What Happened to Philly’s Booming Movie Industry?

This story comes with a plot twist, in which Hollywood directors are abandoning Philadelphia for … Pittsburgh?

Illustration by Bruce Emmett

Illustration by Bruce Emmett

The hallway that leads to Sharon Pinkenson’s perch on the 11th floor of One Parkway Building is wallpapered in old movie posters from the city’s brushes with Hollywood, from the first Rocky to Philadelphia to M. Night Shyamalan’s assorted experiments with surprise endings. Nicolas Cage and Mark Wahlberg stare back at you silently, stuck in classic cinematic hero poses, like faded snapshots of Bobby Clarke and Mike Schmidt pinned up in a neighborhood bar.

Pinkenson’s been running the Greater Philadelphia Film Office for 24 years now, long enough to become a local icon in her own right. Her spectacularly coiled halo of blond curls is as closely associated with the film office as Clarke’s gap-toothed grin and Schmidt’s Magnum, P.I. mustache are with the Flyers and Phillies of yesteryear. On her watch, Philadelphia evolved into a go-to destination for directors drawn to the city’s many faces — hulking City Hall, graceful Boathouse Row, posh Rittenhouse and destitute Kensington.

National Treasure, The Italian Job, In Her Shoes, Invincible, Rocky Balboa, Marley & Me, to name just a few: By the mid-2000s, you couldn’t go more than a few weeks without hearing that yet another big-name star was shooting a movie here. Catching a glimpse of Robert De Niro started to seem nearly normal. And why not? Philadelphia was touting itself as a world-class city, full of great museums, trendy restaurants and affordable, walkable neighborhoods. It only followed that a creative economy could thrive here, too.

And Pinkenson was at the center, gritty Philly’s glamorous conduit to Hollywood. She still lights up when she talks about her collaborations with Tinseltown’s elite — the phone calls from Marty’s office (that’s Mr. Scorsese to you), the meetings with Bradley (Cooper), the strolls downtown with Jonathan (Demme).

But Pinkenson’s smile vanishes when you bring up the current state of Philly’s film industry, which is about as quiet as a clapboard town in the Old West just before a gunfight breaks out. (Cue lonely tumbleweed hopping across Broad Street.) Marty’s not calling anymore. People who want to make a career in television and film are ditching Philly because they can’t find work. Developer Jeffrey Rotwitt’s $50 million studio in Chester Township — built amid the buzz Pinkenson fueled — is now looking like a colossally expensive mistake. Moviemaking has always been a fickle, cyclical industry, but this dry spell doesn’t look like it’s going to end soon. It’s not that filmmakers are suddenly disinterested in Philly. The two big problems, industry insiders say, is that making movies here has gotten too expensive and too difficult, thanks to gridlock in Harrisburg and — surprise! — cantankerous union bosses.

And Sharon Pinkenson — despite her charm, despite her Rolodex, despite her status as the fountain-of-youth-guzzling, Hollywood-kissed grande dame of Philadelphia’s society circuit — appears powerless to bring the cameras back.

NATURALLY, IT WAS Ed Rendell who hired Sharon Pinkenson, back in 1992, after she pitched him over lunch at the Palm. Before then, City Hall ran the Philadelphia film office, and big directors largely stayed away.

Pinkenson, a dental-hygienist-turned-boutique-owner-turned-commercial-costume-designer, told Rendell that the movie office could do so much more. She told him that movies meant business, and high-paying jobs. Rendell was intrigued, so much so that he wanted Pinkenson to be the office’s executive director.

After taking the gig, she promptly headed to Los Angeles, where she spread the word that Philly was open for business. Demme was among the filmmakers who were intrigued. He needed a setting for a film he was planning on the AIDS epidemic, and Philadelphia was an option. Pinkenson personally took him to City Hall, where part of Philadelphia was eventually shot. “We changed the world with that movie,” she says, gleefully showing off an oversize poster of the film that’s autographed by Tom Hanks.

Rendell helped plenty. As governor, he signed a movie tax-credit program into law in 2004. After some fits and starts, the cap was set at $75 million in 2007. The program awards a 25 percent tax credit to TV shows and movies that spend at least 60 percent of their budget in the Commonwealth.

