project is around $20 million, Goodman said, with a projected $18 million of that to be spent locally. Each episode will cost approximately $2.5 million per hour, putting the show's budget on par with some productions on ABC, CBS and NBC.
Goodman said a series brings more benefits than a movie because of the consistency of work.
"If somebody works on a series ... they learn their skill in a much more nurtured way. There's a repetitive nature in doing a series," he said. "People learn, people move up and it's a great training ground for a crew to become more expert in their craft."
Goodman said the "Kill Pit" crew will number about 100. He said he hopes all but 10-15 of those positions will be filled by Pittsburgh-based crew members.
"The Kill Pit" will follow a band of American veterans of the Iraq War who stage a bank heist that goes bad. John Leguizamo stars as the lead robber, the show's anti-hero. He and his crew take hostages and play a game of cat and mouse with a negotiator, yet to be cast, but a role intended for "somebody of note," said Spike TV executive vice president of original programming Pancho Mansfield.
He said "Kill Pit," which is serialized and takes place over the course of about five days, will differ from ABC's bank robbery hostage drama "The Nine."
" 'The Nine' is about the aftermath and its more a melodrama," he said. "This is more action-packed, tense and takes place in real time. It's closer to '24' than to 'The Nine.' "
The original "Kill Pit" script is set in New York, but Goodman said Lionsgate is urging series creator James DeMonaco to change the setting to Pittsburgh.
The show's title, which could change before it airs, refers to what SWAT teams call the area where hostages are held. Mansfield let out a hearty guffaw when it was suggested "Kill Pit" could sound like an abbreviation of "Kill Pittsburgh."
"That never crossed anybody's mind here," he said, laughing.