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?

In one of the new buildings at Sun Center, there’s a room whose walls are lined with 17 large, evocative sketches rendered in sepia tones. They were drawn by BRC Imagination Arts, a California firm that designs theme parks and museums. There’s a sketch of a man at a fake Oscar podium, accepting a fake Oscar, and a sketch of a “4-D theater,” which is like 3-D except your chair moves at certain times, or little nozzles release mists of scent. The attractions have names like “Big Hollywood Dreams,” “Astonish Me,” “Sound Spectacular,” “Street of Dreams,” “The Greatest Movie Moments” and “Film-adelphia.”

Jeff Rotwitt isn’t waiting around to see if his studio will fly. The studio is just Phase One. Phase Two, he says, is a theme park, a tourist attraction built around a celebration of American film and film culture, geared toward day-trippers from Baltimore, D.C. and New York. Phase Two is where he will begin “broadening, in a very humble way, to mimic the success of Disney.”

Yes, Disney. He described this vision to me in May, in a Sun Center conference room lined with oversized photos of the facility back when the parking lot and sound stages were full during the filming of After Earth. According to Rotwitt, his goal isn’t to compete on size with big movie parks: Disneyland in Anaheim, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Universal Orlando and Hollywood. At least not yet. But eventually? Maybe. “We’ve brought the mountain to Mohammed,” he said, speaking about the project in the past tense, as if it already existed and had for some time. “We brought it to the East, where the population center is.” Seven million people live within an hour’s drive of Sun Center; 24 million live within two hours. Rotwitt said that because he’s so close to so many people, he’s actually starting out with more than Walt Disney had to work with back in the ’50s, when he launched Disneyland. “If Orlando was successful?” Rotwitt said. “Orlando was just a bunch of open space. As was Anaheim, quite frankly. I think Disney bought vacant land.” (Walt Disney built Disneyland atop 160 acres of Anaheim orange groves.)

Rotwitt added that Phase Two will offer something those other parks can’t: a direct connection to a working film studio. The studio will lend credibility and sex appeal to the park: Come to Sun Center, the sales pitch will go, and you might just catch a glimpse of Tom Cruise or Will Smith. The stars will “maybe take a stroll through our lobby and sign autographs,” Rotwitt said. “We’re not guaranteeing that’s the case, but I bet it happens not infrequently.”

Rotwitt seemed to be conceding that the viability of his theme park depended, in some significant part, on his film studio actually booking movies. But there were no movies at the moment. He was building Phase Two anyway. Rotwitt and his sons said they were finalizing designs for the theme park this fall and would begin construction this spring, regardless of what happens with the studio. They were looking to borrow $85 million on top of the $50 million they’ve already spent.

And their plans kept getting bigger and bigger. In August, Rotwitt appeared before Chester Township zoning officials to pitch his plan to build a five-story hotel on the Sun Center site, complete with a restaurant on the roof where you would be able to eat dinner and look out at the twinkling Philadelphia skyline and the Commodore Barry Bridge. “I’d heard the spiel five or six times,” says Councilman May. “It’s still impressive.” To build the hotel, Rotwitt needed the height limit at the site raised from 78 feet to 120 feet; officials approved the increase in September. May says he’ll continue to do whatever he can to help Rotwitt expand Sun Center: “If I would say no, I’d give up all hopes. I’d never say no until the day he sells it.”