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?

Jeffrey Rotwitt at Sun Center Studios in Chester, PA outside of Philadelphia.

He never admitted to anyone that it was a crazy idea, even though at first glance it was obviously crazy. He did keep a self-deprecating joke at the ready: He liked to say that the vision had come to him after he drank a bad vodka tonic. But once the joke was out of the way, he laid down the elements of the plan like bricks in the wall of some inevitable future.

He was going to build something. Something amazing. He happened to own a large piece of property and some buildings in Chester Township, which borders the city of Chester on the northwest. For the past few years, he’d been renting out the buildings to youth sports teams. Kids played lacrosse, basketball, field hockey there. But now he imagined a new kind of venture rising on the site: sound stages with 40-foot ceilings, stagehands scurrying every which way, thick electrical wires running current to hot, powerful lights. A film and TV production studio. Huge, lush, state-of-the-art. He was going to convince Hollywood producers—big ones—to shoot movies there.

This was what the man said. Top producers and directors would come, he explained, and also famous actors and actresses, riding their limos into Chester Township, adjacent to one of the poorest cities in the country. They would arrive and stay for the many months that it takes to film a major movie, and they would hire all the hundreds of people it takes to get the job done—the carpenters and cameramen and grips, everyone staying in local hotels and eating at local restaurants and pumping millions into a part of Pennsylvania that needs such a jolt in the worst way. He spoke of the studio as “the linchpin of a domestic industry”: It would be more than just a profitable business for him. It would be the catalyst for a complete economic transformation.

Jeffrey Rotwitt, a lawyer and real estate developer, started making this pitch around 2007 to friends, colleagues, lawmakers, lenders. Some people humored him, told him good luck, but this didn’t deter him. The global economic collapse of 2008 didn’t deter him. The fact that he was involved in a real estate deal with the First Judicial District that drew scrutiny in 2009 and 2010 and became the subject of a months-long and unflattering Inquirer investigation didn’t deter him. Because Rotwitt found people willing to invest in his dream. He secured $30 million from union pension funds (much of it from the carpenters union), $9 million from US Bank, and $10 million from the taxpayers of Pennsylvania, in the form of a state capital-assistance grant. He worked with township and county lawmakers to rezone his property to make it viable for large film shoots, then convinced them to kick in millions in tax-increment financing. This should tell you a lot about the type of person Jeffrey Rotwitt is: a man who can walk on water when others are drowning.

His facility is called Sun Center Studios. It’s real. The doors have been open since August 2011. Sun Center is a legitimately impressive place, with multiple sound stages that contain every amenity a Hollywood director could desire. One big movie has already shot there, as well as one smaller film. But only those two, along with the occasional commercial. Will Smith and Harrison Ford have graced the premises. Yet when I visited Sun Center in May, the facility stood largely empty. No movie was filming there. No movies were scheduled to film there. The man behind Sun Center was waiting for the next movie to come. Or not come.

Jeffrey Rotwitt is unusual for a power lawyer in this region. Other guys do the alpha-male thing; in a hundred tiny ways, they make it clear that they can make your life unpleasant if you cross them. Rotwitt, by contrast, operates almost entirely by force of charm. He’s in his early 60s, with a jowly face and hair the color of a new dime. He lives in an opulent Radnor estate called Deilwydd, but his accent is shot-and-a-beer. His signature move isn’t the threat, but the wink. There’s no air of menace surrounding him, only a perpetual low-hanging fog of happy talk. All the people I spoke with about Rotwitt told me the same thing: He’s one of the most positive people they’ve ever met. “On a rainy, miserable day, Jeff will find a way to use the water,” says Robert May Jr., a councilman in Chester Township. “Everything, in Jeff’s mind, is possible.”

He grew up in Olney. His father was a buyer for Sears Roebuck. He went to public school—Olney High—and moved on to Penn, eventually earning an MBA at Wharton as well as a Penn law degree. In 1975, he joined Obermayer, a legendary Philly firm, working in the corporate-banking and business-law section. He made friends easily. As his Rolodex fattened, he gained a reputation as a man who knew a lot of people and could use his contacts to close difficult deals. (Former Obermayer colleague Jim Young describes Rotwitt as both “brilliant” and “consistently optimistic about outcomes.”) Rotwitt’s work with the firm started him on a path to becoming a real estate developer; in the late ’80s, he began representing Amtrak, and when Amtrak execs ran into problems on a planned renovation of 30th Street Station—basically, they couldn’t find the money—they asked him for help. “I got turned down at 46 of the finest lenders in the world, domestic and international,” Rotwitt says. “I had to keep knocking on doors until I found people who bought into the vision and could see it.” He eventually secured financing from a bank in France.

