The Chair

When Pittsburgh native Lisa Smith-Reed started teaching cinema at Point Park University, she had a plan. She would bring her experience as a Hollywood producer into the classroom, taking her students onto the set of a project she had a hand in making.

Each week she popped in a DVD of “Project Greenlight,” the successful HBO series that followed first-time screenwriters and directors through the process of making a movie. As a class they watched the rookie mistakes and learned from every aspect of the production, notwithstanding the guidance of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and producer Chris Moore (American Pie, Good Will Hunting, Promised Land).

“Being on a movie set is like being in a bubble — you’re isolated from the real world,” says Smith-Reed who also works as chief operating officer at the Steeltown Entertainment Project. “I wasn’t sure how I would teach that in a classroom.”

When her friend Chris Moore began to mastermind a new television series “The Chair,” a competition between two first-time directors to each make a feature film using the same script, Smith-Reed encouraged him to bring the project to Pittsburgh.

“Lisa had everything to do with the decision to come here,” says Moore who notes the growth of the film industry in Pittsburgh and the city’s potential to become a regional production center.

The digital revolution has changed the way movies and other creative content are made and distributed, disrupting the traditional Hollywood models of doing business and creating opportunities for places like Pittsburgh.

Shooting in Braddock/photo by Brian Cohen

Around 30 Point Park students secured internships for the three crews needed to shoot “The Chair.” That includes the two movies and a 10-episode documentary series that follows Moore and the project’s other executive producers, Carnegie Mellon alums—Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), Corey Moosa, Neal Dodson and Pittsburgh native Sean Ackers, all of the media company Before The Door (All is Lost).

“My students gained more from this experience than anything else in their academic life,” Smith-Reed says.

But it’s not just personal connections and a talented workforce that’s going to attract film and television projects to Pittsburgh.

“They won’t come here just because we have the greatest crews. They will come here because they can make their money go further,” she adds.

The diversity of funding sources for “The Chair” is unlike anything ever done in Pittsburgh — and possibly anywhere in America. The project secured PA Film Tax Credits, private investment and support from Point Park University and the Steeltown Entertainment Project through the WQED/Steeltown Incubator and a CITF (Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund) grant from Allegheny County.

“Giving the region a stake in the intellectual property of projects like “The Chair” can be a key to our future, says Carl Kurlander, president and CEO of the Steeltown Entertainment Project who co-wrote ‘St. Elmo’s Fire.’ “It’s been great to watch the idea come to life. If Pittsburgh as a region can fill in some of the ‘gap financing’ it can drive more and more film and TV projects here — making sure we have enough work to thrive five, 10, 20 years from now.”

Other parts of the entertainment infrastructure are important too. A more robust PA Film Tax Credit could help prevent the loss of projects that want to come here and further leverage the credit’s multiplier effect on the regional economy. In addition, the film tax credit would also help with much needed planning and scheduling of projects throughout the year, employing all levels of crew for low, medium and big-budget projects.

Creative financing and strong incentives can give Pittsburgh the edge over other production centers like Atlanta, New Orleans, Michigan and North Carolina.

Sometimes Pittsburgh’s unique beauty and charm aren’t enough… although they don’t hurt.

“I’m still shocked when I go on location and see the beauty of this city, says Moore, a Maryland native and Harvard grad who also comes to Pittsburgh to judge the Steeltown Film Factory screenwriting competition. “I keep being amazed by the variety of places. It can be anywhere. And it’s cool here,” he adds.

From Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood to Gotham City, Pittsburgh has been the backdrop for many iconic productions. But to keep these kind of projects going throughout the year and employing a workforce full-time is part of the challenge of building a sustainable industry.

Chris Moore and Lisa Smith-Reed/photo by Brian Cohen

“‘The Chair’ has been a helpful case study in answering questions and shedding light on what we need to do to make the whole ecosystem work,” says Kurlander. “For way too many years Pittsburgh’s greatest export has not been steel but talent which has generated billions for other cities like New York and L.A. We believe in investing in the talent Pittsburgh has incubated.”

“The crews here are pretty fantastic,” Smith-Reed says. “People want to work here but if we’re not getting the projects then the crews will leave. Nonprofits have opened the door but if bigger private sector players don’t hold it open by investing in this industry it will close.”

In the meantime, Smith-Reed’s students at Point Park are getting the experience of a lifetime that will help launch their careers in the film industry. With any luck the jobs they land will be right here at home in Pittsburgh.

Michele Fetting

Michele had every intention of ending up in San Francisco or Seattle but she fell in love with Pittsburgh. Spends most of her time working with nonprofits on planning and communications or running the...