News Column

Pittsburgh Film Office hopes tax plea will bring more movie production to Western Pennsylvania

May 8, 2013

YellowBrix

May 08--The subject of film tax credits is pure Hollywood but hardly one for the starry-eyed.

Production companies base their shooting locations on a variety of factors -- whether the studio or location is suitable, the reputation of the local trade crews and past working relationships among them.

But it's the tax credit that really sweetens the pot, in many cases making the difference between shooting in Western Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

"If there was no tax credit, I would never have been able to film the entire movie in Pittsburgh the way I wanted to," said Upper St. Clair native Stephen Chbosky, who directed the highly acclaimed 2012 film "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."

Mr. Chbosky wrote the screenplay from his YA novel of the same name.

" 'Perks' was such a personal story to me, and it was so important to film the whole thing authentically in Pittsburgh.

"It meant the world to do so."

Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, joined colleagues from around the state April 17 when she spoke before the joint Senate and House Democratic Policy committees in Harrisburg.

In her report, she noted that more than $475 million has been brought into the southwestern Pennsylvania economy since the tax program was implemented in 2007. That figure, she said, represents numbers provided by production managers and line producers.

They argued that $60 million for the state's film tax credit budget is woefully insufficient and that Pennsylvania is losing projects to other, better-funded states.

"I think that after seven years of a very successful tax credit program, that the legislators understand," Ms. Keezer said. "They understand the economic impact it's had on the commonwealth, they understand that this means jobs in Pennsylvania, and they're working to support us."

But with so many scrambling for pieces of the budgetary pie, what will be left for the film industry? The state budget won't be approved until at least June 30.

The state allows production companies to apply for tax credits when they shoot projects such as "Silver Linings Playbook" and the Nickelodeon series, "Supah Ninjas."

If at least 60 percent of the production takes place here, after the work is done, the company gets back 25 percent of what it spent. Thanks to a tweak to the state incentive program last summer, productions shot at larger soundstages, such as 31st Street Studios in the Strip District, could qualify for up to a 30 percent credit.

After the $60 million in tax credits are allotted, there aren't any more incentives for studios to film here until the next fiscal year. That's a big gamble in a business that budgets multiyear production costs.

"In Pittsburgh, we've lost 11 feature films and three television projects in the last three months alone, one of those being the 'Hatfields & McCoys' [television series pilot]," Ms. Keezer said.

"It's set in modern-day Pittsburgh, and they had to go to Boston because we didn't have any money."

Chris Breakwell, owner of the massive 31st Street Studios complex that covers nearly 10 acres in the Strip District, said he agrees with the film office but isn't fond of the phrase "out of money."

"It's not like it's gone forever ... the bucket fills up again in July," he said.

Yet state film offices say they're going to need a bigger bucket. States such as Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina have uncapped tax credit resources, and in New York, the cap is so high -- $450 million with the promise of annual renewal for five years -- that it might as well be uncapped.

For now, the only TV project in the pipeline is the A&E series "Those Who Kill," with Chloe Sevigny and James D'Arcy. The pilot was filmed here, and the series was green-lighted last month. A Fox publicist said the contracts for Pittsburgh studio space are not yet signed, but production is expected to begin in September.

"Supah Ninjas," however, won't be back; the series was canceled earlier this week.

A Dreamworks movie, "Glimmer," is a possible lower-budget film project here.

Landing a series such as "Those Who Kill" is great, but the Holy Grail is securing a network series that would provide year-round work for the technical crews here.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 489 comprises everyone from studio mechanics to animal wranglers and lighting experts. Many of its 340 members live in the area, and in the past four years, when two or three film projects were rolling into Pittsburgh with regularity, about 25 percent of those who didn't already own homes here purchased them.

"The more steady the employment, obviously, the more permanence you can establish in terms of residency," said Chip Eccles, union business representative.

The recent dry spell -- after years of steady projects coming in, there has been little in the past five months -- has meant many of IATSE's members have had to leave town to work.

"People are collecting unemployment, or they've gone to Louisiana, Detroit, New York City, down to Georgia, Florida," Mr. Eccles said.

"Far more important than the cap itself is the permanence of it," Mr. Chbosky said. "I'm writing my next book right now. I'm going to adapt to make a movie. I want to make that movie in Pittsburgh, if I can."

There's still the chance that "Hatfield & McCoys" will be picked up by NBC as a regular series. If so, there's also the chance it could shoot here.

"If we have something like this network show here all year round, people don't need to leave," Mr. Breakwell said.

Jeff Waxman, executive and line producer for the upcoming "Out of the Furnace," which was filmed here, noted at the time that without the tax boost, working here "would not have been good. The tax credit really solidified it.

"And the tax credit works -- you know people may not think it does. Last weekend, I had six people visiting me. They stayed in hotels, they ate in restaurants. They didn't come alone. You can't quantify that. It's a real part. ... And it's building an industry. We tried to hire as many locals as possible."

It isn't just the lack of film and TV projects that has Mr. Breakwell putting capital expenditures on hold. Although 31st Street boasts enormous soundstages with heating and air conditioning and other amenities, an announced partnership to create animation and motion capture work has fallen through.

KnightVision31, which would have provided state-of-the-art CGI equipment for motion capture, video games and animation, was to team with Carnegie Mellon University's ETC. The partnership dissolved, although Mr. Breakwell said one client recently used the still-functional facility for video-game work.

The picture isn't clear, but Ms. Keezer said after her trip to Harrisburg, she's hoping things are looking up.

"Everybody is on board for the first time. Nobody is fighting the reality of the success of the program, but we're trying to figure out how to make it work."

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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(c)2013 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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