By L.E. McCullough
As a teenager in the 1990s, Mary Ann McBride-Tackett dreamed of making films that would change the world. As the Director of Film Education at WQED Film Academy, she’s helping Pittsburgh middle and high schoolers put their dreams onto screens around the world.
Founded in 2003 by Ellen and Gregg Kander as Steeltown Entertainment Project and acquired earlier this year by WQED Multimedia, WQED Film Academy teaches filmmaking and digital media arts classes to students in seventh through 12th grade. Each cohort produces a short film after absorbing 100-plus hours of hands-on collaborative learning from professional filmmakers using state-of-the-art digital media technology.
McBride-Tackett grew up in Alliance, Ohio, about 20 miles east of Canton; throughout her teen years, she actively participated in school and community theater. In 2007, she graduated from Point Park University’s Cinema and Digital Arts program with a concentration in screenwriting and directing and a minor in child development.
She went on to work on several Pittsburgh-made films including “Adventureland” and “She’s Out of My League” and as a film tax incentive specialist for Entertainment Partners, a leading industry payroll and support services company.
In 2016, she joined Steeltown Entertainment Project, serving initially as community outreach manager and later as program director.
NEXTpittsburgh spoke with McBride-Tackett about the academy’s mission to shape the next generation of Pittsburgh filmmakers.
NEXTpittsburgh: When did you know you had a passion for filmmaking?
Mary Ann McBride-Tackett: Age 3. I remember watching my first film with my father and really watching with as much concentration as a 3-year-old could. He was a big film enthusiast and book reader, and my mother was very involved in local theater. I had a lot of stories around me at a young age. By middle school, I wanted to seriously study filmmaking because I wanted to tell my own stories. Film was a medium that brought together the things I loved — visual art, music, storytelling.
NEXTpittsburgh: Was the storytelling element what attracted you to Steeltown Film Academy?
McBride-Tackett: I saw immediately they were the type of program I wished I’d had when I was a teen. Through my Entertainment Partners work, I’d met Lisa Smith-Reed and Wendy Burtner at Steeltown, and the more I got involved, I just fell in love with it.
NEXTpittsburgh: What would you say is WQED Film Academy’s chief benefit for students?
McBride-Tackett: It creates a space for students to feel like they’re less alone; they’re with peers who understand and see the world the way they do. Making film or video can be isolating, especially when you’re young. It’s gratifying to see our students find an artistic home, a space where they feel they belong among other students and teachers.
NEXTpittsburgh: Collaboration is an essential skill in filmmaking, but many students coming to the program may not have a lot of experience in this. How do you help develop that?
McBride-Tackett: The academy brings together students from all over the city, from all kinds of backgrounds — cultural, racial, economic, educational, identities, abilities. We start day one with an icebreaker exercise. We put them in small groups and give each group a three-page script. They have the week to film it and edit and see what they come up with.
NEXTpittsburgh: Toss them in the deep end right away!
McBride-Tackett: Right. Then we pull back, sort them out into their respective levels and start digging into what we’re working on that semester. But it gets them speaking and interacting with each other. Every single thing we do is incredibly intentional.
NEXTpittsburgh: Do students choose their own film topics?
McBride-Tackett: Yes. They pitch their story to us, and we greenlight it or guide them to rework it to where it can move forward, just the way it is in the film business. Right out of the gate they have a sense of ownership and responsibility before a camera is even picked up. You get the best content when you tap into the student’s passion.
NEXTpittsburgh: Have there been any stories that really surprised you?
McBride-Tackett: One that had a really big impact was “The Reel Queens of Pittsburgh,” an episode of our Reel Teens web series. This was a look at the local LGBTQIA+ community with drag performers discussing their art form in quite thoughtful conversations. “Rat Lover” was made by a student who was passionate about animals and wanted to show that rats are amazing pets. The film portrayed him convincing a friend to accept a rat as a pet. It was shown at four film festivals, and he now works for a pet store producing videos about animal care.
NEXTpittsburgh: Four film festivals?
McBride-Tackett: We submit our student films to festivals all over. In the last three years we’ve had 15 accepted for festival appearances, including the All-American High School Film Festival in New York. And WQED’s resources allow us to send students to the festivals and learn about the film business in terms of workshops and networking. We also have outside clients commission students to film live events or create promotional or instructional films.
NEXTpittsburgh: Like a small-scale production company.
McBride-Tackett: Exactly. We’ve worked with Pandora radio, Industrial Arts Workshop, Wilkins Township, Saltworks Theatre Company and New America, which is a Washington, D.C., think tank.
NEXTpittsburgh: Why do you think it’s important for this program to happen in Pittsburgh with young people now?
McBride-Tackett: We’re fortunate to live in a culturally diverse city, albeit one that has had friction or tension between certain groups. Filmmaking creates content for the community but also builds relationships in that community from the ground up. Getting youth to engage with each other is a huge benefit to the community, now and in the future. The film industry here is thriving, and we need to get students up to speed because they’re going to be our next media makers.
NEXTpittsburgh: What will WQED Film Academy look like in five or 10 years? Any new directions?
McBride-Tackett: There’s a really strong drive to reach more students. We’re always trying to reach as many people in the community, all ages. The WQED education department has a stellar reputation for getting into the community and reaching people, especially with early childhood and elementary school programs. The Film Academy is striving to reach tweens and teens.
It’s also vital to broaden our reach geographically, to grow the virtual space and offer our programs to a student living anywhere. We started our Virtual Program in 2020 out of pandemic necessity but quickly realized it’s a valuable tool to reach students who can’t physically come to the studio. Students are shipped a film-at-home kit adaptable to their mobile device and take classes on Zoom.
NEXTpittsburgh: And they keep the equipment to continue learning?
McBride-Tackett: Yes. We have a terrific Harrisburg-based partner in Reach Cyber Charter School that connects us with students across the state. Reaching students in rural communities is part of our diversity-equity-inclusion commitment. I grew up in a small town and would have loved to have had this kind of access.
NEXTpittsburgh: And now you have the access and the technology to bring it to others.
McBride-Tackett: We’re in a time when media is in every aspect of our life. Being able to create a space where every single person, no matter what their background, has a place and a voice is super important. The more diverse of a landscape we can create, the more tolerable and equitable world we can have. I think that’s the academy’s biggest benefit … providing a diverse landscape for content creators, because it does affect all of us.
WQED Film Academy’s in-person fall session runs Sept. 27-Dec. 22 with enrollment information here; scholarships are available.
L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.