Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How A City Changes-- the unlikely connection between the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit and the Salk polio vaccine

Last Friday, I attended a remarkable event-- a hearing on the Pennsylvania Film Tax credit held at a room at the David Lawrence Convention Center. When I say attended, that is not entirely accurate-- as it was hard to get into the room which was more than standing room only with people flowing out of the doors of the hearing room. Standing in the back, I could hear testimony of various people whose lives had been changed by the Film Tax Credit.

It is one thing to read that an Economic Research Associates report released by the Pennsylvania Senate Budget and Finance Committee that the tax credit has had an economic impact statewide of $524.6 million dollars for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania while being responsible for creating and supporting over 3,950 new jobs here in Pennsylvania which generated $146.4 million in wages alone from these created and supported jobs. But it is another to see the faces of many who now have work and hope because of this legislation. Pittsburgh Film Office director Dawn Keezer arranged for the committee to hear testimony from film professionals who had worked continually on the productions which have flowed into the area since the legislation was passed in 2007 (including Adventureland, Zak and Miri Make a Porno, The Road) , the vendors who had trucks and furniture rented by film productions, and young people who had stayed in the area because they could now pursue their dreams right here in Western Pennsylvania. It was so refreshing to hear positive stories of people employed in the region, instead of tales of missed opportunities that got away.

It was that last part about "young people" that hit me hardest personally, having watched so many talented young people who had worked on My Tale of Two Cities and who I have taught at the University of Pittsburgh, leave the region not because they wanted to, but because their was not the work to sustain them. Hearing that testimony made Western Pennsylvania seem like it was truly on the brink of creating an industry which might keep young people in town, retain and attract talent, and ultimately help change Pittsburgh's image around the world via the product which is coming out of here-- such as the pilot of Three Rivers about transplants as seen from three different perspectives which will air on CBS this Fall.

I had seen the real-life transplant pioneer Dr. Thomas Starzl, who we filmed for My Tale of Two Cities just the day before at a reception for Pitt professor and bioterrorism expert D.A. Henderson who had a new book out about how he had eradicated smallpox from the planet. In a part of "My Tale of Two Cities", I hated to cut out, Dr. Starzl had told me how he had the choice between Pittsburgh and L.A. and that when he choose to come to Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, his friends from L.A. thought he was "depressed." But Dr. Starzl saw resources in Pittsburgh which he needed to get the job done and realized that in L.A., he would have spent much of his time in traffic. Of course, Dr. Starzl coming to Pittsburgh would soon establish this city as "The Transplant Capital of the World."

What does this have to do with the film tax credit, you may ask? And how does the Salk polio vaccine fit into all this. You have to go back to post-world war II era to fully appreciate this. That was a time when R.K. Mellon and David Lawrence got together, and realizing that Pittsburgh would not be in steel forever, decided to transform a city which many had written off as dying, by cleaning the place up and investing in a new, until then dormant sector of health care. By way of example, according to Richard Carter's "Breakthrough: The Sage of Jonas Salk," one year prior to this inititiative, the total grants to the Unversity of Pittsburgh medical school was $1800 for a study on high blood pressure. But, according to Jane Smith's "Patenting the Sun", in ten years after WWII, R.K. Mellon and the Pittsburgh philanthropic community invested $26 million dollars in "medical-related programs" trying to grow what was back then a modest University of Pittsburgh medical school. That would be serious money even today, but think of what in today's dollars, that level of investment would mean in a dormant industry. (By contrast, according to the ERA, report, the $75 million in film tax credit actually results in a 4.5 million dollar gain to the commonwealth in terms of revenues making it hardly a risk at all.)

That investment in the health care sector after World War II attracted talent like Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose baby books would inform generations of parents, and a young 33 year Dr. Jonas Salk, who in seven years in Pittsburgh would conquer polio, to the region. And those successes would breed more investment, bringing in people like Dr. Starzl and ultimately turning Pittsburgh into a medical powerhouse which metaphorically and now physically with UPMC occupying the US Steel building has given the region a thriving industry which has created countless jobs and in many ways, given Pittsburgh itself new life.

