Sun Center Studios president Jeffrey Rotwitt didn’t have to go far to find the first client for his new soundstage facility, located 10 miles south of Philadelphia Intl. Airport in Aston, Pa.
“M. Night Shyamalan lives 12 miles from our front door,” says Rotwitt of the Philly-based writer-director, who set up shop at Sun Center in October 2011 to shoot his post-apocalyptic sci-fi film “After Earth,” starring Will Smith and son Jaden Smith.
Sun Center boasts two new state-of-the-art soundstages, 30,000 sq. ft. of production space and a 50,000-sq.-ft. mill, built at a cost of $40 million, along with a pre-existing 44,000-sq.-ft. building with a 20,000-sq.-ft. auditorium that can be used as a third soundstage.
“We also have 10 acres of woods with a stream, which is unusual to have contiguous to the actual soundstages, so they can sort of be on location without being on location,” says Rotwitt, who plans to break ground on a movie-themed tourist attraction at the complex in the third quarter of 2013.
Pennsylvania boasts several other feature-ready soundstage facilities, including 31st Street Studios, a 300,000-sq.-ft. former steel mill in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, which opened in 2011 and has hosted “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Jack Reacher” and the Nickelodeon series “Supah Ninjas.” Next, it will be hosting the new A&E series “Those Who Kill,” starring Chloe Sevigny.
“Each production that has come here has left the place better,” says 31st Street Studios CEO Chris Breakwell. “We have six soundstages and we’ll have eight when we’re completely finished.”
The studios couldn’t thrive without the business drawn by the state’s 6-year-old production incentive, which features a 25% tax credit with an additional 5% for shooting in qualified studio facilities.
In turn, the incentive wouldn’t have been able to attract and sustain so much new production if the state’s crew base and infrastructure hadn’t already been built up.
Shyamalan has been instrumental in this, having shot all of his films in the Philadelphia area since breaking out with 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.” Other homegrown talent include director George Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”).
Additionally, the state has a long history of hosted visiting productions, including “Rocky” (1976), “The Deer Hunter” (1979), “Flashdance” (1983), “Witness” (1985) and a string of TV movies in the early ’90s.
Pennsylvania is also home to several entertainment-oriented companies.
Philadelphia is the hub of cable giant Comcast, which, after its acquisition of NBCUniversal, became one of the largest and most powerful media congloms on the planet. The company is based in its own gleaming glass skyscraper in downtown Philly.
The city also serves as headquarters of Center City Film & Video, a major producer of national TV spots, corporate videos and — under its Stage 3 Productions banner — reality/documentary programming for the A&E Networks and other cable channels, including country music channel GAC’s “Farm Kings” and nuvoTV’s “Curvy Girls.”
Center City prexy Jordan Schwartz says in addition to its staff of 150 full-time workers, the 34-year-old company also draws on talent from the large freelance production community as well as nearby schools with communications programs, such as Temple U. and the U. of Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia is also the headquarters for ShootersINC, a 30-year-old full-service production and post house that produces commercials, corporate videos and shows like Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible.”
Shooters unit Dive has provided vfx, digital intermediate and film finishing services to such pics as “The Road,””Chernobyl Diaries,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “After Earth.”
“There’s work that we get that has nothing to do with the tax credit, like high-end TV commercials, and we’re able to compete for that work because of the quality of our staff and the technology we have to do the feature film work,” says ShootersINC topper Ray Carballada.
With recent increases in production, the state now has enough experienced local crew to staff 4 1/2 features, according Pittsburgh Film Office director Dawn Keezer.
Producer Jeff Waxman says he was able to hire 80% to 85% of his crew locally for “Out of the Furnace,” the Relativity pic starring Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, which shot in Braddock, Pa. last spring.
“They were fantastic,” Waxman says. “I would definitely go back in a second.”
Winning time for tax-breaks team | Incentives inspire growth of studios and crew | Key players from the Keystone state