Photo courtesy of Nicolas Genin/Wikipedia Commons.

Hollywood has the Oscars, but Pittsburgh has the Ellys, an award show created to honor area entertainment pioneers. For its second year, the Elly Awards will recognize a group of people who have helped define the city’s film and television scene.

On April 27, industry professionals from all over Pittsburgh will join the event’s organizer, Steeltown, at the newly renovated Union Trust Building for an evening defined by the undead. The Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero will serve as a presenter, a fitting tribute to Elly Pioneer Award recipient George Romero, the famed horror director who unleashed zombies on Allegheny County with his iconic Living Dead film series.

Another Pittsburgh entertainment veteran receiving an award is former Fred Rogers Company president and CEO Bill Isler. He’ll accept the Legacy Award for dedicating three decades of his life to producing quality educational programming for children. He officially retired from his position at the end of 2016.

“I’m thrilled to be an honoree at the 2017 Elly Awards alongside the legendary George Romero,” said Isler in an official statement. “The Elly Awards truly showcases Pittsburgh’s growing industry and the amazing young people who are working hard to make entertainment thrive in Pittsburgh.”

The “young people” being recognized are special effects artist Steve Tolin and Julie Sokolow, a mostly self-taught filmmaker who has quickly built a reputation as an up-and-coming documentarian. She broke onto the scene in 2015 with Aspie Seeks Love, a story about the struggles of dating with Asberger Syndrome, and recently produced The John Show, a short about a local artist. Last November, she traveled to the DOC NYC festival to premiere what she calls her biggest project to date, Woman on Fire, a profile of New York’s first transgender firefighter.

Julie Sokolow (left) at the DOC NYC premiere of her film Woman on Fire. Image courtesy of Julie Sokolow.
Julie Sokolow (left) and Brooke Guinan at the DOC NYC premiere of Woman on Fire. Image courtesy of Julie Sokolow.

She’ll receive the Elly Indie Award, a distinction that previously went to film director and Pittsburgh Dad creator Chris Preksta.

Despite her accomplishments, she never thought she’d share a stage with Romero, who she views as a “household name.”

“It’s very odd in some ways and delightful to be included in this ceremony where I’m being honored alongside someone like George Romero,” says Sokolow, pointing out how Romero went on to make big narrative films like the horror anthology Creepshow while she occupies the world of super low-budget documentary filmmaking.

Besides validating her work, as well as the work of others, she sees the Ellys as an extension of Steeltown’s mission to boost Pittsburgh’s film and television scene. The award serves to realize the vision set out by its namesake, late Steeltown co-founder Ellen Weiss Kander, who is credited with saying, “Entertainment could be Pittsburgh’s new steel.” Since her death in 2012, Steeltown has evolved by focusing on film production training programs geared toward high school students and other area youth.

Sokolow credits Steeltown president and CEO Carl Kurlander for supporting her throughout her career, either as a mentor or by helping her obtain funding.

As for the ceremony itself, she looks forward to using it as a way to further familiarize herself with other local “film lovers.”

“Sometimes Pittsburgh feels really small and then I’ll go to community events and be shocked at all the people who are doing amazing things I haven’t heard of yet,” says Sokolow. “I think it’ll be one of those experiences where I’ll meet new people and have my eyes opened even more.”

The Elly Awards will take place from 6-10 p.m. at the Union Trust Building in Downtown Pittsburgh. James and Erin Isler will host a post-party bash in the lobby where guests can mingle with the night’s honorees and leading members of Pittsburgh’s film community. Tickets cost $50-125.

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 to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.