What UPMC has succeeded in doing is organizing what was previously a disorganized region, attracted and retained talent, invested in research and development, and exported its end product around the world. The model has worked wonderfully, and started with that initial vision of having an industry where previously they had had a hospital. More than a few have suggested we repeat that model in other areas.

But sectors do not just happen. People have to go out and make them happen. That is what city leaders in Pittsburgh did after World War II and that is what many people in Southwestern Pennsylvania have been trying to make happen with the entertainment and the technology sectors. (They are increasingly overlapping as anyone who has looked at Google, YouTube, and Facebook will tell you.) I'm on the advisory board of CMU's Project Olympus which was formed out of the sad realization that 95 percent of computer scientists from CMU have previously left town. Now, thanks to this initiative, more are staying and one of them may possibly produce the next Google or the next Facebook-- both created by young people. Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center is creating spin-off companies which may create the new video games of tomorrow.

The Film Tax Credit is creating jobs and opportunities which give aspiring filmmakers the chance to see how the film and television industry really work. One of them may turn out to be the next Fred Rogers, Gene Kelly, August Wilson, or George Romero. By it is not just artistic achievement at stake here. Today, the entertainment industry is larger than the automobile and the steel industry's combined.

Carnegie and Mellon saw in Pittsburgh's rolling hills that this region had the resources to create an industrial power that fueled a century and created more wealth per capita than the modern world has seen. (Realize that Carnegie was richer than Bill Gates in today's dollars; Mellon was richer than Warren Buffet; and then in the same city, you had Heinz, Westinghouse, and Frick.) I would argue this region has similar resources to become a powerhouse in producing entertainment content which, like steel, would go around the world.

But that wealth of past generations was not created without risk and so risks-- smart, calculated risks-- must be taken to make this happen to. The Film Tax Credit is the first step in creating an industry in Southwestern Pennsylvania which could fuel the next few decades. But don't take it from me. One last story.

While singing "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" across from the Beverly Hills Hotel with over 200 Pittsburghers for the finale of My Tale of Two Cities, I met a man who was a scholarship kid at Pitt who has gone on to be a Hollywood powerhouse who has helped been a part of creating regional production centers in Italy, Canada, and New Mexico, Lionsgate Producer and executive John Dellaverson came back to Pittsburgh in April 2007 to speak to my students at Pitt. But on that trip, he, M. Night Shamalyn, and another Lionsgate executive met with Governor Rendell and state legislators. John told them about Lionsgate's experience of going to New Mexico where five years previously there had been 5 million a year in annual production and how five years later, there was 500 million dollars in production. By July, new film tax legislation had passed. But John, who has watched places like Canada build a real self-sustaining industry, said that the film tax credit was only the beginning. On his visit home (his mother Ann still lives in New Castle), John saw his alma mater Pitt, CMU, WQED, Filmmakers, and this city which had so much more to offer than when he grew up here, and saw opportunity. John started off as a labor lawyer so he knows the power of jobs and longs to see jobs in places like New Castle and other towns like it across Pennsylvania. But he knows to get there, takes having a strategic approach to an industry which starts with a film tax credit.

(See the piece we did with John for WQED when he went home to New Castle, but also talked about why he sees opportunity for the film business in Western PA:


I realize how crazy this idea of Pittsburgh having a thriving entertainment industry may seem. It is a vision which has haunted me for many years. But who would have thought a steel town would have been the one to have conquered the most feared disease of last century, polio, or to have become the "transplant capitol of the world." Frankly, to me, it all sounds like a movie.

(And in case you are wondering, we are working on a film of how Pittsburgh conquered polio which we hope to have completed this summer.)

Visit www.pghfilm.org for more information on the Pittsburgh Film Office, www.steeltown.org for more information on developing an entertainment industry in Pittsburgh and www.mytaleoftwocities.com for clips from that movie.

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