Inconceivable — that would have been an appropriate title for Invincible, the Mark Wahlberg movie about Philadelphia Eagle walk-on Vince Papale, had it been filmed in North Jersey and Giants Stadium as the producers had originally intended.
“They scouted here, and then they decided, no, we’re going to use Giants Stadium,” recalled Diane Heery, co-owner of the local casting agency Heery Loftus Casting. After hearing this from the movie’s producers, she called Sharon Pinkenson, head of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, the organization that markets the city and region to film, TV, and streaming service productions.
“I called Sharon right away and she got rolling and turned it around and made it come to Philly,” said Heery, who considers the film office advocacy and expertise essential to the health of the local film industry, which vendors say is central to a larger “creative economy.”
Heery is one of the local business owners troubled by proposed cuts to the budget of the seven-person film office. Mayor Kenney recently announced that, amid the pandemic-related budget crises, his proposed new budget would defund the Office of the City Representative, which had provided about $131,000 annually to GPFO — roughly 18% of its $741,000 annual budget. (The city’s contribution to GPFO peaked at $239,000 in 2014, and has been dropping steadily since then.)
A spokesperson for the mayor said the administration is aware the cuts are painful but says they are necessary under the circumstances, with the city suddenly short of nearly $650 million.
“The revised FY21 budget was created with clear priorities in mind: keeping all Philadelphians safe, healthy, and educated while maintaining core municipal services,” said spokesperson Lauren Cox. "While the administration values the Greater Philadelphia Film Office and its efforts to bring film projects to the city, our support for their work will need to shift given the painful budget cuts we’ve had to make.”
GPFO tends to be the first point of contact for TV and film producers who might not know what the city has to offer — as was the case when producers for the new Jason Segel series Dispatches From Elsewhere began to evaluate Philadelphia.
“We did casting for 90% of Dispatches From Elsewhere. And [the producers] general impression of the city was that they would have to bring everything from New York,” said Heery, who relies on GPFO to tell Hollywood that creative jobs “can be filled here, and at a very high level.”
The film office is also an important cog in the larger creative economy, said Jim Madison, CEO of Expressway Cinema Rentals, which, with a staff of 20, rents cameras, lighting, and other equipment to film productions.
Though the bulk of his business is tied to local ad agencies, he said, much of the talent that ends up in the advertising sector comes from the film industry, a symbiotic relationship that would be threatened by a hamstrung GPFO.
Film and TV productions, he said mean “more people employed more regularly, and a bigger pool of talent and training. Most of the people I know who have forayed into advertising have come from the film side," Madison said.
“Without the film industry you don’t really have a healthy creative economy here in Philadelphia,” he said, and a well-funded film office is an important part of “a healthy film industry."
The city’s annual budget contribution is one of four main chunks of money that form the bulk of the film office’s funding. Another is the agency’s own fund-raising effort, also under threat. GPFO raises about $100,000 per year, mainly through a charitable event that has been postponed twice already due to COVID-19, and may have to be canceled entirely, Pinkenson said.
Corporate sponsorship accounts for $150,000, and there is an annual $175,000 grant from the Wyncote Foundation, although that is set to expire in 2022. (Other revenue comes from donations, membership fees, and the like.)
Pennsylvania, which at one time contributed as much as $250,000 annually to the GPFO budget, essentially ended that subsidy in 2017.
Jason Loftus, co-owner of Heery Loftus Casting, questioned whether cutting city funds for the embattled GPFO is wise, given the agency’s ability to generate business.
“It should be a priority of the city to preserve things that create revenue,” said Loftus, who said that when Hollywood content creators start gearing up again, the city needs to be ready to go after those productions. He said the GPFO has good record of helping to draw business “that will generate sales tax and wage tax” at a time when the city is likely to need it.
Of course, the cost-benefit of government subsidies for the GPFO has long been a matter for debate. In recent years, the state has capped its tax credits for film productions, arguing that an uncapped credit does not generate a net gain for state government. Pinkenson has argued that this makes it tougher for GPFO to compete with cities like Atlanta, where tax credits are uncapped.
That credit is capped at $60 million, generally enough for fewer than half a dozen large film productions statewide. Creed II, for instance, was allocated $17 million in tax credits. The state typically lures enough film productions — Pittsburgh also has an active film office — to exhaust its tax credit cap by the end of the first quarter, Pinkenson has said.
Over the life of the Pennsylvania tax credit program, which began in 2004, $812 million in film production tax credits have been approved for roughly 500 projects, generating $3 billion in direct spending, Carrie Fischer Lepore, deputy secretary of the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development, reported at a hearing in Philadelphia last fall.
Pinkenson said a budget cut now would hurt GPFO just when it’s competing for two major proposed (and as yet unnamed) Hollywood projects, including a Netflix movie ready to ramp up when pandemic restrictions are relaxed.
The film office is also preparing for the return of the Apple TV+ series Servant, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, and the HBO series Mare of Easttown, starring Kate Winslet, which has been shooting in the Philadelphia suburbs and has another month or so of work left, Pinkenson said.
Pinkenson has called on supporters of the local film industry to contact their local city council representative, and also council president Darrell Clarke, to ask that funding to the agency be restored.