Wednesday, November 19 | 7 pm
University of Pittsburgh, Cathedral of Learning, Room G8
Join our conversation with the writer of The Last Witch Hunter and Dallas Buyers Club!
Hear the remarkable story of how it took years to write and develop the Dallas Buyers Club. Learn more about Melisa’s experience with the entertainment industry and get her advice for emerging talent.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Writer/Director Stephen Chbosky
On October 24th, Steeltown Entertainment Project hosted our Steeltown Spotlight Series Event with novelist, screenwriter, and film director, Stephen Chbosky. The Perks of Being a Wallflower writer/director connected with the 300-plus audience in a way that was inspiring, significant, and conversational; Often carrying on a congenial dialogue with audience members who asked for guidance.
Chbosky’s talk focused upon the importance of kindness, perseverance, perusing one’s own path and how all of that impact his life and career. Through his own personal stories he has encouraged the audience to not give up on their work nor their dreams, no matter how large the obstacles. Steeltown was truly privileged to have hosted such a caring and knowledgeable professional. The event was co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s Film Studies program and Pitt in Hollywood.
Steve’s other projects include Rent (Writer, Screenplay) and CBS’s Jericho (Writer/Executive Producer).
It’s a common sight in Pittsburgh nowadays: a closed off street or bridge, rigged up lighting kits, cameras on jibs, trailers, crowd fences, and somewhere in the middle of all of it, a big name movie star or a well-known director. It is common enough that most passersby don’t even bat an eyelash. After all, Pittsburgh has been the site of some big name movies over the past few years, including “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Jack Reacher,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” in 2011 alone. The filming seems so seamlessly orchestrated that most Pittsburghers don’t even stop and think about what went on to make it all possible. That’s where the Pittsburgh Film Office comes into play.
Founded in 1990, the Pittsburgh Film Office came into existence when filming in New York had come to a grinding halt because of a strike. Displaced crews were looking for new places to film and they needed a contact point in Pittsburgh. In the 23 years since its inception, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit has helped Pittsburgh grow to be one of the American cities most synonymous with the film industry. And this is not without its benefits to the community: the film industry has contributed $100 million to the economy of southwestern Pennsylvania during each of the last 4 calendar years, according to Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office.
But how exactly does the Pittsburgh Film Office bring these movies to Pittsburgh to film? “It’s a three-fold process,” said Assistant Director Jessica Conner. “We call people to let them know we’re here, we have Dawn (Keezer) on the ground in Hollywood doing networking, and we answer the phone when people call to inquire.” Conner admitted that the inquiries are more common now that Pittsburgh has developed a reputation as a great place to film. “We’ve shown people what we can do, and now we’re on a short list.”
Steven Bittle, the Film Office’s communication specialist agreed. “We’re definitely in the top ten. People call us saying that they’ve never been here but that their bosses told them to call and inquire about filming here. That’s how you can tell.” Bittle attributed some of the recent influx of movies seeking to be set in Pittsburgh (rather than just filmed in Pittsburgh posing as another city) to the 2010 romantic comedy “She’s Out of My League,” which starred Jay Baruchel and Alice Eve and produced by Steeltown adviser Eric Gold. “They came here because they liked our airport as a filming location, but the movie ended up showcasing the city,” Bittle said of the film, which shot all over Pittsburgh, including in Lawrenceville, on Mt. Washington, and in Market Square.
A major reason for Pittsburgh’s initial rise to prominence as a site for filming was Pennsylvania’s film tax credit. “Our biggest competition used to be Canada. Canada was able to put tax incentives into play,” explained Keezer. Canada had a national tax credit that was matched by individual provinces making filming in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal finically favorable. “The United States had a national piece of legislation in the works [that ultimately went away] but three states, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania, all stepped up [with state-centric tax credits]…We already had an established film industry (thanks in a large part to “Night of the Living Dead” and numerous TV movies filmed here) so we were poised to become an industry leader.”
Although the tax incentive may have initially inspired filming in Pittsburgh and it remains an important part of the reason why projects ultimately film in Pittsburgh, there are many more reasons why Pittsburgh is such a favorable place to film. This is evidenced by Pittsburgh’s continued prominence in film in spite of the fact that 42 states now have film tax incentives in place. Keezer points this fact to three main reasons, the first of which is the availability of capable crews. “We’ve been making movies here ever since 1914,” she said. “‘Night of the Living Dead’ trained the crew for filming. Before the tax credit, our crews traveled to work [rather than finding other jobs when no movies were filming in town].” The second reason is diversity of location. “We can shoot everything but a beach or a desert, and we can do a beach up in Erie–it’s still Pennsylvania [so they still get the tax credit] and they can take [our] crew with them from here.” said Bittle, who often showcases the Pittsburgh Film Office’s photo database of 20,000 southwestern Pennsylvania locations to directors and location scouts. “When Christopher Nolan was here scouting for Batman, he came because of the bridges but [after being unconvinced by what he saw at first] he just started wandering around downtown visualizing the movie and before long, that visit and the feel of downtown was enough for him to decide Pittsburgh was going to be where [“The Dark Knight Rises”] was filmed.” The third reason is perhaps the most obvious: cost. On top of the tax incentives, Pittsburgh has a low cost of living allowing crews to “get the most bang for their buck,” as Keezer said. This sets it apart from New York and Los Angeles, as well as cross-state counterpart Philadelphia when it comes to how far a crew can stretch a dollar.
