Joe Morrison Takes the Director's Chair at Pittsburgh Filmmakers
After years of uncertainty, the cinemas of Pittsburgh Filmmakers now have a leader with experience building and engaging audiences.
photo by RICHARD KELLY
Joe Morrison became the captain of a ship that, if not actively sinking, was definitely taking on water.
The 2010s have been an era of change for the cinemas of Pittsburgh Filmmakers (cinema.pfpca.org), where Morrison now serves as director of programming. The long-running Three Rivers Film Festival has vanished, in need of a presenting sponsor. The Regent Square Theater — Filmmakers’ largest — closed for a stretch of 2017 due to equipment failures. The organization’s longtime Oakland home, and with it the intimate Melwood Screening Room, was sold in 2018 to Carnegie Mellon University.
Simultaneously, competitors — now more of a threat than in the multiplex-focused ’90s — gained steam. Lawrenceville’s Row House was outpacing Filmmakers in repertory screenings; the Oscar-buzz flicks were migrating to Squirrel Hill’s Manor; and niche-market fare, such as horror and anime, found a home at Dormont’s Hollywood.
The latter theater was Morrison’s domain for four years — all as operations manager, the last two as head of programming. Before he left in 2017 (following an unexpected and contentious sale to the Theatre Historical Society of America), Morrison, a native of Clearfield, Pa., established the Hollywood as a place that could draw dedicated fans from miles away.
“What we realized at the Hollywood was that there’s a community that wants to be engaged,” the 52-year-old says. The calendar was rounded out by mainstream offerings, but the marquee events at the Hollywood were for specific crowds — martial-arts aficionados, music lovers looking for documentaries, horror hounds. “A few times a month, there was programming designed to bring out fans.”
After the sale, Morrison worked for about a year with Jump Cut Theater, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that brings film screenings to neighborhoods throughout the county. In mid-2018, however, Pittsburgh Filmmakers needed a captain to right the ship.
“I kinda had [the idea of working at Filmmakers] in my back pocket — knowing that the organization was struggling, knowing that they didn’t have a person in place for a couple of years,” he says. “I just kept the doors open ... [until] the time became right, when enough changeover had happened within the organization.”
It’s a homecoming; Morrison, who has a degree in radio, television and film from Temple University, worked as the operations manager of Filmmakers’ Melwood Avenue facility for a decade starting in 2000. The job also represented an opportunity to do what he had done, successfully, at the Hollywood: Set programming as he sees fit. “I have carte blanche to do what I want,” he says, citing support from recently promoted Creative Director Kyle Houser and Director of Administration Dorinda Sankey.
Morrison, who currently lives in Wilkins Township, is experimenting with programming at Filmmaker’s two theaters — Regent Square and Downtown’s Harris — but has no shortage of options. “There’s a wealth of content out there,” he says. “I think there’s almost a golden age of indie, arthouse and documentary films happening.” He’s revived and revitalized the longstanding Sunday-night repertory series at Regent Square and brought a number of acclaimed Asian films to the two venues, including Oscar nominee “Shoplifters,” which he says drew big crowds.
This month, the Three Rivers Arts Festival will provide an opportunity to explore the Harris’s past. “I need to write the history of the Harris Theater that people haven’t paid attention to,” Morrison says. “[The theater] has been screening films since the 1930s ... There’s such a critical mass of amazing things that happened in this theater.”
During the festival — from June 7-16 — the Harris will offer free screenings of landmark films that played on the same spot during the ’30s and ’40s. The schedule includes Fritz Lang’s crime thriller “M,” Roberto Rossellini’s “Paisan” and Jean Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion.”
Discussions about reviving the Three Rivers Film Festival are underway, as are a number of initiatives and ideas still under wraps. Morrison promises every concept that could draw film fans will get its due. “I’m always willing to take on way more than I can handle and just hope that something sticks.”