The station renovation was Rotwitt’s first major public project, the one that saw him “breaking out of the minor leagues,” he says. It led to others: a retirement community in Whitemarsh; a professional indoor soccer team, the Philadelphia KiXX, that R­otwitt owned for a time but has since gone dormant. Many of Ro­twitt’s projects drew on his preternatural ability to close complicated transactions. Joe Meo, an influential Republican committeeman in Whitemarsh, says a Rotwitt retirement-home project was almost never built due to initial opposition from local residents. But Rotwitt calmed all of the fears, ultimately working out a deal with the community to preserve 188 acres of open space surrounding the facility. “Jeff was so good at it,” recalls Meo. “He did all the right things.”

On more than one project, though, Rotwitt’s expansive sense of the possible has gotten him into trouble. In 2003, after helping officials in Haverford Township select a developer for a piece of public land, he asked lawmakers to pay his firm part of the final fee, $600,000, before the project was complete. (All along, Rotwitt’s firm had been receiving $7,500 a month from Haverford Township as a retainer.) After a closed-door meeting at which two-thirds of the commissioners were present, the township manager signed off on the advance fee to the firm, according to an investigating grand jury’s report. Soon after, commissioners stepped forward to object, pointing out that the law required a public vote. Rotwitt had to return the money. He tells me his only mistake was not insisting the commissioners hold an immediate public vote after they’d agreed to the fee. “I did not know” that a vote was required, Rotwitt says. “It’s not my job to tell them how to comply with municipal law.”

A few years later, the Inquirer and a lawsuit alleged that Rotwitt appeared to work both sides of a big public real estate deal in the city. First, on behalf of Obermayer, he agreed to help Philadelphia find a new building for its Family Court, then housed in a deteriorating palace on Logan Square. For giving this advice, Rotwitt generated $1.5 million for Obermayer. Then, once the project moved forward, he made additional fees—some $825,000, to be exact—working as a developer along with builder Donald Pulver, according to the suit. The person supervising the Family Court project happened to be Ron Castille, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who told the Inquirer that when he heard that Rotwitt was working on it as a developer, he was incensed; he claimed he’d never been told about Rotwitt’s dual roles. Rotwitt disputes that. Castille sued Obermayer, alleging that Rotwitt had a secret deal with Pulver. The suit was settled last winter, with Obermayer and its insurer agreeing to pay the Philly courts $4 million. Rotwitt paid nothing—“I don’t contribute a nickel to anything,” he told the paper. “From my standpoint, it’s a total victory that corroborates all that I was saying from day one”—but by then, Obermayer had fired him, severing his relationship with the firm after 35 years.

“Most of the people in town know it’s all horseshit,” Rotwitt says of the Family Court controversy. When I ask him if he thinks he did anything wrong, he says, “‘Wrong’ sets off the wrong tone.” He says I should ask if he’d have done anything “differently,” then answers his own question: “No.” He says he is as proud of the new Family Court building, which will be completed in 2015, as he is of the 30th Street Station renovation: “I’m thrilled with what we’ve done.” (Through his spokesperson, Castille twice declined to comment for this story.)

What the controversies reveal is a man comfortable operating in gray areas where others fear to tread. Part of this has to do with Rotwitt’s personality: He’s supremely confident in his own deal-making abilities, his own rectitude. He also knows that some powerful people have his back. Rotwitt is a member of the Pennsylvania Future Fund, the top pro-business PAC in the state. He knows the Republican governor, Tom Corbett, and is close with Dominic Pileggi, the Republican Senate majority leader whose district includes Sun Center. “Jeff reaches across both sides of the aisle,” says Joe Meo. “People know him. He’s a guy who brings people together; he doesn’t divide them.” When I call a well-connected Republican source and ask him if the Family Court scandal has harmed Rotwitt’s reputation in political circles, the source says, “It seemed almost, like, neutral? I don’t know if that impacted: ‘Hey, we’re gonna cut this guy off,’ or ‘He’s bad news.’ I don’t feel that, and I never heard that.” As far as I can tell, there’s no unified anti-Rotwitt constituency, only scattered enemies and a large mass of people who find his public tussles mildly amusing. And who wish him well on his studio project for the simple reason that they stand to gain if he succeeds.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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