Michael Machosky  July 25, 2022  Arts & EntertainmentBraddockCity DesignCurrent Features

Just last week, hometown hero Billy Porter’s made-in-Pittsburgh directorial debut, the coming-of-age romantic comedy “Anything’s Possible” hit Amazon Prime — but it’s far from the region’s only connection to Hollywood.

The Pittsburgh Film Office estimates that Western Pennsylvania saw about $330 million in economic impact from film and TV productions in 2021, though those numbers haven’t been finalized yet. For comparison, the annual average was about $150 million before 2021.

And 2022 looks like another blockbuster year.

Still from the “Anything’s Possible” trailer.

The local industry is growing, but so is the need for infrastructure.

Enter Carrie Furnace stage left.

“We’ve done well, using our repurposed warehouses,” says Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. “31st Street Studio in the Strip has been amazing. We’ve got the former American Eagle distribution warehouse in Warrendale. We’ve got two former Westinghouse facilities that are being used as stages; we had a closed JCPenney as a stage out on Route 28 (for “Cha Cha Real Smooth”).

“What we’re building is something that can be used today, and for the filmmakers of the future. … This is important because the clients coming in expect to find this kind of facility … and we’d like to centralize the industry in one place.”

The state has awarded $7.6 million in grants and loans to the site’s owner, Regional Industrial Development Corporation. The bulk of that is for site preparation, infrastructure, roads, parking, and utility work needed to construct a 50,000-square-foot building hosting multiple sound stages.

“Pittsburgh is definitely a hot city for filming,” says Jesse Cute, vice president for Allied Global Marketing in Philadelphia, which promotes much of the film industry in the state. “Our film commissioner in Philly gets Pittsburgh-envy sometimes.”

Billy Porter mural featured in a still from “Anything’s Possible” on Amazon Prime.

So, Burbank by Braddock — that’s the plan?

“Ideally, we’ll have six more stages down there, plus the outbuildings that you need to make the industry happen, like production offices,” says Keezer. “And then, the longer-term plan is to have some businesses relocate down there to service the industry — what we’re calling the Pittsburgh Film Furnace.”

State tax credits end up influencing where a lot of film and TV projects end up. Pennsylvania boosted its film tax credit program to $100 million, a 30% increase, notes Keezer, but there are still more productions interested than there are tax credits available.

The areas in pink are envisioned as the most imminently developable parts of the Carrie Furnace site, spanning Swissvale and Rankin. The eastern end of the site (to the right) is expected to be developed first. Photo courtesy of the Allegheny County Department of Development.

This is a notoriously mobile business, and the film industry is growing outside of California in places such as Atlanta, New Orleans and Vancouver.

But Pittsburgh has a few built-in advantages. Unless you’re looking for beaches or deserts or a few other particular things, you can find just about any kind of “look” here, from Manhattan-like skyscrapers to the densely wooded wilderness — all just minutes apart, instead of hours. There are well-preserved buildings from many eras, from the 1900s to the 1990s. Crime drama “Mayor of Kingstown” was lured back to Pennsylvania for its next season from Canada, because it can use Erie for waterfront scenes. Also, there’s one thing you can find here that you won’t find in many other places:  gigantic factories, like the former steel mill at Carrie Furnace.

“If we need a steel mill (for a scene), well it’s hard to use a working steel mill,” notes Keezer.

Local film crews are well known for their hard work and competence.

“We have some of the best crew in the industry that live in Southwestern Pennsylvania,” says Keezer. “In the old days, when we were lucky to get one project a year, they would travel to work all over the country and all over the world. But we’re so busy now because they can stay home.”

Acreage west of the furnaces. Photo courtesy of Allegheny County.

If this industry grows further locally, it will need more workers, which opens up opportunities for struggling neighborhoods like Rankin, Braddock and Swissvale.

“It’s surrounded by communities that need an industry,” says Keezer. “We’ve created this workforce training program in partnership with the IATSE union. It’s the first place outside of New York where it’s happening. We start that on Aug. 6, and we need more people to work, and there are jobs available in this industry. These are good paying family-sustaining jobs that you don’t need a college degree.”

The Pittsburgh Film Office is a good place to check for upcoming jobs and training opportunities.