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State budget woes vary among filmmakers

Kiss+Me+Goodbye+is+one+of+the+many+local+independent+film+productions+in+Pittsburgh.++Photo+courtesy+of+Kept+Shut+Productions
Kiss Me Goodbye is one of the many local independent film productions in Pittsburgh.  Photo courtesy of Kept Shut Productions

Kiss Me Goodbye is one of the many local independent film productions in Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Kept Shut Productions

Kiss Me Goodbye is one of the many local independent film productions in Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Kept Shut Productions

By Elaina Zachos / Staff Writer

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Lights, camera, no action on the state’s budget is shoving film production crews out of Pittsburgh, hurting the hospitality industry and pulling the curtains on the city’s reputation as the next Hollywood.

With Pennsylvania’s state budget in flux since July, the state’s reserved $60 million film tax credit is frozen and bigger budget productions are rolling into problems. As it stands, filmmakers that spend at least 60 percent of their production costs in Pennsylvania can apply for a 25 percent credit for the state-mandated film tax. 

Until the state budget is approved, though, the state Department of Community and Economic Development cannot review applications or award tax credits.

“We simply do not know whether the program limits that will ultimately be approved for the credits will be higher than, lower than or the same as the limits that were in effect last year,” Dan Carrigan, Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development press aide, said in an email.

As part of past state budget negotiations, Carrigan said the state government reduced or nixed certain tax credit allocations entirely.

Film folk refer to Pittsburgh as the “Hollywood of the East” because of its cinematic industrial landscape and skilled manual laborers, but as long as lawmakers continue to bicker about the state budget, no future film project applications can receive tax credits. The impasse’s effects are already appearing, and Pittsburgh lost the Starz TV show “American Gods” last month.

“If [the state doesn’t] get something done soon, we will lose even more [productions],” said Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office.

Keezer said the office has $200 million in applications pending at the DCED, which houses the Pennsylvania Film Office. As a result, filmmakers are taking their productions to locales where “the incentives are not in question every year, such as Georgia, Louisiana and New York,” Keezer said.

Filmmaker’s decision to go elsewhere has considerable effects in not only Pittsburgh’s film community, but other local establishments as well.   

Originally, “American Gods” was supposed to film at 31st Street Studios in the Strip District with a 200 to 300 person crew.

Instead, Chris Breakwell, the studio’s owner and CEO, said, “The money that would have been circulating here in Pittsburgh is not going to be circulating.”

Breakwell speculated that the FreemantleMedia might take the show to Atlanta or Toronto, which both have sturdier film tax credits at the moment. Atlanta offers a 35 percent film tax credit as part of an uncapped budget. Toronto’s film tax credit incentive is 40 percent.

With productions leaving, local film crews go unemployed and the hospitality sector loses business. Rob Mallinger, general manager of Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh located Downtown, said filmmakers aren’t frequenting the hotel, so business is “relatively slow as that is concerned.”

The film industry is also reshaping the way people view Pittsburgh, Breakwell said. Films take Pittsburgh from an industrial town to an attractive cultural hub.

“[The film industry] raises the culture of Pittsburgh,” Breakwell said. “You can’t put $60 million on marketing.”

Not all film projects are hurting from the impasse though. Smaller projects like the 12-minute “Kiss Me Goodbye,” which examines religion in a dystopian society, finished filming in various Pittsburgh locations on Nov. 21. Unlike larger commercial projects seeking tax credits, the impasse hasn’t affected the indie film as greatly.

“We don’t totally have everything covered yet,” said producer Molly Duerig , “[But] we’ve covered enough to shoot film and get it developed.” 

The filmmakers spent most of their budget to send film to ColorLab in Maryland for processing and scanning, disqualifying them from the 60 percent in-state cost tax credit rule.

Duerig said they’re shooting to get the film featured at the Toronto International and Raindance film festivals, but “Kiss Me Goodbye” is still an indie production by local filmmakers. Without mainstream filmmakers flocking to Pittsburgh from out of state, the “Hollywood of the East” is in peril of losing its title. 

“The reputation of being a great place to film will be tarnished,” Keezer said.

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State budget woes vary among filmmakers