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Caught on Film

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The Main Line isn’t exactly Los Angeles—or even New York, for that matter. But the area has been graciously accommodating an increasing number of filmmakers of late. You could argue that, with our proximity to the Big Apple and surplus of scenic/historic charm, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood found its way here. Still, it helps to have someone like Sharon Pinkenson to speed things along.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter might think he owns the keys to the city, but plenty would argue that they really belong to Pinkenson. As executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office (GPFO), one of the city’s most prosperous nonprofit entities, she’s helped generate billions of dollars for the area since resurrecting the position of film commissioner 16 years ago. Her drive, passion for the arts and expertise in all facets of moviemaking have earned her an international reputation and put Philadelphia on the map as the most film-friendly city in the country. Meanwhile, her magnetic personality, uncanny ability to “move heaven and earth” (according to one casting director) and commitment to the local film community may well have made it impossible for anyone to follow in her footsteps.

Unless there’s something we don’t know, Pinkenson has got it all—and it extends beyond brains and beauty. She’s got power (lots of it). And by all accounts, she’s both a force of nature and a force to be reckoned with. Put it this way: Anyone who’s ever read about nearby star sightings, watched a big-budget film shot on the Main Line or attended a celebrity-studded local premiere more than likely has Pinkenson to thank.

Pinkenson’s original foray into the film industry came as a costume designer—a logical progression after a successful stint in women’s apparel under the Plage Tahiti label. “I didn’t play with dolls, I played with doll clothes,” says Pinkenson, whose fantasy was to one day work on a western. “I always imagined myself riding out onto the set with my hat tilted, handing out costumes.”

Her busy, high-profile gig at the film office hasn’t diminished Pinkenson’s appreciation for her favorite designers—among them Colleen Atwood (Philadelphia, Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd), Milena Canonero (Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa) and Edith Head. “She designed every single movie I ever loved while growing up, including everything with Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn,” says Pinkenson of Head.

Becoming a film commissioner was never on Pinkenson’s list of dream occupations, but that’s only because she didn’t know there was such a job out there. She ended up with the position after squaring off with former Mayor Ed Rendell over the city’s need for a film commissioner. “He thought it was a great idea,” she recalls. “Then he said, ‘You do it.’”

As executive director, Pinkenson endures plenty of costume changes of her own, juggling a slew of administrative duties and nonstop phone calls while wooing legislators, mentoring aspiring filmmakers, scouting locations and more. A big part of her job is tracking the GPFO’s economic impact and justifying its existence. But how anyone could have any doubts about either is more than a little ridiculous. In 1991, the office generated $1.1 million in revenue. In 1992, the year Pinkenson took over, that figure rocketed to $22 million, and 2007’s projections point to more than $2 billion.

No doubt Pinkenson’s approachable, articulate demeanor hasn’t hurt the film office’s success. “We get calls from producers and directors with all kinds of questions. Everybody wants to speak to the executive director,” she says. “I’m not that hard to get to.”

A major boost for the area came in 1992 during Pinkenson’s first month as film commissioner, when a member of director Jonathan Demme’s pre-production team phoned to inquire about filming in the city. Back then, the movie’s working title was At Risk, and Demme was looking to film in a “great courtroom.”

Pinkenson offered them a tour of possible sites. As they were about to enter City Hall, someone from Demme’s team said, “This is great, but where’s your courthouse?” Pinkenson didn’t flinch, fully confident they’d love the “spectacular” courtrooms inside. Two weeks before wrap, the title of Demme’s film about a lawyer diagnosed with AIDS became Philadelphia.

“When Jonathan asked me what I thought [of the name], my mind started racing,” Pinkenson recalls. “We were making a movie with all these Academy Award winners, and I’m thinking, ‘Is this the beginning of my career or the end?’ I didn’t say anything for a while, then, ‘Will you excuse me? I’m going to call my mother.’”

Looking back, Pinkenson fully appreciates Philadelphia’s profound impact on the city’s international image. And she also credits Main Line native M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and his subsequent decision to continue making films here as important factors in the growth of the area’s moviemaking reputation.

But perhaps the GPFO’s most significant accomplishment under Pinkenson is last year’s passing of Act 55, a 25-percent tax credit for film production expenses. To qualify, 60 percent of total expenses must be incurred in Pennsylvania.

“The film industry is [an] increasingly lucrative [thing] for government to em-brace,” says Pinkenson. “We already have a reputation as the most cooperative and film-friendly city in the business. Having these tax incentives adds to our attraction. Right now, we’re looking at applications for six to eight films to begin in June, and more to follow.”

