'The Dark Knight Rises': How Pittsburgh landed the blockbuster
Move over, Wilmington. Pittsburgh has declared itself the new Hollywood of the East. Although people have been making movies in the Steel City practically since the video camera was invented, the city’s film industry really took off when Pennsylvania introduced a tax credit program for filmmakers about 10 years ago. Since then, Pittsburgh has seen a steady increase of film work — culminating this year, when five major studio movies shot in southwestern PA hit theaters, including The Dark Knight Rises and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. A murder story starring Steve Carell and Channing Tatum, a new TV show starring Chloe Sevigny, and Fisher Stevens’s adaptation of American Pastoral are currently being shot there. All told, the film industry has brought more than $100 million in revenue to Pittsburgh and the surrounding area for the last three years in a row. EW spoke with Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, to learn how the town Sienna Miller once called “Sh–sburgh” reinvented itself as a movie mecca.
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As told by: Dawn Keezer
What a lot of people don’t realize is, Pittsburgh’s been making movies for a very long time. Pittsburgh’s first film was made back in 1914 — The Perils of Pauline. It’s one of those old ones where the girl’s tied up on the railroad tracks. In 1968, we really came into our own with Night of the Living Dead, which is credited with starting the commercial film industry in southwestern Pennsylvania. It trained people to work in this industry — how to build sets, how to do all that really cool makeup. So little by little, we kept building our reputation.
In the early ’90s, we went gangbusters — we were busier than New York. They had a few labor issues, and instead of going to New York, people wanted to go to places that looked like New York. A lot of that changed in 1994 — New York was able to reignite their industry, and we saw a bit of a slowdown. And in the year 2000, we were looking at what we could do to start leveling the playing field with foreign competition, primarily Canada. Cut to about 2002 — we were one of the first states to have a film tax credit program, an incentive program for the film industry. And it really started changing the face of the industry in Pennsylvania.
The tax credit program went from $10 million to $75 million in 2004, and that’s when it got real. At $75 million, we’re able to go after some of the larger features. We’re able to get some television series work. And we’ve really seen success on both sides of the state. A lot of other states that created their own incentive programs did it as a way to create an industry. But in Pennsylvania, we’ve been making movies since 1914. We just needed a little bit of a lift. Pittsburgh is also one of the only offices that has someone on the ground in Los Angeles, where the bulk of decisions are made about where people are going to film.
The Dark Knight Rises was an incredible, amazing opportunity for southwestern Pennsylvania. The city welcomed it with open arms — and of course, the mayor had his starring role as the kicker [on Gotham City’s football team]. The decision [to film in Pittsburgh] wasn’t related to the incentive program at all; they chose Pittsburgh because of our history, because of our reputation, because of the fact that we have four crews that work in this industry on a full-time basis. Most cities our size are usually lucky to have one or two crews; we can now do four full features with all local hires.
There’s still a lot of misconceptions about what southwestern Pennsylvania looks like. The smoky steel town — it’s important to our history, it’s important to our heritage, it should be honored. But [Pittsburgh is] a thriving, beautiful, high-tech city. The Road  is a perfect example — I was on the phone with the location manager, and he’s like, “You know, we need post-apocalyptic.” I started laughing. I’m like, “Where are you going to go?” He went out and found these coal fields in Washington County — out there, you look like you’re on the surface of the moon. But the real down and dirty parts, where they’ve got the buildings all blown out — that was all done on a computer in Philadelphia, at a company called Dive.
Because of so many people seeing what’s there, they’re now writing Pittsburgh into scripts. Perks of Being a Wallflower was a great one — Stephen Chbosky was the biggest champion for making that movie in Pittsburgh. The tax credits allowed him to have his dream. Yes, we’re telling people it’s completely illegal to stand in the back of a pickup truck and fly through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, but everybody wants to go do it now. [Laughs] Every time we get that positive image of Pittsburgh, it’s changing those perceptions and helping the economic development effort of the entire region. People are going to see it onscreen. They’re going to want to live there, too. They’re going to want to move their companies there. I think Pittsburgh’s coming into its own right now, and the film industry’s really playing a part in that.