"Downward Dog." Image courtesy of ABC/Donald Rager.

Man’s best friend will find a voice in Downward Dog, an upcoming ABC comedy series about a talking dog and his human companion. Shot and set in Pittsburgh, the show contributes to a variety of big television projects coming to the cityalong with Mindhunter and Outsidersonly this one has local roots.

Downward Dog was developed from a web series by Samm Hodges and Michael Killen of Animal, the Pittsburgh production company known best for its acclaimed documentaries. The show focuses on Nan (played by actress Allison Tolman), a woman whose hectic life becomes more complicated when her dog Martin starts acting out to get attention. The story features the perspectives of Nan and Martin, who is voiced by Hodges in the pilot episode.

“He’s basically a narcissist,” says Hodges, who serves as a writer and producer on the series. “Deep down, he’s there for her, but we play against the noble dog type. It’s about a real relationship where the person you’re most in love with is the one you’re most critical of.”

This weekend, Downward Dog will become the first network show to makes its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, an accomplishment Hodges believes speaks to the show’s quality.

“Because you can call it a talking dog show, people are going to write it off and not know what it really is,” says Hodges. “We needed to have a tastemaker say this is actually really good.”

Samm Hodges (fourth from right) with the cast and executive producers of “Downward Dog.” Image courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA.
Samm Hodges (fourth from right) with the cast and executive producers of “Downward Dog.” Image courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA.

He owes much of the project’s success to the support of Pittsburgh’s film and television community. Downward Dog was picked up after Carl Kurlander, head of the Steeltown Entertainment Project, introduced Hodges and Killen to Jimmy Miller, a major talent manager who produces the show under his company Mosaic.

“Jimmy fell in love with [the web series] and took us under his wing,” says Hodges.

The show also received a bump from local business magnate Thomas Tull, who until recently headed the multi-billion dollar production company Legendary Entertainment. Downward Dog is now produced by the company’s television division.

Hodges says Miller, a Pittsburgh native, and Tull were instrumental in bringing the series to the city. Last December, the pilot was shot in Regent Square and on the North Side by a crew that, according to Hodges, consisted of around 90 percent local hires.

But while Downward Dog shows the city’s ability to attract major television projects, issues still loom. Hodges owes their ability to produce the series in Pittsburgh to Pennsylvania’s film tax credit, which promises a 25 percent tax credit to films or television shows that spend at least 60 percent of their total production budget in the state.

In an official statement last year, Allegheny County Senator Wayne D. Fontana called the program “an economic gift that continues to give.” Since its inception in 2007, the film and television projects enticed by the program have pumped more than $2 billion into Pennsylvania’s economy. It’s also credited with creating 19,000 jobs and sustaining thousands more.

Last summer, the State senate approved an increase to the program’s budget from $60 million to $65 million.

While helpful, Hodges says the tax credit varies too much from year to year to guarantee a TV series can shoot in Pittsburgh for multiple seasons (the current budget covers the fiscal year of 2017-2018). There’s also concern that future state officials could decrease the budget or eliminate the program altogether.

“Sometimes the lawmakers don’t understand that if the tax credit goes away, it will all go away,” says Hodges, adding that a more effective approach would be to make the program multi-year.

He also believes Pittsburgh needs to invest more in their filmmaking infrastructure, including sound stages, in order to compete with other cities that benefit from film tax credits. Doing so would enhance the many other qualities the city already has to offer film and television producers.

“I love the charm of Pittsburgh and I think a lot of other creative people are inspired by it,” says Hodges.

Downward Dog makes its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, January 22. The show premieres on ABC this summer.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated...