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Is Pittsburgh The New Hollywood?

Pittsburgh is on track to become a major player in the entertainment industry, generating jobs and revenue. But there are challenges to realizing this dream.

Photo illustration by Chuck Beard

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In 1914, a ruthless villain tied a distraught damsel to the cold steel of a railroad track. She screamed in horror as a train thundered toward her. All seemed lost. But somehow, she miraculously escaped in the nick of time.

Nearly a century later, another train thundered along a railroad track—perhaps the very same one—and once again, all seemed lost. The train, loaded with explosive chemicals, raced out of control with no one aboard to stop it. But astonishingly, two heroic men stopped it in the nick of time.

One flick was filmed as a grainy, silent black-and-white serial. The other as a multimillion-dollar, high-tech blockbuster. But they share the same pedigree: Both were shot in Pittsburgh.

In the decades between 1914’s The Perils of Pauline and 2010’s Unstoppable, plenty of on-screen drama has unfolded here—especially picking up during the course of the last 40-some years. Angels descended from heaven to save the Pittsburgh Pirates’ season in Angels in the Outfield (don’t you wish that’d really happen?). Zombies shambled through an Evans City cemetery in Night of the Living Dead then besieged Monroeville Mall in its sequel, Dawn of the Dead.
And a scrappy young steelworker earned the chance to become a professional ballerina (and inspired a generation of young women to take scissors to their favorite sweatshirts) in the ’80s classic Flashdance.

We’ve played host to everything from Oscar winners (The Silence of the Lambs) to box-office disasters (the locally beloved but critically panned Striking Distance).

In the past three years, we’ve seen more bright lights and film trailers than ever before. A growing number of big-budget productions with A-list stars have been coming to town.

Last summer, bloggers posted a running tally of Katherine Heigl sightings during the filming of One For the Money. And as cameras rolled for the thriller Abduction, teen girls were busy tracking heartthrob Taylor Lautner from the North Hills to the South Hills with the precision of FBI agents.

In November, when the holiday movie-going season kicked off with three films shot here in 2009 (Unstoppable, The Next Three Days and Love and Other Drugs), a critic from the Hollywood Reporter said Pittsburgh was “evidently Hollywood’s favorite location.”

And beginning this month, the Fox-TV series “Locke & Key” will shoot its pilot inside the sprawling mansion at Hartwood Acres. The plan is to film an additional 13 episodes there, with hope that a second season will follow.

But there’s more happening than just star-sightings and film-induced traffic jams. Something else is beginning to bubble: Our long history as a movie-making location is beginning to grow into a solid industry.

Ask the major players, and they’ll tell you that the Pittsburgh region is positioned to potentially become an entertainment hub—a creative “greenhouse” for film, television and digital productions.

It won’t be simple to make the leap from popular location to full-blown center of movie making. But we have the seeds of that transition in place as you’ll see in the pages that follow.

And we might just be reaching that pivotal moment when the hero takes control of the thundering locomotive and accomplishes the impossible.

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