The not-so-top-secret list includes Remorse, Three Sistas, Shyamalan’s Avatar series, a film based on Marley and Me and possibly Transformers 2. The GPFO website (film.org) is a good gauge of its commitment to making filmmaking a collective experience while enhancing Philly’s reputation as a movie-friendly city with manageable amounts of red tape. “How to” services are offered free of charge and cover everything from hiring a police officer to getting a street closed. There are numerous resources, including screenwriting contests, a job hotline and profiles spotlighting the city’s filmmakers.

For many local companies, Pinkenson’s advocacy has solidified their viability in the film sector. “Sharon has done amazing things that seemed impossible and opened up limitless possibilities for those of us in the community, creatively and professionally,” says Mike Lemmon of Lemmon Casting.

And if that big grin on her face is any indication, she also knows how to have a good time—and how to spread the fun. During the summer, the GPFO literally takes the show on the road with a portable projector and inflatable screen, setting up open-air theaters in neighborhoods around the city. Her efforts have also set the stage for high-profile movie premieres and pre-release screenings like the one for Sweeney Todd last December.

As for Pinkenson’s personal life, finding a balance is tough. “Being a very public person, and being a woman who spends a lot of time on the streets of Center City walking by myself between work and home, I run into people every day who want to talk to me about their film or screenplay, or want to know how to get a job as an extra,” she says. “I’m nice to everyone, but sometimes it’s a little scary.”

Yet Pinkenson still manages to find time for her other passions—family and travel. Every other year, she and her husband take off to a part of the world they’ve never experienced before.

“Life is too short to wait to see the world from a wheelchair on a cruise ship,” she says.

 


 

Screen Gems
Three local players with passions big and small.

MVD Entertainment
The bounty of musical performances available today on DVD is easy to take for granted—especially if you’re too young to have come up before home video. But you’ll pardon those of us over 35 who might remind the rest of you that there were once these things called records, which played music and came in large covers—usually with pictures. And aside from American Bandstand, The Midnight Special and the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, that was one of the few places music and images met.

Thankfully, a veteran record store employee by the name of Tom Seaman saw the potential in something known as the picture disc. “He latched onto the idea of: Why just hear the music when you can see it and hear it?” says his son, Ed (pictured below).

That simple question led him to create Music Video Distributors, which bought the rights to musical performances captured on video, releasing them on VHS tapes to be sold in record stores alongside LPs and 45s. With the living room as his first office, Tom made a phone book’s worth of connections in the music business and became the godfather of performance music videos.

As tape faded, his interest in picture discs led him to the fledgling DVD format in the mid-1990s. “We jumped into the market early and were able to gain the rights to some great content, which we’re still doing today,” says Ed, COO of what is now MVD Entertainment (mvdb2b.com).

Among distributors of music performance video, the Oaks-based MVD ranks third, below better-known names Sony/BMG and Universal. To date, the video division, MVD Visual, has distributed more than 1,000 titles in just about every genre, focusing almost exclusively on music performance DVD. Primary among its offerings are things you likely won’t find on TV—reggae, heavy metal, punk, alternative rock and hip-hop among them. “We’re certainly not tied to any particular genre,” Ed says. “Frankly, we’d like to do a lot more classic rock, but the reality is it’s really expensive and it’s mostly tied up with major labels.”

Of course, the Sam Goody and Musicland stores his father worked for have largely departed the scene. And with their demise, MVD has been forced to redirect its focus to online outlets, big-box electronics stores and independent retailers.

“There are still a lot of great independent stores,” says Ed. “And the ones that remain now are great because they survived.” —Scott Pruden

 


Angelo Films
Rosemont’s Michael Mainardi (pictured below) won’t be offended if you compare The Final Patient—the film he and his brother, Jerry, produced and directed—to the work of Oscar-nominated director and fellow Main Liner M. Night Shyamalan. After all, their films share slightly creepy, vaguely sci-fi themes that work on the sort of Alfred Hitchcock-meets-The X-Files level that appeals to grown-ups with a taste for the “out there.”

Shyamalan’s movies have all been shot in and around Philadelphia, while The Final Patient was shot in Bucks County and Camden, N.J. And both filmmakers have made use of many of the same Philadelphia-area technical and support personnel.

But there are a few things missing—namely major studio support and a piece of Night’s budget. Then there’s the age thing: The Mainardi brothers, collectively known as Angelo Films, didn’t start down the feature-film path until they hit their 50s. Still, for two guys who’ve been producing marketing materials, commercials and training films for the last 30 years through their Langhorne firm, Lighthouse Production + Interactive (pplusi.com), The Final Patient is “almost a glorified resume,” says Michael. “The first question is always, ‘How many [films] have you made?’”

