Steeltown Film Factory brings screenplay competition to Pitt

By Tony Jovenitti

This weekend, the co-star of “Animal House” will return home to Pittsburgh.

Jamie… This weekend, the co-star of “Animal House” will return home to Pittsburgh.

Jamie Widdoes, better known as “Hoover,” the president of the Delta House, is now a filmmaker and is currently directing CBS’s comedy “Two and a Half Men.”

This Saturday, he will come to Pitt’s Alumni Hall to help find the next great Pittsburgh filmmaker.

The Steeltown Film Factory filmmaking competition has selected its five semifinalists, and on Saturday they will meet at Alumni Hall for a workshop titled “The Director’s Pitch: Transforming Screenplays into Productions.” There, they will pitch their stories to Widdoes and two other judges: Heide Waldbaum, production manager for “Avatar” and Lisa Smith, production consultant for “Project Greenlight 2.”

Widdoes said that he is excited “at the opportunity, not only to come back to Pittsburgh, but also to bring more attention to the film industry of Pittsburgh.”

The Steeltown Film Factory was organized by The Steeltown Entertainment Project, which was founded in 2003 when Pittsburgh natives working professionally in the film industry held the Steeltown Summit.

“[The competition] will give people an opportunity to learn from professionals,” said Jodi Klebick, executive director of the project.

The winner — or winners, depending on the talent level — will be selected to receive or share $25,000 to produce their films.

But there is one catch. The films must be produced in southwestern Pennsylvania. The goal of the Steeltown Film Factory is to not only help out local talent, but to also create filmmaking jobs. The competition began last fall, when the Steeltown Entertainment Project asked community members to participate, Klebick said.

Contestants submitted screenplays 10 to 12 pages in length. Forty “entertainment professionals” judged 110 submissions and selected 10, she said.

Late last month, Carnegie Mellon hosted the first Steeltown Film Factory event, where theater students performed “scripted readings” of the 10 screenplays. Judges — including Geoffrey Fletcher, who wrote “Precious” — gave feedback, and the contestants took time to revise their screenplays. Now, after five semifinalists pitch their stories to the judges this weekend, three will be selected as finalists. They will meet at Point Park University on March 27 to discuss production considerations. There, the winner or winners will be selected.

Wednesday, the Steeltown Entertainment Project announced the five semifinalists.

Among them is Pitt alumnus John Feightner. He graduated from Pitt in 2004 with a degree in film studies. He ended up going to Friday Night Improv every week and quickly found he had a knack for comedy. He still attends Friday Night Improv every week, and he also joined a comedy troupe called Hustlebot.

“We mostly make movies and sketch shows,” Feightner said.

He and the three other Hustlebot members — Lawrence Phillis, Dave Fedor and Joe Wichryk II — got together last November and wrote three screenplays for Steeltown Film Factory. Two were selected for the final 10, and one made the cut for Saturday’s workshop.

Feightner said he didn’t have any screenplay writing plans when he came to Pitt, but he attributes much of his abilities to Friday Night Improv.

“Improv is essentially writing,” he said. “Except you’re writing in front of people and on the spot.”

Feightner’s script chosen for the semifinals is “Roll the Dice.” It is about the four members of Hustlebot all winning the Steeltown Film Factory, but two of them want to bet it all and try to double the money whereas the other two do not.

He said he knows who the judges are this weekend, and he’s “slightly nervous” to pitch the idea to them.

“It’s one thing to show them the script. Now we have to convince them just by describing it,” he said.

Feightner and his co-writers will be up against tough competition. The other semifinalists are Ross Thomas (“Anywhere But Here”), Randy Kobitz and Deborah Hosking (“Lightweight”), Alyssa Herron (“Making Arrangements”) and Ryan Krumm (“The Losing End”).

Krumm is also a Pitt alumnus. He graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in film studies. He worked on UPTV making some short films and took some screenwriting courses.

Krumm’s script, “The Losing End,” follows an out-of-work Pittsburgh steelworker in 1984. It chronicles one person’s struggle to be an honest man while being tempted by the negative forces in life, Krumm said.

“I’ve been listening to a lot of Springsteen lately, if that gives you a better idea,” he said.

Krumm said he’s a little nervous about the prestige of the judging panel and expects to be “really nervous” right before he makes his pitch.

Neither Krumm’s nor any of the contestants’ screenplays have been read by Widdoes. Widdoes was one of the 40 original judges and was asked to judge six of the 110 submissions.

“We each used a standardized grading,” Widdoes said. “And none of the ones I read made it to the final 10.”

So the five screenplays will be entirely new to Widdoes when they are pitched to him. Widdoes isn’t unfamiliar with “the director’s pitch,” but he has never judged a contest before.

“[I’ve] only [judged] professionally,” he said. “Not only do I pitch, but I’ve been pitched to.”

“So there are a lot of things we could be looking at. Obviously we want to consider what is most ready to be produced, since that is the ultimate goal of the competition,” he said.

“We’ll also look at which is best written, and which has the most interesting visuals,” he said.

Widdoes went to New York University’s Tisch School of Arts and graduated in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He would have gone to CMU, which was known as Carnegie Tech back then, but he “didn’t want to go to school five minutes from my house.”

His breakout acting role — one for which he is still known today — came in 1978 as Robert Hoover in “Animal House.” He acted in numerous other films and television shows, but much like his co-star John Belushi, he will forever be known as a Delta.

He has also made a name for himself as a director. He directed about half of the past episodes of “Two and Half Men,” and this year he is directing every episode. By returning to Pittsburgh, Widdoes hopes to help find the next successful Pittsburgh filmmaker. It might even be a Pitt alumni.