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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.

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Hollywood on the Mon?

It’s going to be a challenge, says Docherty, to convince Hollywood producers that they can find leading actors here in Pittsburgh. For now, local actors must leave and find success in New York or L.A. before getting cast in substantial roles in the A-list films that shoot in Pittsburgh.

Despite increasing production here, CMU still sends its graduating drama students to those cities for industry showcases. And currently, it’s a similar experience for costumers and other designers—they can get a bit of experience on projects here but can’t vie for major jobs until they’ve earned some credits in Hollywood.

But there are signs the tide is changing. Increasingly, says Nancy Mosser, actors with roots here are choosing to move home after stints in New York or L.A. because more work is available locally. They supplement work on feature films and TV episodes with commercials and corporate videos.

After nearly two decades of hiring actors for everything from Lorenzo’s Oil to “The West Wing,” Mosser says, “The past five years have been busier than ever.”

So here’s the key: In order to provide steady employment for the talented people who live and train here, filmmakers must be encouraged to produce their films here from start to finish, says Steeltown’s co-founder Carl Kurlander.

“We have an opportunity to build a real industry,” he says. “But you’ve got to have strategy for developing an overall film and TV and digital industry, which involves workforce development with training, making sure everybody is working together.”

That includes state government, local government and business leaders in this region who can choose to invest in growing this industry.

It’s also vital that Pennsylvania’s tax-incentive program continues. “We just lost our governor, and we don’t know what the new one’s going to be doing about this,” says Docherty. “We all have to sort of let our representatives know that we need to keep this going.”

Kurlander is banking that it will happen. After building a successful career in Hollywood as writer of St. Elmo’s Fire and producer of the TV show “Saved by the Bell,” among other projects, he chose to move back to Pittsburgh several years ago and work toward building the local film industry. He has chronicled that experience in the film My Tale of Two Cities.
Kurlander points out that plenty of others are doing the same such as Lisa Smith, a former producer for VH-1 and MTV who recently returned to Pittsburgh, and Heide Waldbaum, a production manager on James Cameron’s Avatar.

“These are people who really have all the talent and all the credits and all the ideas who are choosing to move to Pittsburgh,” Kurlander says. “We’ve got to live up to it and make sure they have work to do.”

There may be some perils during Pittsburgh’s journey toward becoming an entertainment-industry mecca. But despite the challenges, perhaps the engine is unstoppable.

Melissa Rayworth writes about a mix of cultural issues—from sexual politics and popular culture to home design and parenting—for a variety of national news outlets, including The Associated Press, babble.com and salon.com.

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