Completely self-financed, The Final Patient was shot two years ago on a tiny budget in a remarkable 20 days to take advantage of the region’s warm spring weather. The movie is set in a small town, where a long-disabled, elderly doctor is suddenly capable of amazing feats of strength and speed. Two young medical students discover that he has found the secret to reclaiming his youth—and they pursue it for themselves with potentially deadly results. The doctor is played by longtime film and TV veteran Bill Cobb, in his first lead role after decades of work.

The Final Patient has already won festival awards for its script and overall quality, and a comedy the pair is developing is being considered by Hollywood types. But for Michael, the whole experience has exposed some of the hidden nuances of the film business—namely the need for good representation, effective marketing and an A-list star. All of which makes the prospect of another independent film daunting but not discouraging.

“Tomorrow, if someone said, ‘Go make that comedy,’ I’d do it right now,” he says. —Scott Pruden

Belvedere Entertainment
A year ago, Wayne’s Nick Briscoe (pictured below) found himself making the final edits on Blur, a psychological thriller and his first feature-length film. Oddly enough, his specialty is writing and directing comedy. And while Blur enjoyed approximately 15 minutes of fame on the big screen before following its predestined path to DVD, it did get people talking about the King of Prussia-based Belvedere Entertainment (belvedereent.com).

Rather than chase his dreams in Hollywood, Briscoe opted to ride the wave here in Philadelphia, where there’s no shortage of private equity, talent and beneficial tax incentives. He formed Belvedere in 2005 with longtime friend Charles Pasquale.

Briscoe, 31, is a veteran of over 400 film and television productions. He’s written, produced and directed three short films for the 48 Hour Film Project, an international competition in which participants have just one weekend to make a movie. He responded with Audience Choice Award winners Sway and Funk Squad, along with the animated Buddy Cops.

Briscoe explains his forte: “If you can find a way to laugh at life and not take yourself too seriously, you can find a way to be happy with all of the ups and downs. I think that speaks to our basic human need for comedy.”

For Briscoe, horror is more challenging. “When I walk into a dark alley, my mind doesn’t go to the scary places,” he admits. “So it feels out of place for me to write about it—like I’m guessing, not feeling, what might scare others.”

The inspiration for Blur arose out of the perception that the way to break into filmmaking is to produce a low-budget thriller or horror film, which has been done by “everyone and their mother,” Briscoe says. “The market is completely saturated with cookie-cutter rip-offs of Saw and Hostel. If I had it to do over again, I would’ve stuck with my passion.”

Hence, Briscoe’s advice to aspiring filmmakers: Ignore what you perceive as “marketable” and focus on your particular talents, style and areas of interest. “You can’t try to be unique—that’s like planning to be spontaneous,” he says. “You’re either creative enough to come up with your own storytelling style or you aren’t. If you have it, flaunt it. If there’s nothing identifiably distinctive about your work, then all you’re doing as a director is calling action and cut.”

Next up for Belvedere: Close Quarters, a comedy written by Briscoe, and Meal Ticket, which he’s directing. Between film projects, Briscoe does contract work, including music videos, commercials and TV pilot production. In January, Belvedere launched Work the Show, a Web-based TV magazine that tackles workplace challenges. The interactive format allows viewers to tell the producers what they want to see, what they need expert help with, and what they feel are the most pressing issues at work. While it’s seemingly less exhilarating than directing a feature film, Briscoe embraces the opportunity to connect with a whole new audience—one he hopes will also watch his films.

“A lot of people fall in love with the glamour of the finished product, but there’s no glamour on the set—just long days and a lot of stress,” says Briscoe. “But if you thrive on the pressure and enjoy creative problem solving, it’s the most fun job in the world. The new reality of the film industry is that movies can be made anywhere. I see no reason that ‘anywhere’ shouldn’t be here.” —Dawn E. Warden
 

 


Spotlight on the Main Line
Two planned movie studios could bring the stars to stay.

No one can blame you if you start to feel a little glitzier over the next year. If all goes as planned, the western suburbs will be getting an extra dose of moviemaking stardust in the form of two full-scale, Hollywood-caliber film production studios.

To quote the South Park guys, blame Canada—although this time, our neighbors have committed no crime. Historically, production companies that wanted to save money looked to the Great White North for location and production work, taking advantage of the weak Canadian dollar and the similarity of cities like Montréal to urban U.S. locations (even if it meant having to dirty up the streets to make them look more American).

