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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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Lights! Glamour! Pittsburgh!

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Pittsburgh is one of the top 10 places in the country to shoot a movie.

The nonstop flow of work into the region generated an estimated economic impact last year of $104 million. That's nearly double the $60 million the region earned in 2008 and a stunt leap from the $18 million that trickled in in 2007 to hotel rooms, car rental agencies, restaurants and local businesses.

And the word on the street is that 2010 will be the biggest filmmaking year yet in Pittsburgh's history. Just call us Tinsel Town USA.

Pittsburgh has come a long way since the "Perils of Pauline" in 1914. More than 123 film and television productions have wheeled in, starting with George Romero and "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968. The Eighties and Nineties were a lucrative period of made-for-television movies. Then came the big boys starting with "Silence of the Lambs," which attracted a long line of blockbusters-- "Inspector Gadget,"  "Wonder Boys," "Mysteries of Pittsburgh," "Unstoppable" and "The Road."

The march of new projects has continued unabated for almost two years: "Love and Other Drugs," "The Next Three Days," "Sorority Row," "Warrior," "She's Out of My League," "Shelter" and "Zack & Miri Make a Porno."

"We have great crew depth, enabling us to support four features simultaneously, which is huge," says Dawn Keezer, executive  director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. "We have infrastructure, Island Studios and Mogul Mind. Right now there's work for both of them and it should continue."

The Pittsburgh Film Office celebrates 20 years of bringing productions to the City of Champions this year.  Just how did Pittsburgh get on Hollywood's A-list?  The easy answer is the Pa. Film Tax Credit, a 25% transferrable tax credit that gives money back to production companies on films that shoot more than 60% of the project in the state.

"Without the tax credit there would be no film work in Pittsburgh," says Keezer emphatically.  Keezer has made keeping the tax credit and uncapping it her number one battle cry. "Our tax credit is more effective than other programs (in the country) because it's built on the fact that we already have an existing industry here. "

With the state budget in crisis, this year's tax credit was capped at $42 million, down from $75 million last year. The credit will be capped at $60 million in the coming fiscal year, which starts in July.

Keezer's job puts her on the frontlines of the lobbying effort in Harrisburg. She simultaneously works to chase down film projects in LA. In 2006, the Film Office opened a satellite office in LA where Keezer now lives, commuting to Pittsburgh one week each month.

This Sunday the Pittsburgh Film Office marks 20 years in business with a 10th annual Oscar party fundraiser, Lights! Glamour! Action! Keezer , in her eighth month of pregnancy and under doctor's orders not to travel, will miss the festivities. "I'm keeping busy," she insists. "Very busy. I read one script every day last week for five different features."

"Dawn is exactly the right kind of personality to handle this job," says Russ Streiner, film office board chairman and the driving force behind the office's creation in 1990. "She's not someone who's easily pushed around. She can duke it out with the best of them, including the Governor, and people have come to have a great deal of respect for her."

Keezer swears she's never pulled any punches. "He's (Gov. Rendell) thrilled with all the success we've had in western Pa. Hopefully the next governor will be just as supportive."

Streiner mapped out a blueprint for the Pittsburgh Film Office in 1988 to help streamline the filmmaking permitting process. With a push from Mary Kay Poppenberg of the then Greater Pittsburgh Office of Promotions, they banged on the state's doors and raised $120,000.

The producer of Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" (he played the "they're coming to get you Bar-bara!!" zombie Johnny), Streiner continues to produce projects in Pittsburgh and support filmmaking here. He also teaches a popular new program at DuBois Business College, John Russo Movie Making.

The Film Office is a one-stop shop for everything from location scouting to finding the right local crew for the work. The staff of four stuffs a lot into its small, 1,400 square foot space in the Century Building, putting every square inch to work.

It took five years to get "Unstoppable" up and running, says Keezer. Tony Scott loved the location, especially the industrial look, but needed help with the logistics of moving 15 locomotive cars, weighing more than 300,000 pounds each, across the Interstate. The film was shot at Mogul Mind and Bradford and Elk counties.

The region has everything a film company needs in a location except for beaches and deserts, she adds. Neighborhoods embrace the crews when they roll in, like the block party that Squirrel Hill threw for Sharon Stone near St. Philomena's during the filming of "Diabolique."  "You don't see that happening in LA."

"The Pittsburgh marketplace has matured beautifully into understanding and embracing movies," Streiner adds. "Movie decisions today are based on very careful study. There's lots of competition out there. I think we've got the right combination of a savvy, manageable film office that delivers and has been outrageously successful."

The movie boom has established Pittsburgh as a great place to find production work too. George Jaber, local business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), has seen membership nearly triple in the last two years from 98 to 260 members. These are well paid positions, professionals who handle everything from lighting to makeup to grip.

Last year, the crews were busy for 22 months straight. Many are moving back to the region for film jobs.

"The facilitation the film office provides in terms of location scouting, everything, smooths out what would otherwise be a very difficult process," says Jaber, who has trained up and coming film technicians for 28 years at CCAC . "In the past there was rancor because of the lack of work here. Now we're on parallel paths working together. We're very appreciative of what they do."

"It's a struggle finding work in California now," he adds. "The film industry there is collapsing because of the tax credits elsewhere. It's comparable to the steel industry loss. At least 4,000 jobs averaging salaries of $63,000 each have come in specifically because of the tax credit."

Pittsburgh turns up the glitz and celebrates Oscar night this Sunday when Lights! Glamour! Action! rolls out the red carpet at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture downtown. The public is invited. Dress is black-tie or come as your favorite celebrity.  

The evening includes a movie memorabilia silent auction, VIP Moet & Chandon reception, gourmet food stations and the LIVE Academy Award telecast on the big screen. Tickets range from $75 to $250 and proceeds benefit the Pittsburgh Film Office.

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Top photograph, Film Office Staff, l to r: Matt Clancy; Jessica Conner, Steve Bittle; below: Russ Streiner

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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