Pittsburgh film studio's future uncertain

| Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Quiet on the set?

The future of Pittsburgh's film-making studio in the Strip District is hazy, now that Mogul Mind Studios has been barred from the premises for not paying its rent.

The property owner, 31st Street Business Park, has taken over leasing the giant facility to movie makers -- but only for now.

"I took over the movie part, and I'm running it now, temporarily, until I can either find somebody to manage the property or buy the property," said David Kowalski, the business park's owner.

"I'll either tear the building down, re-rent the property, or sell the property," said Kowalski, who has owned the 10-acre site for 11 years. He has had about 30 inquiries in the past week from parties whose plans include all three scenarios.

Mogul Mind Studios owes more than $2 million in back rent, Kowalski said. He terminated the lease on June 29 and banned its employees from entering the building, which sits beside the 31st Street Bridge along the Allegheny River. Kowalski declined to provide specifics.

Mogul Mind Studios CEO John Yost could not be reached.

The building, known as a "sound studio," is about the size of 10 football fields, and its ceilings are more than 40 feet high. The giant shell is ideal for movie makers because they can build and put sets inside, eliminating unwanted noise and weather factors while shooting.

Movie making is an economic engine. The Pittsburgh Film Office estimates 98 film and television projects have been produced locally since 1990, when the office was founded. They have contributed an estimated $458 million to the regional economy.

For instance, 20th Century Fox filmed "Unstoppable," starring Denzel Washington, at Mogul Mind Studios last year. The production and the 250 people working on the film here pumped about $60 million into the local economy.

"I'd like to see it remain a studio," said Kowalski. "But I'm not in the movie business. I'm a developer."

Meantime, Lionsgate has more than 100 people working inside the sprawling facility making a film called "Abduction." Directed by the acclaimed John Singleton, the film stars teen heartthrob Taylor Lautner, of "Twilight" vampire movie fame.

Lionsgate is scheduled to wrap up there by Nov. 1. Kowalski aims to get some kind of deal in hand by early September.

"The building is what's important, and the building is still there," said Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, which works with movie producers to stage films in Western Pennsylvania.

"We still plan on using the building, and hopefully, they'll work out their issues," said Keezer of Yost and Kowalski.

Mogul Mind Studios moved into the facility, an old steel warehouse of the former Pittsburgh Flatroll Co., in late 2008. Yost converted it into a film and television production facility with spaces not only to film but to edit, record sound, construct sets and perform other tasks.

Kowalski said Mogul Mind Studios would be "welcome to come back in," provided it paid off "some of its debt and renegotiated the lease."

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