Innovative financing models, industry connections, and talented workforce bringing TV and film projects to Pittsburgh’s rising regional production center

 Pick up a newspaper, browse a blog, or tune in to a TV station and you no doubt have been hearing a lot about “The Chair,” a new TV series which just wrapped in Pittsburgh, and which the country will experience when it debuts on Starz this fall for a 10-episode run.Proudly produced in association with Steeltown Entertainment Project, its premise is irresistible — two novice directors struggle to shoot separate films based on the same script. Their production journey is captured by documentary crews, the results of which will air while the movies themselves are nationally released. And in the best Vox Populi American entertainment tradition, viewers will choose the winner. 

Proudly produced in association with Steeltown Entertainment Project, its premise is irresistible — two novice directors struggle to shoot separate films based on the same script. Their production journey is captured by documentary crews, the results of which will air while the movies themselves are nationally released. And in the best Vox Populi American entertainment tradition, viewers will choose the winner. 

“The Chair” is the latest creative brain child of prolific producer Chris Moore (“American Pie,” Good Will Hunting,” “Project Greenlight”); the idea came about because at one point Mel Gibson was slated to direct “Good Will Hunting,” and Moore kept pondering how the movie would have turned out differently.

“I love documenting the process of storytelling from the inside,” says Moore.  “I love giving people a chance to direct their first movies.  The wish fulfillment and the story telling are exciting and educational and hopefully compelling content for folks — I hope to do one every year.”

The two directors, YouTube sensation Shane Dawson and writer, director, actress Anna Martemucci, will soon find themselves starring in this innovative series. But they’re not alone.

“The Chair” will also place Pittsburgh in the spotlight — up close and personal — as a regional production center and great place to shoot a movie; a welcome addition for a region that continues to rack up a string of notable film productions.

Moore considered several other cities for “The Chair” with Atlanta, Canada, and old standbys Los Angeles and New York City, vying to land this innovative project. It begs the larger question: Why Pittsburgh? How is southwest Pennsylvania taking advantage of the entertainment industry’s ongoing disruption in order to maintain and grow a sustainable industry?

Steeltown’s multi-faceted role in helping to bring “The Chair” to Pittsburgh — as investor, networker, and professional developer —  is a compelling case study in how regional economic development is practiced in the 21st century entertainment industry.

Three big takeaways: Innovative financing models, industry connections, and fostering a talented local workforce.

Innovative Financing Models

Nurturing any industry takes time, effort, and investment. The entertainment industry is no different.

Readers of a certain age will recall that beginning with popular legwarmer-clad “Flashdance” in the ‘80s, the hope and desire of economic development officials, regional planners, political leaders, and local creative and production professionals was that southwestern Pennsylvania would become a location of choice for producers and Hollywood’s decision-makers.

But hope and desire – and the oft-cited beauty of our landscape and our picturesque neighborhoods — get us only so far. A total of 40 states now offer attractive tax breaks (not to mention an aggressive Canadian film office) trying to lure film and TV production.

As DVD sales have all but evaporated, the successful financing models of only five years ago have been upended at the same time that technology  has made it possible to make films in a totally different way than was possible a decade ago. 

Smart regions, with Pittsburgh leading the charge, are adapting to compete and fill the void.

Realizing what a showcase “The Chair” could be for the region, Steeltown drove the fundraising effort by using profits it had earned from a previous project, its partnership in the WQED/Steeltown Incubator, as well as helping connect producers to Point Park University, government resources, and private investors.

Innovative financing models are something of a specialty for Steeltown, which is a pioneer in assembling disparate financial sources to land attractive entertainment projects.  The organization pursued a similar platform back in 2006 (a particularly fallow filmmaking period in the region) to attract R.L. Stine’s “The Haunting Hour.” Steeltown’s $800,000 investment (from sources public, philanthropic, and private) brought that production to Pittsburgh. It proved to be a savvy investment and one that has been fully recouped, enabling Steeltown to place strategic bets on new projects – such as “The Chair.” 

“This model is in the best tradition of our region’s successful history of public-private partnerships – Renaissance One, the Cultural District, and now 21st Century Steeltown — where we leverage public and philanthropic investment to attract significant private dollars,” says Carl Kurlander, CEO of Steeltown Entertainment Project

“It’s great that the government and non-profits really support filmmaking,” adds Moore.

Industry Connections

Steeltown’s impressive industry-heavyweight advisor roster of Pittsburgh natives, such as producer Bernie Goldmann (“The 300”) and directors Jamie Widdoes (“Two and a Half Men”), and Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides”) proved an incredible starting point for the non-profit, founded 10 years ago on the premise that the entertainment industry could become “the new steel”  for the region’s economy.