There is a fourth unofficial, intangible reason why Pittsburgh is a great reason to film, according to the members of the Pittsburgh Film Office staff: Pittsburgh is simply a film-friendly city. “Our city officials are open to anything, as are our police” Conner said. “During the Batman filming, it might have been easier to tell people which streets weren’t closing [as opposed to the ones that were].” It’s not just the city officials and employees who embrace film in Pittsburgh–the everyday citizens embrace film as well. “Anytime there is a production filming in Pittsburgh, [Pittsburghers] welcome it with open arms,” Keezer explained. “In L.A. when there’s a filming in a neighborhood, residents will come out in their yards and run a leaf-blower and refuse to turn it off until they are paid. In Pittsburgh, we filmed “Diabolique” in Squirrel Hill and we had all the streets blocked off, and at the end of the filming the residents threw a block party and they invited the cast and crew. That’s the difference right there.” Conner agreed emphatically. “We only had one person call to complain about traffic during the entire “Dark Knight” filming. And even that call started out with a compliment about what we were doing!”
The Pittsburgh Film Office partners with the Steeltown Entertainment Project in many of their efforts. “We support Steeltown and all of their efforts,” Keezer said. “We love to help anything that’s bringing money and jobs into the region through the film industry. We are always involved, and we have a judge on the panel for the Steeltown Film Factory contest every year.”
“Our Steeltown adviser network, which now includes both native Pittsburghers and those who have grown to have affection for this city, are often looking to do projects here,” says Steeltown President Carl Kurlander. “It is exciting when we can connect them to the Film Office as part of helping drive films and TV shows here.” says Steeltown President Carl Kurlander.”
In spite of its integral role in getting movies to film in Pittsburgh, it is not easy for the untrained eye of an average citizen to notice the involvement of the Pittsburgh Film Office, but that’s just the nature of their work. “We are the silent partner. People see the trucks and the filming, but I’m not there pitching a Pittsburgh Film Office flag on set,” Conner mused proudly. “When they’re filming we’re looking for the next projects.”
Because of its nonprofit status, the Pittsburgh Film Office only has three permanent employees, and it relies heavily on sponsorship funding. “Films don’t pay us to do what we do,” explained Conner. For the past 14 years, the Film Office has held its annual fundraising event, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield presents “Lights! Glamor! Action!” as a red carpet party on the night of the Academy Awards. The party raises awareness about what the Film Office does for the community and the region. People who want up-to-the-minute information about the party, productions filming in Pittsburgh, and opportunities within the Pittsburgh Film Office can visit www.pghfilm.org, sign up for mobile alerts, or they can follow the Film Office on Twitter at @PghFilmOffice and “like” them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PghFilmOffice. Getting involved is important, because while the film industry in Pittsburgh is thriving, the ultimate goal of the Pittsburgh Film Office is to get the crews filming year-round. As Keezer says, “the industry is poised for growth in southwestern Pennsylvania.”
When they started work on “Blood Brother,” Steve Hoover (director, writer, editor) and Danny Yourd (producer) did not set out for wealth or fame. All they wanted to do was tell the story of Steve’s friend Rocky Braat and his selfless acts of giving care and joy to a group of HIV-positive orphans in Channai, India.
“It was the first feature film for the entire crew,” said Yourd, who, along with Hoover and Braat, graduated from Art Institute of Pittsburgh. “We set out to tell a story about Steve’s best friend Rocky and the crew came on board to help us do that. We submitted it to a bunch of film festivals, and we figured we’d see what happened.”
And tell a story they did. The Pittsburgh-produced “Blood Brother” did not just get into the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The film won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, and the festival’s Audience Award. “When we were at Sundance, seeing people react emotionally was very moving,” said executive producer Kathy Dziubek. “Steve has a gift, both behind the camera and editorially, for bringing out the emotion in people.”
Despite the extraordinary reception of “Blood Brothers” at Sundance and at other film festivals, very few local people have had the opportunity to see the film. This, however, is about to change. Now is your special chance in seeing “Blood Brothers” in a private screening of the film on August 16 at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont by supporting the Kickstarter campaign for the team’s next documentary, “Gennadiy.”
