Can a Philly Movie Studio Really Compete with Hollywood?

Jeffrey Rotwitt built Sun Center Studios in Chester to bring blockbuster filmmaking to the area. Will Smith showed up. But will other stars follow?

It was a rainy morning when I approached the Sun Center Studios lot. Black curtains were draped across the fences that surround the place, to prevent peeping eyes and paparazzi from hassling the stars. Not that there were any here to hassle. I pulled through the front gate into a vast parking lot containing exactly nine cars.

The 33-acre site dates back to 1955, when the Sun Oil company ran an employee retreat here. Sun Oil eventually dissolved, and in 1999, Rotwitt bought the property. One of his sons, Doug, gave me a tour of the place, starting in one of the old Sun Oil buildings, “The Mill,” a 45,000-square-foot space with a 70-foot roof peak.

In addition to renovating the existing buildings, the Rotwitts created two new 20,000-square-foot stages fitted out with industrial power, industrial air conditioning, and huge-ass doors for loading huge-ass rigs. Doug also showed me part of the renovated main building, called Stage 3—a majestic, echoing space. Commercials for Powerade, Arby’s, the Pennsylvania Lottery and Under Armour have filmed here, but a TV commercial in this place is like a fly in a soup bowl. Jeff Rotwitt says Sun Center’s goal has always been to book at least two movies a year. In the two years it’s been open, it’s booked two large films and one indie.

To some degree, the place is a victim of circumstance. Back when Rotwitt first started pitching the idea, the economy hadn’t crashed yet, and Ed Rendell was still the governor. Rendell had long supported the Pennsylvania film industry; he’s the one who in 2004 signed into law the original tax-credit program, which doles out $60 million a year to productions that film in the state. When you talk to experts in movie production and ask why films are shot where they are, they don’t talk about the physical qualities of buildings; they talk about tax credits: How much cash will a particular state or province kick in to fund the production? Pennsylvania’s program is weak compared to similar programs in other states; New York caps its tax credits at $420 million a year, and North Carolina and Louisiana don’t have caps at all. (The former pays 25 percent of production costs; the latter, 30 percent.) But Rotwitt thought he could convince Rendell and other lawmakers to expand Pennsylvania’s program—to either raise the cap or lift it altogether. He would leverage his political connections to move the needle. “In a very pleasant way, Jeff drops a lot of names,” says Patrick Killian, commerce director for Delaware County, who endorsed the deal. “And I do mean a pleasant, charming, nonthreatening type of way.”

Rotwitt’s argument was basically this: If he could get the tax-credit program strengthened, the Philly area would start to look like an attractive place to make movies, especially compared to some of the other places they make movies these days. Like Shreveport, Louisiana. Rotwitt often talks about Shreveport. “We do not believe,” he says, “that Shreveport is the center of the universe.” If you’re a film director looking to spend months in an unfamiliar city, where would you rather be: Shreveport, or Philly? People shooting at Sun Center “can literally go down the street and watch Major League Soccer,” Rotwitt says. “That’s four miles from us. They can pick up a Phillies game in South Philadelphia. They can go to Longwood Gardens. They can dine at the Dilworthtown Inn. Or they can go to Rittenhouse Square.” Maybe Philly could never beat Los Angeles or New York, but couldn’t we beat Shreveport? In endless meetings with public officials, Rotwitt brilliantly inflamed the inferiority complex that has long plagued our people, then offered a salve: We have Comcast. We own NBC. Why can’t Philly be a media capital?

This all sounded pretty good to local officials. A movie studio would “put Chester Township on the map positively,” says township councilman Robert May, “instead of some of the things that are unflattering. Making a budget each year is very hard when a lot of your population is poverty-level and you still need police protection and trash pickup.”

And the local taxing bodies didn’t need to risk much to make the studio a reality. It’s true that representatives of Chester Township, Delaware County and the Chester Upland School District helped Rotwitt secure tax increment financing (TIF), an investment vehicle that earmarks much of future increases in tax revenues paid by Sun Center, based on its higher land-assessment value, for a dedicated fund the project can use (although Rotwitt says he hasn’t yet tapped into it). The way the 20-year TIF is structured, the taxing bodies will receive substantial increases in tax revenue on top of what they were originally getting from Rotwitt, before renovations, while dedicating up to $18 million for the site’s development. On paper, everybody wins. The carpenters union, US Bank and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were shouldering most of the risk on the project. The township’s contribution, on top of the TIF revenue, mostly had to do with rezoning. Because Rotwitt’s property existed in an industrial district where certain types of structures were prohibited, officials created a custom “movie studio district” that allowed him to bring in trailers for the movie stars, erect buildings as tall as 100 feet, and use explosives as special effects. The township even sent its assistant fire marshal to a pyrotechnics course. “We had to make sure [the studio] wouldn’t blow up Chester Township,” says May. He adds, “It seemed like a gold mine to us, if it would ever come to pass.”