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 late August, not long after the zoning meeting, I phone Rotwitt. It’s a long, intense conversation, as conversations with him often are. I ask him whether his studio is being underutilized, and his is palpable. “We don’t publicize,” he says. “So I don’t know how even anybody would be in a position to have an informed judgment.” He says it would be like someone trying to guess how many drinks he had today—information that’s between him and his bartender. I tell him frankly: I’m skeptical that After Earth justified the construction of Sun Center, given the fact that Shyamalan is local. He says my premise is incorrect; I’m putting too much emphasis on After Earth. “We could have gone with Bourne Legacy,” he says. “Maybe we should have. After Earth obviously bombed, unfortunately.” He pitches me hard, again, on Phase Two—the theme park, “the bigger part of the story,” which he says is 100 percent independent from the studio (although, months earlier, I’d gotten the impression that the fates of the studio and the theme park were intertwined). Finally, the big news: Rotwitt reveals that a new movie is arriving at Sun Center the following Monday, this one starring Richard Gere, and says I should call his son Adam to get the details.

Adam tells me the new movie is an independent film titled Franny. The crew, he says, will be filming at Sun Center until Thanksgiving. (It’s a new fiscal year, and the state’s film tax-credit program is relatively flush again.) In early September, reporter Molly Eichel breaks the story in the Daily News, writing that “Gere will reunite with the team that produced his well-received financial film Arbitrage” to shoot a script about “a hedonistic philanthropist who ingratiates himself into the lives of a newlywed couple in order to re-create the life he once had.” Eichel confirms the news with Sharon Pinkenson, who tells her, “It’s been a long dry spell, but I’m confident that business is heating up.” The next time I talk to Jeff Rotwitt, he tells me that yet another movie has expressed interest in booking Sun Center, after Franny is done filming. In a follow-up email, he writes, “An entourage from L.A. is coming here. … It is a ‘name’ studio and the film will be even bigger than the Will Smith After Earth picture.” He says he can’t tell me any more because the studios like to control their own publicity.

By the end of my adventures with Jeff Rotwitt, I’ve come to doubt my thesis that he owes his success in law and business to his extreme optimism. I now wonder if his power doesn’t have more to do with stamina and sheer force of will. Rotwitt is an exploding suitcase of blueprints and jokes and justifications and big glitzy ideas. He has money, connections, and a fierce and unyielding belief that every criticism of him is baseless. With a guy like this, it’s better, it’s easier, it’s wiser, to get out of his way and let him do what he wants, even if what he wants is to do what Jaden Smith does in the trailer forAfter Earth.

Doug Rotwitt showed me the trailer back in May, in a Sun Center conference room, before the movie bombed. A disintegrating spaceship. A crash landing. On a wild green planet, Jaden is hunted by CGI beasts. His father, Will Smith, speaks to him in voiceover. “If we are going to survive this,” Will says, “you must realize that fear is not real.” And then Jaden takes a running leap off a cliff.