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Pittsburgh basking in the latest filmmaking boom

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By Marie Wilson
Monday, Aug. 9, 2010
 

Stargazers no longer have to travel far to glimpse the likes of Taylor Lautner and Katherine Heigl.

Try Mt. Lebanon, the North Side, Braddock, Ambridge, Vandergrift or Monroeville. Three movies filming in Western Pennsylvania -- "Abduction," "One for the Money" and "I am Number Four" -- are shooting in those locations and more, and experts say their presence represents another boom in Pittsburgh's film industry.

"For the size of the movies that are here, it's unprecedented," said James Jackson, president of Performance Lighting, a Lawrenceville-based company that rents lighting equipment and generators to film production crews.

Industry supporters say the rush of major movie filming that started last year helps the economy by creating jobs and bolstering business for rental car companies and hotels. They say a state tax credit available to filmmakers since July 2007 is responsible for bringing films to the region.

"Without the tax credit, there would be no work in Pennsylvania," said Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, which markets the region to producers. "It's vitally important."

Companies can receive a 25 percent tax credit when they spend at least 60 percent of their production budget in Pennsylvania. Credits are granted on a first-come, first-served basis until a set amount -- $60 million this fiscal year -- runs out.

Skeptics of the tax credit say it unfairly favors the film industry and has not brought in enough money.

"It's still distorting the economy by using the tax code to favor one industry over another," said Nathan Benefield, director of policy research for the Harrisburg nonprofit Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives.

Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, an independent media arts center in North Oakland, says the filming provides jobs.

"When I see staff, students and artists all working, I see the direct cause and effect of the film industry on the economic environment," Humphrey said.

Scene painters, carpenters and other members of Studio Mechanics Local 489 are among those working. Bart Flaherty, 47, of Baldwin, a union member who is key rigger for "I am Number Four," said film students and freelancers are finding opportunities because so many of the union's 300 members are working.

"With three movies going on, you can actually break in," Flaherty said.

This is not the first wave of major movie production in Pittsburgh. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, zombie films and industrial training videos commonly were shot in the city, said Tony Buba, filmmaker and former film professor at Chatham and Robert Morris universities. Blockbusters such as "Flashdance" and "The Deer Hunter" put Pittsburgh on the movie-making map.

Made-for-TV movies also had their time in the area during the late 1990s and 2000s until the writers strike in 2007, Buba said.

Early filming booms helped Pittsburgh build a base of talented crew members, which attracted filmmakers to the area over time, he added. The Pittsburgh Film Office reports 11 movies filmed here in 2008 and six in 2009.

Film production work is often seasonal and temporary. Emily Bosworth-Clemens, 27, of Polish Hill said she can survive for a year on wages she makes working as a scenic painter for a few months. She is one of about 125 local crew members working on "Abduction," according to publicist Will Casey.

"It'd be totally different if it was all outside crews coming in and just dropping money on hotels," Buba said. "A lot of people working on films are living in neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and bringing back the neighborhoods."

Filming offered a diversion for people who live near Osage Road in Mt. Lebanon, where filming of Lautner's "Abduction" has taken place, said Susan Morgans, spokeswoman for the municipality. The filming has not brought any measurable economic benefits, she said.

"There's more of a nice (public relations) value, and it's fun for our residents," Morgans said.

Customers at Scoops on Beverly in Mt. Lebanon discussed their search for the teen heartthrob Lautner, said the ice cream shop's owner, Mike Collins.

"I don't know if it increased business, but people were talking about it," Collins said.

Although businesses and municipalities do not track the film industry's influence on the economy, film offices in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Lancaster keep statistics. The Pittsburgh Film Office reported the industry generated $100 million in 2009, based on surveys of production companies about the amount spent on rental cars, hotel rooms, food, security, personnel and other expenses, Keezer said. The Greater Philadelphia Film Office reported that filming in southeastern Pennsylvania in 2009 generated $598 million.

"The film industry is not a luxury," said film producer Adrienne Wehr, 48, of Regent Square. "It is an economic generator. It puts people to work, and it brings millions of dollars into our state."

The Department of Community and Economic Development is required to provide an economic analysis of the film tax credit to the General Assembly every September. The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee hired a consultant to complete a report in May 2009.

"It wasn't a slam-dunk," said Philip Durgin, executive director of the committee. "It wasn't obvious whether it was a positive or not."

The report's two main findings contradict, Durgin said. It found the state suffered a net loss of $40.3 million in tax money from projects that received the tax credit in fiscal year 2007-08. But the state's entire film industry generated $4.5 million during that time.

"For the most part, it was viewed as a positive for continuing the tax credit at some level," Durgin said.

The report did not establish a cause-and-effect link between larger tax credits and more film production in the state, said Benefield, the Commonwealth Foundation's director of policy research.

"The main problem is it rewards companies for what they would have done otherwise," Benefield said.

Because Pennsylvania is one of more than 40 states that offer such credits, continuing it keeps the state in a costly race to offer the best incentives to Hollywood producers, said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon.

The middle of the state is not seeing the same spike in filming happening in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, said Jay Ingram, president of the Lancaster Film Commission. Lancaster usually hosts two major films a year, but none so far this year, he said.

The tax credit should be rewritten to favor independent filmmakers who live in the state and not major Hollywood companies, Ingram said.

The amount available for film tax credits is set to increase from $60 million to $75 million on July 1, unless legislators change the amount, said Arlene Ashton of the Department of Community and Economic Development, which doles out the tax credits.

"Film, no matter what, is still economics, no matter how much of the art form is involved," Buba said.

 

 
 


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