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.”