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?

For a time, Sun Center appeared to be gathering momentum. Last year, Rotwitt booked the filming of the studio’s first big movie: After Earth, a sci-fi epic with a budget of $130 million. Bankrolled by Sony Pictures Entertainment, it starred Will Smith and his son, Jaden, and was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the man behind The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Last Airbender. Shyamalan, who lives in Chester County, is famous for shooting his films locally so he can be near his wife and kids. Sun Center is 15 minutes from his house. “Up until now,” Shyamalan emails, “we’ve always kind of made do with the best space available, which has been chemical plants and abandoned aircraft factory hangars, anything that could hold us. We would do the best we could to patch it up with Band-Aids and shoot it there. But this time I had the actual opportunity of shooting on a real sound stage with all the bells and whistles, and I felt a little bit like a country bumpkin coming into a castle because everything was so clean, and we were the first ones in there coming into a beautiful space that had everything that we needed.”

By all accounts, the shoot went smoothly, although Rotwitt and his sons—Adam, who has a background in real estate, and the aforementioned Doug, a former audio recording engineer in New York—did have to make a number of adjustments on the fly. After Earth was a massive operation that filled every sound stage and office; for months, the parking lot was packed with hundreds of cars. “We suddenly were on Broadway,” Jeff Rotwitt says. “We didn’t have a tryout in New Haven. We didn’t have a chance to say, ‘Let’s bring in a little movie and see how we do with it.’” At one point, the After Earth crew needed more electrical power, so they had to bring in an extra generator; another time, they had to juggle the position of a spaceship so a crane-mounted camera wouldn’t hit the wall when operators pulled back to get a wide shot. (Rotwitt jokes, “If Will Smith wants a pillar of fire, he wants a pillar of fire.”) But adaptations like this are “to be expected,” says John Rusk, co-producer of After Earth, who has worked on nine films with Shyamalan, in addition to Dead Poets Society and 12 Monkeys. Every production has to settle into its space. Rusk, who is from the area, says he’s shot movies in 31 states, and in terms of its technical amenities, Sun Center is “definitely right up there with a lot of those other sound stages” in New York or L.A. (Critics eventually savaged After Earth. The film recouped only $60 million of its $130 million price tag in its domestic release.)

Rotwitt says After Earth validates his decision to build Sun Center: “Our initial concern, going back several years, is: Will anybody shoot here besides our neighbors shooting home movies? If you build it, will they come? Well, that has ultimately already been proven.” Of course, Shyamalan lives here. He would have found a way to film in the region anyway. For Sun Center to survive, it has to lure business away from all the other places where big productions film these days.

Rotwitt says he’s already shown that he can do this. Last year, the producers of The Bourne Legacy were ready to book his facility, he says, but After Earth was filming there during the months they needed it, so they went elsewhere. Later, a smaller film, Paranoia, starring Harrison Ford, shot at Sun Center for six weeks. (Reamed by reviewers, Paranoia earned only $7 million at the U.S. box office.) Also, for a time, Marvel Studios was planning to shoot its Captain America sequel at Sun Center, even applying for a state tax credit. Then the tax credits ran out for the year. Marvel ended up filming in Ohio instead.

This is Rotwitt’s biggest problem: State law has refused to shift in his favor. Tom Corbett, who replaced Rendell, seemed poised to cut the tax-credit program for moviemaking from its already paltry $60 million; only a furious lobbying effort by Rotwitt and his allies was able to hold that off. More recently, Rotwitt and Dominic Pileggi collaborated with Sharon Pinkenson, the fluffy-haired Rittenhouse socialite and executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, to get the cap on the program removed entirely—and lost. In the 2013 state budget, signed into law in June, the tax-credit program remains capped at $60 million per year until at least 2018. And that’s really bad news for Jeffrey Rotwitt.

In May, before the budget was set in stone, I asked Pinkenson if Sun Center could survive without a change to the tax-credit program. “That’s not a question for me,” she said. “I don’t know the answer to that. That’s a Jeff question.” But Jeff had already moved on from such questions.