Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

‘A story worth telling’

Former mayoral candidate Sam Katz hopes to help produce a documentary on Philadelphia.

Sam Katz in the office of his Mount Airy home, where he is researching and working on a documentary about the history of Philadelphia.
Sam Katz in the office of his Mount Airy home, where he is researching and working on a documentary about the history of Philadelphia.Read moreSHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Documentary films have told the colorful histories of New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and New Orleans. They have been shown on PBS and acclaimed by critics across the country.

But Philadelphia, the quintessential American city - where the nation was founded and industrial and social movements have flourished for four centuries - has never had its story told in a documentary series.

Businessman and former mayoral candidate Sam Katz hopes to correct that with an ambitious film project tentatively titled The Remaking of America's First City: Philadelphia.

The eight-hour work, for which he is seeking funding, would be edited into various lengths for television, the Internet and the classroom. Katz envisions a school version with 25 segments, each 18 to 23 minutes.

"There is no more magnificent place than Philadelphia," said Katz, 58, an investment banker who lives in the city's West Mount Airy section. "Philadelphia is more an American city than Chicago or Las Vegas.

"So why hasn't a documentary been done?"

He first asked the question about a year ago after seeing the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York, and wondering if its story was true. He read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 to learn about the period.

As Katz's interest in urban history grew, he rented documentaries on New York, Chicago and Las Vegas.

"But I couldn't find one on Philadelphia. I said, 'I'm going to do one!' " said Katz, who ran for mayor in 1999 and 2003 and believes the city is entering a period of reinvention.

Somehow, other filmmakers had missed the city known in the 18th century as "the American Athens" for the great men - from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Ben Franklin and John Adams - who walked its cobblestoned streets.

Katz spent the next six months visiting libraries, archives, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and American Philosophical Society next to Independence Hall.

Then, he took the next step: writing a business plan and creating a Web site for the project in hopes of attracting investors, researchers, writers and fact-checkers.

He also teamed up with independent filmmaker Mark Moskowitz, now executive director of the project. Moskowitz's documentary Stone Reader, about his search for an elusive author, took the audience prize and a special jury award at the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival.

"I'm 54 and I'm still here. My kids are here, my family is here. Why didn't I move to Colorado or end up in Hawaii surfing?" asked Moskowitz, of Chester Springs.

"I always felt Philadelphia was one of the most livable cities in the country," he said. "People stay here. There's something unique here."

Katz and Moskowitz would like to debut their documentary by 2011, but they have many challenges. Most critically, hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding must be found to make a pilot. Using that short work as a marketing tool, they will attempt to raise about $5 million for the entire project.

Katz hopes to find support from foundations, corporations, and organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "I think getting this to happen will not be easy," Katz acknowledged.

The funding atmosphere "is challenging, but if it's a meritorious project, like this one, there is money to be had," he said. "There is no other documentary on the history of Philadelphia. It will have a long shelf life."

He has received the support of city officials from Mayor Nutter on down and he hopes to qualify for state tax credits available to filmmakers working in Pennsylvania.

He has been encouraged by initial research that has shown a high "quality of scholarship" on Philadelphia's history.

"Historians gravitate toward well-known people like the Founding Fathers," said Katz. "But many others we never heard of also have made contributions. . . .

"We want to go back to the Lenape Indians, the English, Germans, Irish and Africans who converged here . . . I want the [documentary] to be compelling and edgy and make people think. We won't have just good stories and history. We'll have a full exposure of the good, the bad and the ugly."

Moskowitz said the film could "stimulate discussion about what cities mean to us. Do cities still work? We can look at the larger urban framework with Philadelphia at the core."

He has no preconceptions about the film's approach. "I believe in stories rather than history lessons," he said. "Stories carry impact."

Philadelphia is a story worth telling, said Katz. "I've been a businessman all my life," he said. "I don't rush into decisions. But there's a joy in this, a passion for sharing an extraordinary history."