Pittsburgh, Cincinnati Attracting Bright Lights

Can Cincinnati stand in for 1950s Harlem in one film and for an industrial New Jersey city in another? How about Pittsburgh as a double for both Baltimore and West Virginia?

The answer to all of the above is yes: “A Rage In Harlem” and “City Of Hope” were shot in Cincinnati, while “The Silence Of The Lambs” was made primarily in Pittsburgh. These films underscore a growing reputation both cities have gained in the past few years as cheap, convenient film locations that are able to attract tv movies, low-budget films and expensive studio productions.

Pittsburgh’s film commission was opened just a year ago, and since then nine films have contributed $30 million to the city’s economy. Cincinnati’s office, in existence for about four years, has helped generate $22.2 million in film production revenues over the last three years.

Producers have decided to shoot in the two cities for a variety of reasons. Expenses, for everything from labor to hotels, are much cheaper than in New York or Los Angeles. In addition, both cities are relatively easy to navigate, with fewer traffic and parking problems than bigger cities. Each city also has a major airport, so crew members can be flown in from around the country. And due to the surge of filming, there are growing talent pools in both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Thanks to Romero

Most technicians in Pittsburgh got their start with George Romero. He has been making movies there since 1968, when he made “Night Of The Living Dead” on a minuscule budget. His latest horror film, “The Dark Half” for Orion, has been employing area talent for the past six months. It stars Timothy Hutton and is budgeted at $13 million.

“The Silence Of The Lambs,” the current Orion release, was filmed primarily in Pittsburgh even though its settings include Baltimore, West Virginia and Virginia. Made for about $18 million, it pumped at least $9 million into the local economy.

“Orion has been one of Pittsburgh’s greatest cheerleaders,” says Robert M. Curran, director of the Pittsburgh film office. “They found it a cost-effective place to shoot with an experienced crew base.”

Curran added that the recent productions have used Pittsburgh to stand-in for other cities. “It has period architecture, an urban look that duplicates New York and Chicago, with rural areas nearby and industrial steel towns,” he says. “There are a lot of different looks.”

It doesn’t hurt that the local unions have been cooperative with film companies. Small productions have been non-union, while bigger films like “Silence” have used the teamsters and IATSE. The unions, Curran believes are “anxious to bring in new business to the city.”

A pleased customer

Local vendors also cooperate. A major truck rental company happens to be located in Pittsburgh, and hotels have invested in screening rooms. There are no labs in Pittsburgh yet, but that work can be done in New York or Los Angeles.

A production manager and associate producer on tv movies and low-budget films, Carol Cuddy has found great deals in Pittsburgh. “The hotels are great. They’re really competing with each other because there is so much business there,” she says.

The city and state film offices have also been helpful. “They’ve really bent over backwards – not just in attracting films but also in the follow-through,” Cuddy notes.

Having worked on “Little Man Tate” in Cincinnati last summer, Cuddy found it an equally agreeable place to work. Although there were not as many crew members available locally, Cuddy found a wide range of urban and rural locations.

Union impasse

Because of the impasse with unions in New York, Cuddy expects even more low-and medium-budget films to shoot in smaller cities. “Not only is it cheaper, but it’s easier to work,” she says. “Add up all these factors and you say, ‘Why work in New York?'”

Duplicating New York

On the other hand, if New York is specified in a script she thinks a film should be shot there because “there’s no duplicating the real New York.”

But that’s exactly what the producers of “A Rage In Harlem” did last summer in Cincinnati. They recreated 1950s Harlem in Over The Rhine, a neighborhood of walk-ups built in the 1830s. Lori Holladay, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Film Commission, says it can be made to look like any period. “It’s sort of like having a back lot,” she says.

“Little Man Tate,” Jodie Foster’s first film as a director, was supposed to be set partly in New York. But the script was changed to indicate any northeastern city so the scenes could be done in Cincinnati. Area locations were found to match a New England college and a West Virginia farm, too.

Unlike most film offices, Cincinnati’s is not a government office. That allows Holladay to recommend locations across state lines in Kentucky and Indiana.

Kansas in Ohio

During the cross-country trip in “Rain Man,” for instance, nearby farms duplicated Kansas. And all the locations were just a short drive from downtown. “It’s easier to get around,” Holladay points out. “We don’t have huge traffic jams.”

In addition, she says local vendors don’t overcharge film companies. “The attitude is what makes the difference,” Holladay says. “People don’t want to gouge them. It’s new money here, dollars on top of what they’d normally make.”

The amount of money can be substantial. “Tango And Cash,” the 1989 Sylvester Stallone buddy picture, spent $2 million in Cincinnati during just three and a half shooting days.

With figures like that, it’s no wonder the film office does its best to lure more films. When a film company expresses interest, Holladay’s team of scouts scours the countryside to find the perfect location and sends pictures of suitable sites.

Scouting Pittsburgh

Curran, whose office consists of himself and an assistant, also spends much of his time looking for locations. At the moment, he reports, “We’re scouting 15 different projects. We’re in contention for some really big budget films.”

The city used to attract films like “Flashdance” because the script specified Pittsburgh. Then word spread that it was a cheap place to work and more business came.

“Now,” Curran says, “productions are coming back because the crew base is good.” By his estimate, there are about 250 film and tv professionals in the area.

As an example of the skilled craftsmanship, Curran noted that the eerie cellblock set in a Baltimore jail in “The Silence Of The Lambs” was built for the film by local workmen. Other jail scenes were shot in hallways of the Allegheny County Courthouse, which was also used in the period film “Mrs. Soffel.”

River cities roll

As long as the costs remain low, and there are skilled crew members available, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati should continue to attract film and television business. The cities get new money, jobs and a higher profile, while film companies make films for less money, often in less time, than they could elsewhere. It is hardly surprising, then, that both filmmakers and film commissioners want the cities to continue their further expansion as production centers.

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