The documentary is about an orphanage caretaker, the film’s namesake, who uses unorthodox methods to cure lost children of their drug addictions. As with “Blood Brother,” Yourd says the purpose of Gennadiy is to tell a story. “We’re hoping to bring to light things that people might not be exposed to otherwise,” he said. “We want to make a difference and change things for good. For indy filmmakers, that goal always comes back to simply telling a story.” The money given to the production of “Gennadiy” will go toward everything, including travel, production, and scoring. Donors receive one ticket for a donation of $50 or two tickets for $75.
What these two productions have in common, goes beyond the team’s need to tell a harrowing tale–these productions are not for profit. Both relied heavily on support from Kickstarter campaigns and from their employer and production company, Animal VFX. Animal is a Pittsburgh-based production company known for work on commercials for Red Bull, K-Swiss, California Cheese, and Taco Bell, among others. Animal has strong ties to Pittsburgh and the Steeltown Entertainment Project. Animal co-founder and owner Michael Killen is a longtime advisor and frequent script reader for the Steeltown Film Factory. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, he left Pittsburgh for Los Angeles, before returning to town to start animal, along with fellow co-founders and Pittsburgh industry veterans Dziubek and Jim Kreitzburg.
While documentaries are not the main focus of Animal, this did not stop them from supporting the passion project of its employees. “Animal always encourages its people to get out there and go above and beyond, getting creative on their own,” Yourd said. “Without Animal’s involvement in ‘Blood Brother,’ the movie would never have been made.”
“When we hired Danny and Steve, we saw how incredibly talented they were,” Dziubek, who is also and executive producer of “Gennadiy.” “We see that in his work here, and we were excited to support him as he did the same work with a passion project. Seeing the reception that ‘Blood Brother’ received blew me away, and it made me really proud to have supported it as a company.”
Yourd sees Pittsburgh as a great place to continue doing his work. “I’ve never felt the need to get out of Pittsburgh,” he said. “We love Pittsburgh, and our job, and the people we work with. We don’t need to go to L.A. or New York to make a name for ourselves. And Steeltown has always been huge supporters of our goals, and they’re always rooting for us and for Pittsburgh.” Dziubek echoed the same sentiment about the Steel City. “We love the city–we can do everything we need to do here in Pittsburgh. When we had offices in L.A., we found that we were doing the majority of the work for those projects in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a ton of talent in the field, and Pittsburghers have a great work ethic and none of the ego that you encounter elsewhere.”
As longtime Steeltown advisor and Hollywood producer Laura Davis prepares to return to Pittsburgh for the first public screening of “A New York Heartbeat,” she cannot help but feel that things have come full circle. Davis grew up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, and she and her husband Tjardus Greidanus decided to shoot their film in Pittsburgh, so it only seemed appropriate to open the film here. The film will run at the Regent Square Theater, from July 12-25, with an opening night Q&A on Friday July 12 featuring Davis and Greidanus, moderated by Steeltown President Carl Kurlander.
“A New York Heartbeat” is a film noir-influenced story of the heroic journey of a young gang leader in New York in the late 1950s, featuring Eric Roberts and a hot young cast including Rachel Brosnahan (“House of Cards,” “Beautiful Creatures”). When the production team was scouting for filming sites, however, they quickly realized that present day Brooklyn, with its prevalent, modern graffiti, looks nothing like 1959 Brooklyn. That’s when the team turned to Pittsburgh. “I spent three months scouting locations that were so evocative that a viewer could imagine himself or herself on a street corner in Brooklyn in 1959,” said Greidanus, who wrote, directed, and co-produced “Heartbeat.” “Ironically, we ended up shooting in Pittsburgh, where soot-stained brick, industrial decay and rusted bridges suggested post-war New York.”
Long before returning to film “A New York Heartbeat”, Davis and Greidanus had connections to Steeltown Entertainment and Pittsburgh’s film community. Having met Carl Kurlander through a connection made by her mother’s mailman in 2003, Davis learned about Steeltown’s vision for developing the region’s entertainment industry, and agreed, along with her husband, to be an advisor during its inception. Having made behind the scenes documentaries for some of the most noted filmmakers of our time, including Martin Scorsese, and Michael Mann, Davis and Greidanus partnered with Kurlander to produce the film that introduced Steeltown to the world, a fifteen-minute film entitled “Pittsburgh: Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret,” which aired on WQED as part of the Mid-Atlantic Emmy Nominated “Steeltown Entertainment Summit” television special. Davis and Greidanus continued to work with Steeltown on subsequent films, including “A Shot that Saved the World,” which won Best Documentary last year at the San Luis Obispo Film Festival and will have its broadcast premiere in October on the Smithsonian Networks.