The fact that Pennsylvania and other states are now offering significant tax incentives to the film industry means that not only will more of the business stay stateside, it will begin seeping into the areas that no one ever thought of as movie towns—the Delaware Valley being one. Main Liners can expect the area to benefit in spades from the Commonwealth’s 25-percent tax credit on production expenses for movie and television companies that spend at least 60 percent of a project’s budget within Pennsylvania’s borders.

Not that Philly and its suburbs have ever been slouches in the celluloid department. Within the past three decades, some of filmdom’s most iconic dramas, comedies and thrillers—Rocky, Trading Places, Philadelphia and The Sixth Sense among them—were shot locally.

But what the region has provided the film-going world in the form of great characters and stories it has lacked in infrastructure. Though there are plenty of Philadelphians in the film biz, crews for large-scale productions are usually imported from New York City at tremendous expense and inconvenience. Soundstage space, meanwhile, is nonexistent, forcing either location shots or a mass exodus back to Los Angeles or New York to film interior scenes. An exception is local-boy auteur and avid Hitchcock acolyte M. Night Shyamalan, who has maintained his commitment to filming in the area by famously converting just about every soundstage-sized space in Philadelphia into a studio at one time or another. The need is there. It’s just that no one has been inclined to satisfy it.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that two studios are planned for the area—one in Chester Township and the other in Norristown. Both are designed to give local and out-of-town productions everything they need to do a majority of what they do within state lines. That will allow them to take advantage of the tasty tax credits and (hopefully) bring a tidal wave of new work into the area.

A team effort between Pacifica Ventures of Santa Monica, Calif., and local attorney and real estate developer Jeffrey Rotwitt, the Chester Township facility promises to be the larger of the two. Pacifica already runs an eight-soundstage studio in Albuquerque, N.M., which was booked solid six months after opening in February of last year. That $74.8 million facility—which includes 78,000 square feet of production, office and support space, 20,000 square feet of retail space, 70,000 square feet of mill space and storage, and acreage for the construction of outdoor back-lot sets—is similar to what the company has in mind for the Philadelphia area.

“Our objective is that we would be soup-to-nuts, and our producers would be able to do the entire movie at our facility,” says Hal Katersky, chairman of Pacifica. “As opposed to location shooting, the area gets a much larger economic impact.”

Pacifica originally considered sites in Bucks County and within Philadelphia’s corporate limits in addition to Chester Township. At first, proximity to New York was what drove Bucks as an option, he says. “But being a few miles closer to New York is insignificant,” Katersky says. “You will wind up with those crew bases that will migrate to Philadelphia.”

And despite the prime proximity to city locations that a Philadelphia site would’ve offered by bringing the studio to somewhere like the old Philadelphia Navy Yard, city taxes are a major disincentive for production companies looking to pinch every penny, Katersky says.

What Delaware County offered was threefold: proximity to high-end Philadelphia amenities demanded by top-dollar stars; easy access to key transportation routes and hubs like I-95, I-76 and Philadelphia International Airport; and a gaggle of municipal bodies only too happy to make the project happen.

On that last item, co-developer Rotwitt notes that without help from Delaware County, Chester Township and the Chester Upland School District with issues like rezoning the site as an entertainment district and agreeing to significant tax incentives, things wouldn’t be moving ahead so quickly. Other funding will come from private investors. “We’re very pleased at the level of commitment we’ve gotten from the major players in the area,” he says.

Plans are for Pacifica to break ground on the studio in April. The 33-acre site on which the studio would be built is currently home to Tri State Sports at the Sun Center, formerly a recreational facility for Sun Oil employees and now a major recreation center. The facility also serves as the indoor practice site for the Philadelphia Kixx professional soccer team, of which Rotwitt is chairman.

The site’s zoning for entertainment is key because one of the major elements of the plan is to include an interactive movie and television museum Rotwitt hopes will be a destination for school groups. Another important element of the site will be a helipad, allowing A-list directors and stars to quickly commute between the studio and New York City. “It’s going to create a wealth of opportunities here,” Rotwitt says.

The planned 25-acre Norristown Studios at Logan Square differs from the Pacifica project in that it will reuse an existing structure, namely the 180,000-square-foot former Sears store already on the site. The project is the combined effort of Eagleville-based feature film company Feverpitch Pictures; independent production company Wolfington Productions, which focuses mainly on documentary and educational films and maintains a presence in King of Prussia and Pacific Palisades, Calif.; and local real estate company Develcom.

Also scheduled for completion this year, Norristown Studios at Logan Square will rival the Pacifica facility in size, with plans for eight soundstages, the smallest at 2,000 square feet and the largest at 30,000 square feet. The studio would maintain some of the existing retail space already at the site, while potentially adding a hotel. Plans also include a TV and film vocational school to serve as a regional education center for students hoping to break into the industry.