Movie tax credits are commonplace now, but for a time, Pennsylvania was in the vanguard, and the program proved to be a siren song to Hollywood.

For filmmakers, the appeal is obvious. For cities and states, the calculation is considerably more complicated. One Commonwealth agency reported in 2013 that the tax credits had injected $1.5 billion into Pennsylvania’s economy in the space of a few years, and supported 19,000 jobs. But that same year, a different state office reported that Pennsylvania only got 14 cents for every dollar it doled out in film tax credits. It all depends on how you count the money — how much of an economic multiplier moviemaking is — and there’s no consensus on that score.

Except in Hollywood, where generous, dependable tax-credit programs have become a huge factor for directors and producers choosing where to shoot their films.

And ever since Rendell left office, Pennsylvania’s tax-credit program hasn’t been dependable or generous — at least, not compared to the wholesale giveaways now being offered by many states. The film tax credit tumbled from $75 million to $42 million in 2009 amid the Tom Corbett budget cuts. The cap was bumped up to $60 million the following year, where it’s remained ever since. But the credit seems perpetually in question thanks to the state legislature’s inability to get through budget negotiations without things going all Chernobyl.

In the meantime, New York has expanded its tax-credit cap to $420 million, and California’s is set at $330 million. Other states, like Georgia and Massachusetts, have no caps at all.

This would seem to be an open-and-shut case, then: Pennsylvania’s tax-credit program just isn’t robust enough to attract big-budget filmmakers.

But there’s a hitch: The most recent acclaimed director to bail on Philly and take his much-anticipated project elsewhere didn’t pick Vancouver or Boston. Instead, he’ll be filming in a booming entertainment mecca just five hours away, a happening place called … Pittsburgh.

SHARON PINKENSON was so, so close to adding David (as in David Fincher, director of films like Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network) to her personal list of first-name-basis Hollywood directors.

Fincher is making a new Netflix series called Mindhunter, and he was interested in setting the series in Philadelphia. So interested, in fact, that Philly casting director Diane Heery, who is also the chair of the Pennsylvania Film Industry Association, thought the project was a lock. “We got a call to check our availability,” Heery says. “We know not to count our chickens too early, but we felt very encouraged.”

It seemed like exactly the shot in the arm Philly’s scene needed. Fincher’s people scouted the city for filming locations. And then? He bailed. “Our decision to shoot in Pittsburgh and not Philadelphia was a combination of practical (locations) and financial,” Bill Doyle, an associate producer on Mindhunter, writes in an email. Fincher isn’t the only big name to choose Pittsburgh recently.

Denzel Washington is there filming Fences, the first of 10 planned adaptations of August Wilson plays for HBO. Downward Dog, an ABC comedy, is joining a handful of other shows already filming in Pittsburgh.

When I mention the town out west to Pinkenson, she stiffens. “They have the same tax credit in Pittsburgh,” she allows, “but the difference is the labor unions.”

So that’s twice we’ve tiptoed past a mention of the unions. Here’s the deal: Philadelphia’s film union workers aligned themselves in the 1990s with New York’s powerful Local 52, whose jurisdiction includes Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware and all of Pennsylvania — except for Pittsburgh, which has its own separate local. Philly’s Teamsters Local 107 — the guys who drive the trucks on movie and TV sets — were separately taken over by their New York brethren in 2010.

Pinkenson and others in the industry, like casting director Heery, say New York’s takeover of local film unions has been terrible for business and Philadelphia’s standing in Hollywood.

I spoke to numerous Philly film and TV industry veterans who recalled getting squeezed by the unions but were unwilling to be named for this story. Some complained about union wages. But I also heard tales — many of them dated — about unions behaving badly. One TV pro said she got a vaguely threatening phone call from the union when she came here to scout for locations for a big network show in the mid-2000s, and ultimately had to carry union members on her payroll even when the guys weren’t needed. Another said that in the fall of 2008 he got caught up in a union dispute that devolved into a fistfight, and that he regularly encountered union members who gloated about milking overtime from directors like Shyamalan. The same guy also recalled Teamsters pressuring young locations department members to unionize — or else get pushed out of their jobs — around 2009, the same year he said Sony Pictures bosses complained to other studios about their experiences with unions here while filming the Paul Rudd movie How Do You Know.

