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Forum: Pittsburgh's next industrial revolution: Entertainment

Culture we got. Connections, too. Let's leverage our strengths and give the entertainment industry an outpost here

Sunday, November 24, 2002

By Carl Kurlander

Question: What product does Pittsburgh export that generates billions of dollars of revenue? The answer: entertainment.

 
  Carl Kurlander (ckpa@pitt.edu) is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the co-author with comedian Louie Anderson of "The F Word: How to Survive Your Family" (Warner Books). 
 

Sure, Pittsburghers know about Michael Keaton, Jeff Goldblum and Dennis Miller being from the city. David Hollander's "The Guardian," a bona fide hit for CBS, is giving the city a national platform. The success of "Wonder Boys," based on Michael Chabon's novel set in Pittsburgh, boosted the city's profile and brought more attention to Chabon; he's writing the screenplay for the "Spider-Man" sequel.

But the list of people with Pittsburgh roots working in the entertainment industry is far longer. It includes the head writer of "Late Night with David Letterman" and creator of NBC's "Ed" (Jon Beckerman), the creator of "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" (Steven Bochco), the president of MTV Networks (Mark Rosenthal), the producer of "Mission: Impossible" (Paula Wagner), the director of "Training Day" (Antoine Fuqua), a writer of "Ice Age" (Peter Ackerman), the executive in charge of "The Matrix" and "Ocean's 11" (Bernie Goldmann), the producer of "E.R." and "The West Wing" (John Wells). And I have barely scratched the surface.

In the midst of controversy surrounding the Pittsburgh Film Office, it is important that Pittsburgh go through an honest evaluation about the role between the entertainment industry and this city. Some may be ready to throw in the towel. But I would argue that the entertainment business may be a key to one of the biggest issues echoed in the recent gubernatorial race: stopping the "brain drain" and keeping young people in the region.

Am I proposing that the above people will come back and live in Pittsburgh? Not exactly. But I am suggesting that this city can make better use of its unique resources by reconnecting with the talent it continues to produce -- and by developing commercially viable homegrown film and television productions.

Though the Film Office has done a good job of bringing films to Pittsburgh, particularly in the early 1990s before Hollywood discovered Canada was cheaper, there may be a flaw in its strategy of focusing on just bringing physical productions here.

In Hollywood, those who create the project -- producers, writers, directors -- are called "above the line" talent. Because of their clout, they have a greater say in where productions are filmed. This in turn provides employment for "below-the-line" crews such as camera operators, production managers, grips and gaffers. Because both are needed for the entertainment business, I believe Pittsburgh should also concentrate on nurturing and keeping creative talent right here -- or at least, reminding them of their roots and encouraging them to function in Hollywood, New York and Pittsburgh.

Two things rule in Hollywood: personal connections and talent. Pittsburgh has both, but is not using them. This town of industry has to learn that "art" can be an industry, too.

At this point, I should confess some self-interest. Having spent the last 20 years in Los Angeles writing movies ("St. Elmo's Fire") and television shows ("Saved by the Bell"), I came back to my hometown last year as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. My wife and I enjoyed being back so much that we have stayed another year and are considering buying a home here. But that does not mean that I want to give up working in the entertainment business.

Is having a vital entertainment industry in Pittsburgh just a far-fetched dream? Consider this. Not only has Pittsburgh nurtured and exported talent, but this city has also produced local product that has garnered national attention -- George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," one of the most profitable non-Hollywood produced films of all time; "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," for 30 years a landmark television show; and the recent hit independent film "The Bread, My Sweet."

Furthermore, I have never seen a city of this size so flush with creative forces. Just to mention a few: Pittsburgh Filmmakers continues to grow as a media arts center. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust catalyzes Downtown and garners national prestige. City Theatre and the Pittsburgh Public Theater are keystones of an excellent live theater scene. The Andy Warhol Museum, which is more than a museum, brings the fringe front and center. The Flux events show what is bubbling up. We have vibrant musical, literary and artistic communities. Yet, with all these elements, a full-blown, self-sustaining entertainment industry has yet to emerge.

Perhaps part of the reason for this is that Pittsburgh has traditionally treated the "arts" as an object of patronage. While this is noble, I am talking now about using these talents to develop a commercial entertainment business. It's a goal that should be pursued in the same way people here work to expand the technology sector or to grow the biotech field. We need to transform some of the above-mentioned creative resources into new entities that ultimately might allow people successful in the field to earn decent livings.