Both studios are said to cost between $80 and $100 million. A ballpark estimate based on the size of each suggests that, between the two, they could employ almost 1,600 people. That, of course, doesn’t include local companies that might emerge to fill niche requirements.

But can the region really support two film studios of such massive Hollywood proportions? Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, says absolutely. “We need these studios,” she says. “If we don’t have them, there’s only so much business we can attract.”

That amount of business could conceivably go from two to three films a year to as many as eight at one time once both studios are up and running, she says, adding that television business shouldn’t be counted out. Having two local studios will mean more small-screen programs can be developed and shot here, with the production crews living in the area full-time, and local actors and casting directors getting more work.

Even Rotwitt, who might see a second film studio as competition, agrees that the more movie business the region brings in, the more work for everyone involved. “We’re thrilled at the prospect that Logan might come on board,” he says. “There’s probably a point where too many [studios] would be dilutive. But going from zero to two would be fine.” —Scott Pruden

 

 


Main Line Moviemaking
Noteworthy films shot locally.

The Lovely Bones
Release: 2009
Director: Peter Jackson
Genre: Drama/horror/thriller
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon
Locales: Malvern, Paoli, Valley Forge, Wayne, East Fallowfield

The Happening
Release: 2008
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Drama/sci-fi
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Leguizamo
Locales: Unionville, Phoenixville

Our Lady of Victory
Release: 2008
Director: Tim Chambers
Genre: Sports drama
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, David Boreanaz
Locales: West Chester

Shadowboxer
Release: 2005
Director: Lee Daniels
Genre: Crime drama/thriller
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Helen Mirren
Locales: Media

The Village
Release: 2004
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Drama/mystery/thriller
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver
The Woodsman
Release: 2004
Director: Nicole Kassell
Genre: Drama
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick
Locales: Plymouth Meeting

Jersey Girl
Release: 2004
Director:
Kevin Smith
Genre: Comedy/drama/romance
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck
Locales: Havertown

Signs
Release: 2002
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Mystery/sci-fi/thriller
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix
Locales: Oxford

A Gentleman’s Game
Release: 2001
Director: J. Mills Goodloe
Genre: Sports drama
Starring: Gary Sinise, Mason Gamble
Locales: Media, Paoli, Springfield

Unbreakable
Release: 2000
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Drama/mystery/thriller
Starring: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson
Locales: Ithan

The Sixth Sense
Release: 1999
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Drama/mystery/thriller
Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment
Locales: Bryn Mawr

Wide Awake
Release: 1998
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Family comedy/drama
Starring: Joseph Cross, Rosie O’Donnell
Locales: Bryn Mawr

Addicted to Love
Release: 1997
Director: Griffin Dunne
Genre: Comedy/romance
Starring: Meg Ryan, Matthew Broderick
Locales: Swarthmore

The Big One
Release: 1997
Director: Michael Moore
Genre: Comedy/documentary
Starring: Michael Moore
Locales: Bryn Mawr

Philadelphia
Release: 1993
Director: Jonathan Demme
Genre: Drama
Starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington
Locales: Lower Merion

I Don’t Buy Kisses Anymore
Release: 1992
Director: Robert Marcarelli
Genre: Comedy/romance
Starring: Jason Alexander, Nia Peeples
Locales: Ardmore

Clean and Sober
Release: 1988
Director: Glenn Gordon Caron
Genre: Drama
Starring: Michael Keaton, Kathy Baker, Morgan Freeman
Locales: Ridley Park, Upper Darby

Eddie and the Cruisers
Release: 1983
Director: Martin Davidson
Genre: Musical drama
Starring: Ellen Barkin, Tom Berenger
Locales: Haverford

Taps
Release: 1981
Director: Harold Becker
Genre: Drama
Starring: George C. Scott, Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise
Locales: Valley Forge, Wayne

Marnie
Release: 1964
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Genre: Drama/mystery/romance/thriller
Starring: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery
Locales: Unionville

David and Lisa
Release: 1962
Director: Frank Perry
Genre: Drama
Starring: Keir Dullea, Janet Margolin
Locales: Wynnewood

The Blob
Release: 1958
Director: Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
Genre: Horror/sci-fi
Starring: Steve McQueen
Locales: Chester Springs, Downingtown, Phoenixville, Royersford, Valley Forge

Bright Victory
Release: 1951
Director: Mark Robson
Genre: Drama
Starring: Arthur Kennedy
Locales: Phoenixville

Compiled by Shannon Hallamyer

 

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