It's a development that would advance the region from featured-player status as a movie location to leading role as a filmmaking hub.
Yesterday, Pacifica Ventures, principal of the Albuquerque Studios in New Mexico, announced plans for a $75 million entertainment production facility in the Philadelphia area to open in the fall of 2008.
For Pacifica, based in Santa Monica, Calif., the three most important words in movie real estate are incentive, incentive, incentive. Hal Katersky, the company's managing director, credited Pennsylvania's recent tax-incentive package for filmmakers, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office's outstanding work, and the region's natural and architectural blessings with sealing the deal.
His company is considering sites in Bucks, Delaware and Philadelphia Counties for a 500,000-square-foot facility. "I wouldn't be surprised to see a permanent workforce of into the thousands," Katersky predicted.
"This is concrete proof that there are consequences to what happens in Harrisburg," Gov. Rendell said at a news conference yesterday at his Philadelphia office, where Katersky made the announcement. The governor referred to recent hard-won legislation providing $75 million in credits to offset taxes incurred by producers making movies, TV shows and commercials.
"We're looking to develop a state aid package of up to $10 million," the governor said. The remaining $65 million will come from private investors.
Despite the region's popularity as a location for movies diverse as Trading Places, The Sixth Sense and Invincible, many productions come to Philadelphia, shoot exteriors and return to Hollywood to complete the film, limiting the number of production days and dollars spent here. (Even so, the film office has generated almost $2 billion in economic impact since 1992, $166 million in calendar year 2006.)
"Philadelphia long has been a setting, a good place to shoot," Sharon Pinkenson, head of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, said yesterday. "But to become a permanent center for filmmaking you need a production facility and skilled workers."
A studio, said Jose Rodriguez, business partner of local horrormeister M. Night Shyamalan, "means the difference between moviemaking as a cottage industry and, well, an industry."
Production designer Tim Galvin, who liked the area so much when he worked for Jonathan Demme on Philadelphia and Beloved that he relocated from New York, said that "a studio is the thing that will make the difference between Philadelphia as a movie whistlestop and Philadelphia as a moviemaking capital."
If you build it, will they come? In New Mexico, where Pacifica opened the Albuquerque Studios in March, Sony Pictures announced in May that it would relocate Imageworks, its animation division and 350 employees, to a new building on the studio lot. Already Albuquerque Studios, which benefits from many of the incentives offered in Pennsylvania, is booked well into 2008.
A regional film facility has been Pinkenson's priority ever since she assumed duties in 1992. In the city where Siegmund Lubin built one of the world's first movie studios, in 1910, there hasn't been a dedicated film and television center for more than 80 years.
Over the last decade, Will Smith and Shyamalan have talked about a soundstage at Broad and Washington in Philadelphia, but the plans never materialized.
This is different," the governor said yesterday, "because Pacifica is a proven operator."
Jeffrey Rotwitt, a Philadelphia lawyer who is partnering with Pacifica to finance the venture, said the city's wage tax might give the advantage to a suburban site.
"As a practical matter many people would prefer to shoot outside Philadelphia County," Rotwitt said.
Pinkenson said yesterday that she would try to make Philadelphia more competitive: "I'm planning to talk with the next mayor about an incentive program that would give relief from the most onerous city taxes and make Philadelphia a more attractive filmmaking destination."
Earlier this year, Moviemaker magazine ranked Philadelphia second after New York as the top U.S. city for making films.
The Pacifica project "has so much potential to create and build an industry of high-paying employment," said Rotwitt, who envisions the new studio as entertainment-center with its own studio tour.
Rodriguez, speaking from the set of Shyamalan's The Happening, is elated by the prospect of a local studio where movies are made year-round.
"Right now, a lot of our crew plans to finish our movie and then start on Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones [which begins shooting in October].
"With a studio here and movies in production all year, crew people will spend more time here, they'll buy houses and establish the roots of a blooming new industry."