Pittsburgh Film Office to celebrate record year at annual fundraiser

Leah Maurizio earned top honors as the 'Living Red Carpet' during the Pittsburgh Film Office Lights! Glamour! Action! Oscar Party in the East Lounge of Heinz Field on the North Shore. Feb. 22, 2015.
Leah Maurizio earned top honors as the 'Living Red Carpet' during the Pittsburgh Film Office Lights! Glamour! Action! Oscar Party in the East Lounge of Heinz Field on the North Shore. Feb. 22, 2015.
| Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, 11:20 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Film Office will roll out the red carpet once again this weekend to celebrate the Academy Awards — and to raise money to help attract more film and television productions to Western Pennsylvania.

“Lights! Glamour! Action!,” the 16th annual gala event sponsored by Highmark, takes on added importance this year as the film office received no state contribution toward its approximately $670,000 operating budget.

“So the party is more important than ever to continue our mission of generating new economic revenue through the film industry for southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Dawn Keezer, who has been film office director since 1994.

The annual fundraiser brought in more than $250,000 last year through ticket sales and sponsorships, including $50,000 from Highmark. Trib Total Media also is a sponsor.

“We expect this to be the largest it's ever been,” Keezer said.

Sunday's event will be held for the first time at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

“The gala has always been about celebrating the local film industry. It's been an opportunity to shine a spotlight on what we have accomplished the past year and what we are looking forward to in the new year,” Keezer said. “This was the goal for the first party in 2001, and it holds true today.”

Allegheny County contributes $150,000 annually to the film office through its hotel tax revenue.

“For that money to be put back into this industry, we think that's a good investment,” said county Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “The return is tremendous both in the jobs and the amount of spending we get here.”

Since its inception in 1990, the Pittsburgh Film Office has helped land film and television productions that spent more than $1 billion in the region — including about $600 million since the state bolstered its film production tax credit program in 2007.

The state provides up to 30 percent in incentive rebates for productions that spend at least 60 percent of their budgets on qualified expenses in Pennsylvania. The programs is capped at $60 million a year.

“It brings new money into the region,” Fitzgerald said. “It's an industry that has been growing, and we hope it continues to grow.”

The state wants to see continued growth in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Since 2007, the industry statewide has invested $2 billion and supported 24,200 jobs, said Carrie Lepore, deputy secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development's Marketing, Tourism and Film Office.

“We recognize the importance of having strong film offices all across the state, but especially in our anchor cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” Lepore said. “We are excited the film industry is a part of Pennsylvania's diverse economic success.”

Still, the Pittsburgh Film Office received no financial support this year from the state, which has yet to adopt a fiscal 2015-16 budget.

Since 2008, the office received $1.3 million total in state funding, including a $150,000 grant last year through “Developed in PA, Discovered in PA,” a state DCED program that no longer exists. This year, the office received no state money — which also happened in 2012 and 2013.

“I'm desperately trying to fill that hole right now,” Keezer said. “I'm hoping this is just an issue with this year's budget.”

Membership in the local film-crew union stands at 380 workers, said Chip Eccles, business agent for Local 489 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, which added 71 members last year.

Both IATSE members and the local Teamsters union that work on film and television productions contribute directly to the Pittsburgh Film Office. That added about $50,000 last year, Keezer said.

“We're the only film office in the country that gets direct payroll contributions from our unions,” she said. “They are directly benefitting from the work we are doing.”

For the past two years, MovieMaker Magazine listed Pittsburgh among the country's top smaller cities for filmmaking.

For 2016, the Pittsburgh Film Office has landed at least three productions for the region.

“Outsiders,” a WGN America show, returns for Season 2 and Netflix plans to shoot “Mindhunter,” a show about an FBI profiler, in the Pittsburgh area. HBO also will make August Wilson's play “Fences” into a movie in Pittsburgh.

The film office has four employees, including Keezer.

“We are about as bare bones as we can be,” she said. “It's crazy that we are this busy and this small.”

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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