Upon returning to Pittsburgh to film “A New York Heartbeat,” Davis could not say enough positive things about the Pittsburgh film community, which supplied 80% of the crew. “After having spent so much time in Hollywood, which a lot of times feels like ‘the land of no,’ I felt upon coming to Pittsburgh that I had arrived in the land of ‘yes.’ Because of our small budget, we decided to film during a five-week window when no other projects were filming in Pittsburgh, so we wouldn’t have to compete for crew with big studio pictures. We reached out to potential crew members, sending them scripts to give them a sense of the project, and letting them know about our limited budget. We were thrilled when about two-thirds of them said yes.”
The Pittsburgh community was integrated into the production in many ways. One of the sites for interior filming included Davis’s childhood home in Squirrel Hill, as well as the top floor of a former coffee warehouse in the Strip District. “The Pittsburgh film community really came together to support us,” Davis said. “The Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Pittsburgh Film Office and WQED, with guidance from Steeltown, gave us all the support we could have asked for and more. In fact, former Steeltown employee Cait Murray is a co-producer of the film and Steeltown production manager Kris Veenis not only worked on the film, but takes a bullet in the movie!”
You can find out more about “A New York Heart Beat” at http://anewyorkheartbeatmovie.com and help get the film out to the wider world by going to Kickstarter.com.
J.J. Abrams, Mark Burnett, and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson were among the big names slated to speak at the 2013 Producers Guild of America “Produced By” Conference, hosted in Los Angeles on June 8-9, but the panel drawing possibly the biggest buzz, and catching the headline in the Los Angeles Times, was the panel entitled “Beyond Hollywood: The Promise of Regional Production Centers,” which featured “300” producer Bernie Goldmann, Lionsgate producer John Dellaverson, and “Promised Land” producer Chris Moore, moderated by Steeltown President and CEO Carl Kurlander.
“Our panel was supposed to be held in a venue with a capacity for 150 people, but there was so much interest in regionalism that our panel discussion was moved to the Zanuck Theater, the same venue where Jerry Bruckheimer and all these other big names were speaking,” Kurlander said. “I was amazed by the interest in the subject matter.”
The reason for the high levels of interest, from Hollywood locals and producers from around the country alike, was simple: the panel addressed the issue at the forefront of everyone in the industry–movies and TV shows are increasingly being made in places other than California, with Pittsburgh as a prime example.
“Everybody knows about tax credits, and certainly the fact that Pennsylvania is taking a run at uncapping their tax credits is very important,” Kurlander said, “but what was great is that we got to talk about the innovative models that we’ve pioneered at Steeltown and in Pittsburgh that have really partnered with Hollywood. We were able to show that it’s not just about the tax credit, that’s part of it, but you also need to figure out different way of funding things and partnering, such as our WQED/Steeltown incubator which funds TV shows filmed at the Fred Rogers Studios.
You need to look beyond tax incentives if you want to have a sustainable industry. This industry is migratory, and if you don’t have a strategic plan with a strategic vision, if you don’t work on developing your local infrastructure, tomorrow there’s going to be a cheaper place to film.”
Longtime Steeltown adviser Goldmann, who ended up producing George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” in Canada before Pennsylvania had competitive incentives, talked about how Pittsburgh learned the hard way that a desire to produce movies and TV shows in a particular city is often outweighed by financial constraints, chiefly cheaper costs of filming in other cities. Steeltown is trying to solve this problem by focusing on building the local film infrastructure and working with partners like the Pittsburgh Film Office, WQED and the local universities. If the current effort to uncap the film tax credits prevails, Pittsburgh will be an even more desirable place to produce films, and the money spent on film production in Pittsburgh will be invested in local talent, ultimately creating a cycle of sustainability. Chris Moore spoke glowingly about his experience filming “Promised Land” in Pittsburgh with a mostly local crew, and New Castle native John Dellaverson shared why Lionsgate has enjoyed filming so many of its films in the region. Fittingly, Goldmann hopes to film his new movie, “The Last Witch Hunter,” which is being produced with Lionsgate, in his hometown.
The success of Pittsburgh, in particular, as a center for production, compared with other cities with similar tax credits, can be contributed in part to Pittsburgh’s unique makeup. Pittsburgh has a disproportionate amount of talent coming from the local colleges and universities, as well as the cultural institutions, and many of those talented individuals have gone on to achieve great success in the entertainment industry. Steeltown and its partners have been able to leverage this strong Pittsburgh-Hollywood connection to help the region become a real player in the entertainment industry.
But Steeltown’s panel at the “Produced By” Conference was not intended to promote the film industry in Pittsburgh. Rather, Pittsburgh was presented as a case study for the great benefits that can stem from film production taking place in any city, as long as that city has a strategic plan to sustain and grow the film industry in that town. The point seemed to strike home, as the headline the next day in the Los Angeles Times read, “A ‘gold rush’ out of L.A. for tax credits,” quoting the panelists and warning California: beware–film production is increasingly headed to places like Atlanta and Pittsburgh. (Read the full article here.)