Imagine Mister Rogers in his red cardigan and tennis shoes in New York or Atlanta.
It almost happened.
Pittsburgh was at risk of losing the filming of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Mister Rogers film starring Tom Hanks, to another city, people involved with keeping the film in Pennsylvania told the Tribune-Review. Key to basing production in Pittsburgh was the state’s often-debated film tax credit.
“I can definitely say without the tax credits this Mister Rogers movie would not have been shot here,” said Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office and among the first to sound the alarm that Mister Rogers may be on its way elsewhere.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” debuts Saturday at the Toronto Film Festival. Much of the film was shot in Western Pennsylvania.
Two years ago, when Keezer called state Sen. Jay Costa, the Forest Hills Democrat could sense panic in her voice. Keezer was concerned Sony Pictures might opt to film the upcoming Mister Rogers film somewhere besides Pittsburgh. A Mister Rogers movie without scenes of Pittsburgh would have been ridiculous, Keezer said.
Keezer said scenes like one shot at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill where Rogers often worked out, would not have been the same in another city. Filming also took place inside the WQED studios where the show was filmed.
This space is pretty incredible, Keezer said. Not only did the crew get to experience the exact spot where Rogers worked but also had access to people who still work there who were connected to the show.
“You aren’t going to get that anywhere else,” Keezer said. “You can’t really recreate that atmosphere since it was vintage Mister Rogers.”
Sony did not comment for this story.
Costa said he felt it was his duty to create a sense of urgency for the movie. It was realistic that it might not be filmed in Pennsylvania, he said.
He got the ball rolling by making an initial call to Randy Albright, then Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget secretary. He then called Dennis Davin, head of the Department of Community and Economic Development and a Western Pennsylvania native, who served in Allegheny County government for years.
“I impressed upon them my urgency,” said Costa. “Whoever I talked to I said it would be a horrible mistake and an embarrassment to not have this movie filmed here. I was persistent.”
Costa said he didn’t know exactly what the problem was. There is often more than one reason tax credits aren’t awarded or available. The reason didn’t matter. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Albright said there is a huge demand for tax credits resources, and there is only so much money available. Decisions have to be made from budget items to other areas of concern, so it’s not always an easy choice.
And it often takes time, Albright said. There is a responsibility to oversee the tax credits program and make the resources available in the best way.
“In this case, following Senator Costa’s advocacy from the governor on down, we knew it was a priority,” Albright said. “We wanted to work with Senator Costa to make this tax credit available. Clearly, this movie represents Mister Rogers’ life, which was here. He lived and filmed his show here. He is a man who means so much to the state’s history.”
Costa also made a plea to Carrie Lepore, deputy secretary of marketing, tourism and film for Pennsylvania. She said it is a competitive industry, but once the money was allotted, the state was thrilled to promote the film.
Lepore said estimated total production cost for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” was $45 million.The tax credit was under $9.5 million.
Pennsylvania offers a 25% tax credit to films that spend at least 60% of their total production budget in the state. This equates to money spent on equipment, office supplies, local workers, the cost of filming and other expenses. In addition, there is an incentive to freely use state-owned property and a tax incentive at Pennsylvania hotels for cast and crew staying 30 or more consecutive days.
The movie industry has brought $1.5 billion to the city since 1990, when the Pittsburgh Film Office opened. More than half of that is from when the tax credit started about a decade ago, Keezer said.
The neighbors of Pennsylvania feel an affinity to Rogers, Lepore said. His legacy lives on.
“We claim him as our own,” Lepore said. “This one was personal because of Rogers’ respect for children and his message of kindness and tolerance. People today are carrying on his teachings. His words are so powerful, especially in today’s world. We wanted the movie here, out of respect for Fred Rogers’ legacy.”
Rogers’ wife, Joanne Rogers, said it meant so much to her to have the movie filmed in Pittsburgh. She said it also would mean so much to her husband.
Pittsburgh’s uniqueness would have been difficult to recreate in another city, Joanne Rogers said.
“People who live here or who have lived here are proud of Pittsburgh, and they recognize Pittsburgh landmarks in movies,” she said. “It is very special.”