Lawrenceville studio deals nurture Pittsburgh's star power
By Jason Cato
Published: Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012
With two major films recently wrapped in Western Pennsylvania and more movie projects on the way, a batch of collaborations announced on Monday could position Pittsburgh for a leading role in American filmmaking, industry officials said.
"This is going to be one of the largest world-class facilities in the country," Chris Breakwell, founder of 31st Street Studios, said after announcing his company has deals with Paramount On Location and Knight Vision Studios, the outfit behind the 2009 Oscar-winning animated feature film "Avatar." He said he also has an agreement with Carnegie Mellon University's entertainment technology program.
The company's facility sits on 10 acres and boasts 300,000 square feet of space at an old steel warehouse of the former Pittsburgh Flatroll Co. beside the 31st Street Bridge along the Allegheny River. It will be the only "motion-capture" studio outside Hollywood, Breakwell said.
Motion capture allows filmmakers to create computer animations using action recordings of live actors.
"It's relatively expensive," said James Knight, a Los Angeles-based virtual-effects producer who spent nearly four years managing the motion capture of actors for "Avatar" before opening Knight Vision last year. "If you wanted to have one in your living room, let's say you'd have to be Bill Gates or someone like that."
Paramount On Location leases and delivers lights and related movie-making equipment to filmmakers. Studio officials disclosed no financial terms of the private deals.
With the additions of Knight Vision and Paramount's equipment supplier -- plus Carnegie Mellon's commitment to have graduate-level students in its Entertainment Technology Center attend classes and work on projects at the facility -- 31st Street Studios is becoming the multi-faceted business Breakwell said he envisioned.
"What I am trying to do is set us apart. Maybe this tilts in Pittsburgh's favor instead of (projects) going to Louisiana or New Mexico," he said.
Pittsburgh has become a hot spot for filmmakers. The latest installment in the Batman saga starring Christian Bale filmed here for several weeks last summer, and the Tom Cruise thriller "One Shot" wrapped filming recently after several months.
Pittsburgh's next wave of major film projects is close to being announced.
"Promised Land," starring and written in part by Matt Damon, is looking to start filming soon in Pittsburgh, the Tribune-Review has learned. Gus Van Sant is slated to direct the small-budget film, which Deadline.com reported will cost about $15 million. Included as a producer is Chris Moore. The three worked together on the 1997 picture, "Good Will Hunting."
Officials with Focus Features, which acquired rights to the film with Participant Media, declined to comment.
Pennsylvania makes available up to $60 million in tax credits each year for filmmakers to apply toward 25 percent of production expenses in Pennsylvania, provided they spend at least 60 percent of their total budget in the state.
Critics of the tax credits have questioned their economic and employment value in light of state budget cuts, and call them a selective tax break for one industry.
But the credits played a major factor in Knight Vision's decision to come here, Knight said, adding that several potential projects are in the works.
"Really, the sky is the limit," Knight said.
Knight's local operation, which producer Todd Eckert of the North Side will head, should be ready by the end of March. New jobs created will include animators, producers and motion-capture directors, he said.
And that is what yesterday's announcement was all about for Dawn Keezer, president of the Pittsburgh Film Office.
"The whole key of this is that we're really building an industry," Keezer said. "This is a boost to the industry."
Film projects pumped more than $100 million into Western Pennsylvania's economy each of the past three years and have topped more than $600 million since the local film office opened in 1990, she said.
"Pittsburgh really is becoming the Hollywood of the East," said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who spoke at yesterday's announcement. "As much as I am excited about Tom Cruise and Christian Bale (having been) in town, what this really means to us is jobs.
"We've gone from steel making to filmmaking."
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