In other words, the city’s film unions have long used the same sort of cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face tactics that the Carpenters and Teamsters employed to tremendous business-killing effect at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for so long.

Years back, when Pennsylvania had a generous tax credit, some producers and directors were willing to deal with the hassle. But city unions haven’t grown more accommodating as the state’s tax credit has withered, so Hollywood increasingly looks at Philly and figures: Why bother?

“They’re very, um, forceful,” Pinkenson says of the city’s film and TV unions. “They have a reputation for being very difficult, and I cannot tell you how many producers have come to me and said that they wouldn’t work here because [of them].” She doesn’t blame local union members, but rather the “interlopers” from “elsewhere.”

“That’s my gal, Sharon Pinkenson,” mutters John Ford, the president of New York’s Local 52. “I’m doing what I can to get my members work. I don’t have a big working relationship with film commissioners, even here in New York. I don’t get involved in their affairs, nor should they get involved with mine.” Which is a peculiar point of view, given that they’re all theoretically involved in the job of moviemaking. “Sharon’s just upset because I wouldn’t make any donations to her office,” Ford says.

Ford argues that the union’s rates are fair. Union members working on TV shows and films in New York can make $40 to $48 an hour, while their peers in Philly can earn $28 to $39 an hour. In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, union members top out at less than $30 an hour. And, Ford says, that wage scale is working out just fine for his members, including those in Philly, who can commute to film shoots in New York and earn big-city wages when business is bad back home.

Ford isn’t surprised that people are bashing the unions. Organized labor always seems to get the blame when business isn’t good, no matter the industry.

“I know it seems like we’re laying this at the union’s feet, but they are a huge factor,” Heery says. An upcoming Nicolas Cage thriller originally titled Philly Fury is now shooting in Mississippi under a new name: Southern Fury. Pinkenson says a producer brushed her off when she tried to find out if one project had been driven away by union costs or tax-credit concerns. “Most of the shows that don’t come here because of the costs aren’t even known to us. They just don’t even bother to call.”

Pinkenson and others suggest Philly’s film union members should secede from New York’s Local 52 and join another union in an attempt to lure more productions to the area. Michael Barnes, the president of Local 8, Philadelphia’s stagehands union, and a regional representative for Local 52, declined to comment for this story. And Ford? “I told Michael, have Sharon call me if she’s got anything to say.”

FAME IS FICKLE, even for Philebrities. And as the city’s movie business has dried up, Pinkenson’s star has dimmed.

Her enormous salary is a common source of resentment. The most recent available tax records show that she made $227,000 in 2013, significantly more than her peers in entertainment hubs like New York and California, not to mention Mayor Jim Kenney. Big money like that rankles when you’re collecting unemployment, or upset about having to move to find work, as some of the people I interviewed were.

Philly’s film problems are only harder to swallow given Pittsburgh’s thriving scene. Dawn Keezer, the head of Pittsburgh’s film office, has been in her position almost as long as Pinkenson has been in hers. She’s endured dry spells and rocky relations with Pittsburgh’s Teamsters and film union, but it’s all sunshine and lollipops out there now.

Members of the union sit on the film office’s board and contribute to its budget. “Everybody works together, which is why we’ve been so successful,” Keezer chirps. “Dawn is a good salesperson for Pittsburgh, and that helps us get more work,” says Chip Eccles, the business rep for Local 489, Pittsburgh’s IATSE. “When you’re busy working, there’s no opportunity to complain.”

That sort of kumbaya is missing in Philly, where the local IATSE president won’t even speak publicly, while his boss in New York is spitting daggers at the mention of Pinkenson’s name.

As Pinkenson sees it, she’s in a tough spot. A hopeless spot, even. “I’m in the middle,” she laments. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Published as “Lights! Camera! Inaction!” in the July issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Around the Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.