I am not naively saying that this will be easy. But I do believe it is possible. How can Pittsburgh make this happen? Here are five steps that might be constructive:

Honoring our own. Last year, Pitt brought back film producer/studio executive Bernie Goldmann, who shared with his audience stories of how he went from Taylor Alderdice to being president of one of the biggest production companies in Hollywood, Village Roadshow Productions. After the event, many students were inspired and felt empowered to do something like Bernie did themselves. One talented senior who had met Bernie called him after she graduated. A week later, she was working as an intern at Village Roadshow.

Back in L.A., Bernie had lunch with screenwriter Andy Walker ("Se7en," "Sleepy Hollow") who is from Altoona. He asked Andy when he could come here and speak. This illustrates how just one trip back to one's hometown can reignite the loyalty many feel to this area. Honoring our own, which is worthy in itself, is also an investment that could lead to dividends.

Educating our young people. After Bernie Goldmann's lecture, students subsequently formed an organization designed to encourage interaction between the Pitt community and the entertainment industry called for lack of a better name "Pitt in Hollywood." This group by its own initiative facilitates internships, disseminates information through its Web site, www.pittinhollywood.org, and allows young people to talk with those already successful in the business to give them a map of how to get there themselves.

Through "Pitt in Hollywood," students have interviewed filmmakers like William Goldman, worked on "As the World Turns" as production assistants, and sat down with a casting director from Warner Bros., Patricia Noland. Last month, with the aid of the Film Office, students met native Pittsburgher Gary Streiner who produced the recent Jerry Seinfeld movie "Comedian" and learned how that movie was made using only hand-held video cameras. This past Halloween, the group invited much of the original cast and crew of "Night of the Living Dead" to speak on how they made that film. After these experiences, students immediately began discussing making their own movies by borrowing cameras and using a computer with editing software. These students know the odds are against them, but if they succeed, they may help kick-start a Pittsburgh filmmaking renaissance and provide a real reason for young people to stay and prosper here.

A friend on sabbatical at New York University recently informed me that NYU's film school makes a profit for the university. Perhaps it is time for Pittsburgh to consider investing in its own major film school. (Right now several of the colleges rely on Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which does an admirable job training their students as a nonprofit institution.)

Community and media support. A filmmaker once told me a distressing story: He was going over the marketing plans with a major studio, discussing which cities they would break the film in. When he saw Pittsburgh below smaller places such as Raleigh-Durham, he asked why. He was told that Pittsburgh is just not a "movie town."

On a recent book tour with comedian Louie Anderson, I was in New York with the national events coordinator for one of the country's largest book chains. I asked why Pittsburgh was not on the list of our cities. I was informed that Pittsburgh is not a regular destination for them as it does not support authors enough when they do come here.

I hope these are just isolated incidences. But perhaps Pittsburgh could do more to coordinate efforts of media saturation related to the entertainment industry. If the city wishes to become a new entertainment hub, it must do whatever it can to make sure events are well-attended.

Have the business community educate itself as to how the entertainment industry works and provide appropriate capital to worthwhile ventures. In 1982, I went out to Hollywood as an intern to the president of Universal Studios. I watched as various corporations struggled to learn by trial and error how to make the mercurial entertainment business into a steady profit center. It was strange at first for Harvard Business School graduates to consider writers, directors and actors as assets, but they have ultimately learned how to build brands and produce consistent product. Business leaders here might study some of these lessons and reproduce them on a smaller level in Pittsburgh.

A Pittsburgh Film Summit. A good place to start might be to call together many of the creative forces mentioned earlier in this piece and to put them together with the leaders of this city. Imagine a conference with Steven Bochco, Michael Keaton, John Wells, Paula Wagner, David Hollander, George Romero and a host of others discussing how Pittsburgh could build on its proud history and further develop its entertainment industry. Such a venture would be relatively inexpensive and yet could yield tremendous rewards to the future of this city.



I am hoping that these ideas don't make me come off like the hustler in "The Music Man," selling band uniforms to the town's children who cannot really play instruments. But people from this city have proven over and over again that they do have the talent. Why should they only use that talent outside of Pittsburgh?

The entertainment business is risky. But the city is facing a $50 million deficit, brought about to some degree because its two major industries -- universities and hospitals -- are nonprofits. The governor-elect is proposing gambling to help out with the tax burdens. Maybe the entertainment industry is a gamble worth taking.

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