Successful networks, in any business, need to be nurtured and expanded through programming, events, and on-the ground experience. Steeltown’s commitment to growing an eco-system of Hollywood decision-makers continues to help introduce the region as an attractive and cost-friendly shooting location.

“The sinews and tendons of this industry are these important relationships fostered over many decades,” says Lisa Smith-Reed, Steeltown’s COO, Point Park University lecturer, and veteran of “Project Greenlight,” “The People Speak” and many others projects during her Hollywood years. “We can pick up the phone and get the meeting – yes, the money is still important – but our connections get us a seat at that table.”

In terms of “The Chair,” the case of Smith-Reed and Moore is an example of how Steeltown continues to connect.

Smith-Reed urged Moore to get involved with Steeltown’s popular Film Factory competition in 2011, in which he served on an expert judging panel with Goldmann and Lionsgate’s John Dellaverson. After shooting “Promised Land” here he became a vocal and vociferous champion of the region and its resources.

Three Carnegie Mellon University Drama School graduates, Corey Moosa, Neal Dodsen, and Zachary Quinto, are also involved in shooting “The Chair.”  Although Quinto is best known as Dr. Spock in the “Star Trek” franchise and on Broadway as Tom in “The Glass Managerie,” he and his partners also lead Before The Door productions (named after a drama school acting exercise). The company has developed a growing reputation for producing highly original films like “Margin Call” and “All is Lost.”

“Part of the appeal of “The Chair” was having an experienced producer like Chris alongside the Before The Door guys,” says Kurlander. “Steeltown has always believed in investing in talent nurtured in this town, and we are excited to be part of the first films they are producing in Pittsburgh.”

So connections matter. These critical connections extend to the talent and expertise of local institutions and universities. Point Park University’s vital participation as a producer and provider of passionate student talent to “The Chair” also leveraged Steeltown’s connection to the university’s academic and administrative leadership.

“This is a great mixture of people, places, and money to allow more experimental projects like “The Chair” to happen,” says Moore. “The film schools, particularly Point Park, are putting out quality young professionals.”

Talented Workforce

While financial incentives and connections are important , the final determinant of where films shoot is the quality of local crews. This community of entertainment professionals makes Pittsburgh competitive. The development of skilled craftspeople, technicians, and administrative personnel provide the vital human infrastructure required to build and maintain a sustainable industry.

Take Rob Long, one of the primary scenic and production designers for “The Chair.” The peripatetic and nationally-recognized theatrical lighting and scenic designer’s firm, Clear Story, is based on Pittsburgh’s South Side.

“For many years I was trying to get in the Steeltown orbit and branch out into TV and film design,” says Long, who seized his opportunity when he had the chance to design the Steeltown/WQED Incubator and Chris Moore produced live event ”The People Speak” with Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, and John Krasinski. 

Moore was impressed with Long’s set and lighting design, which was the beginning of a productive professional dialogue which led to “The Chair,” on which he is receiving co-producer credit.

“Locally, we’ve got the resources and the network to handle many more productions,” said Long.

Heidi Schlegel is another success story. The 2010 Point Park University graduate and former Steeltown intern cut her professional teeth producing last year’s winning Film Factory film, “My Date With Adam,” and was hired as a unit production manager on “The Chair” working on Dawson’s film. 

“I was responsible for finding and hiring all of our crew members, doing preproduction schedules, coordinating logistics, solving every crisis,” says Schlegel with a laugh.

Or consider the case of another talented Point Park University alum, Phoenix-native Jonathan Joseph. After graduating in 2008, he founded Pittsburgh-based Counting Sheep, a production company which quickly made a name for itself in shooting industrials and commercials in addition to short feature films.

Upon the recommendation of his former professors, he met with Moore in November and was hired as a line producer overseeing both films and the documentary crew.

“It’s great to see regional production centers becoming the big new thing,” says Joseph. “The job market here is really coming along and it’s great to see so many people employed on “The Chair” and other projects.”

Big budget productions and smaller projects like “The Chair” provide great professional opportunities, from producers to production accountants, and continues to show that that Pittsburgh possesses the workforce depth to handle any number of films and TV shows. 

The Future

“We used to say that Pittsburgh’s greatest export was no longer steel, but talent — which made literally billions of dollars for people in New York and L.A.,” says Kurlander.   “Due to the work of many, Pittsburgh is finally becoming that place which consistently attracts top talent.”

While the ultimate victor of “The Chair” won’t be determined until late 2014, when audiences vote for which film they prefer, one early winner is clear: The “Only in Pittsburgh” story with a happy ending for the region itself – a national platform polishing our reputation as one of the best places to produce entertainment.

Through growing and leveraging industry connections, creating innovative financial models, and aiding in the development of a world-class workforce, Steeltown continues to help Pittsburgh maintain and grow its significant competitive advantage as a world-class regional production center.

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