Pitt graduates find a place in showbusiness

By Shawn Cooke / Staff Writer

John Dellaverson didn’t write or produce “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the season’s biggest blockbuster. But he did help build the house that’s making millions of dollars because of it.

Dellaverson, a Pitt grad and former executive vice president of Lionsgate Entertainment, worked for a Canadian film company, Cinegate, that eventually merged into Lionsgate. While at Lionsgate, Dellaverson also served as an executive producer on films, including “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Currently, he serves as vice chairman of Film Finances Inc., a company that ensures the completion of many of the world’s independent films. Dellaverson is just one of the seemingly endless examples of Pitt alumni working in the film industry.

Although Pitt does not have a formal film school, many students have utilized plentiful opportunities from the University and the city. One of the strongest bridges between Pittsburgh and Hollywood is the Steeltown Entertainment Project.

Steeltown is a nonprofit headed by Pitt professor and Hollywood screenwriter Carl Kurlander (“St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Saved By The Bell”). Its objective is not only to springboard local talent into Hollywood, but also to lure the business to Pittsburgh.  

“Steeltown’s real mission is to build an industry here.” Kurlander said. “With all the creative disruption in Hollywood right now, there’s a real opportunity for Pittsburgh and Pitt to really be a player. In fact, we are now.”  

Several recent big studio projects such as “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Jack Reacher” and “Foxcatcher” have been drawn to the city for its generous tax incentives.

Despite Pitt’s lack of a formal film school, Kurlander notes that many of the students Steeltown has exported to Hollywood adjusted smoothly to the industry.  

“The business there is much more about doing the job, showing up, being a self-starter … a lot of things that I think Pitt kids particularly excel in,” Kurlander said.  

One of his own former students, John Paul Horstmann, took full advantage of all the University’s opportunities — and even managed to create a few of his own.

Horstmann founded The Creation Station, which is currently known as UPTV, and gained invaluable experience editing short films to be broadcast for students. He recalls the overwhelming freedom granted to the group by the University.

“They were incredibly supportive of us putting this together our way, and didn’t step in to regulate what we could or couldn’t do,” he said.  

From editing videos at Pitt, Horstmann was given a platform of experience to prepare him for an internship with American Cinema Editors. He has since edited several major studio films, including “Killing Them Softly” and “The Assassination of Jesse James,” and he doesn’t rule out the possibility of returning to Pittsburgh for future projects.  

“Pittsburgh has some of the most incredible locations in the country and is very enthusiastic about getting productions to shoot there through Steeltown and their tax incentives,” he said.

But not all Pitt alumni in the film industry embrace the Hollywood lifestyle.

Anne Estonilo, co-founder of New York-based production company mouseROAR, attests to the notion that Hollywood is a “one-industry town,” and she is proud of the professional diversity that New York offers.  

“I’m much more interested in any personalities that are outside of the film industry,” Estonilo said. “It broadens your perspective.”  

With mouseROAR, Estonilo said she aims to create projects with purpose — those that extend beyond the medium of film.  

“Part of the reason I’m in New York, is I’m more interested in treating a film as sort of a start-up venture,” she said.

From its early emphasis on advertising and marketing, mouseROAR has come to embrace the mantra of “profit with purpose.” Whether it is through documentary, scripted films or advertising, mouseROAR strives to reach for the larger message. Two of Estonilo’s upcoming projects, an adaptation of Henry “Box” Brown’s escape from slavery and “Future Tense,” a documentary exploring the stunning achievement and pitfalls of technology, both point to a larger thematic purpose.

Though Estonilo geographically distances herself from most other Pitt film success stories, she acknowledges Hollywood’s financial value in advancing the message of documentaries like “Future Tense.” But she also wants these ideas to operate outside of the traditional forums of film.

“We want it to become more than just a film that goes out there and does the festival circuit,” Estolino said. “It’s a film that is presented to high schools and can start a town hall conversation.”                               

Other alumni, while not directly producing films, have headed out West to cover the industry. Anthony Breznican, a senior movie writer for Entertainment Weekly, cites his time at Pitt as an excellent foundation for both his background in journalism and his affinity for creativity.

“Even though Pitt isn’t known as a film school, like USC or NYU, it’s a place where people go and have tremendous creativity,” he said.

Breznican points to the community’s numerous creative offerings  — from Sunday Night Live play readings at the Beehive to Friday Night Improv — as being particularly instrumental in his desire to be around creative output.

Living in Hollywood has given Breznican the opportunity to interview everyone from cinematic legends, such as Steven Spielberg, to far younger stars, such as Daniel Radcliffe. Covering films and award shows has probably allowed him to meet just as many prominent personalities as any filmmaker.

“If you like being around people who are creative and funny and weird, there’s no better job,” he said.