Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania’s film industry and the union members who work on sets and behind stages here have two great reasons to celebrate.
First, Citizens gave a $200,000 grant to CREATE PA: Pittsburgh Film and Theater Works, a workforce training program launched officially this year by the Pittsburgh Film Office and Pittsburgh Public Theater. The funds will enable the Works to add new makeup and wardrobe training tracks and provide “Pittsburgh’s diverse talent with the essential skills, credentials and experience to succeed in costuming and makeup artistry on film and theater sets in the region.”
Second, the striking Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Radio and TV Artists ended a four-month strike on Nov. 9, meaning movies and TV series to be filmed in Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania can start again soon. It also means the trainees who have already completed CREATE PA training sessions, led by members of International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 489 Studio Mechanics of Western Pennsylvania, can start applying what they learned on film and stage sets and earning union wages, too.
Citizens announced the grant at last month’s August Wilson African American Cultural Center’s Black Bottom Film Festival. The festival kicked off with a panel discussion titled “Reel Money: Building Pittsburgh’s Film Economy” that discussed the concrete, actionable steps required to elevate Pittsburgh into the league of cities boasting thriving film and television economies, according to a Citizens news release.
That’s exactly what CREATE PA wants to promote and aid. It started officially this May with the goal of attracting, developing and retaining crew work talent in film and theater to support the growing arts industry here, according to the Pittsburgh Film Office’s website. Further, it aims to grow and diversify the behind the-scenes and behind-the-stage crew work available by centering on marginalized communities 18 and older, including Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ communities, and individuals with disabilities. This work, CREATE PA leaders emphasize, pays a living wage that will support families.
As summer 2023 ended, CREATE PA reported 59 trainees, a group with 71% gender diversity and 50% BIPOC, completed the initial grip, electric, hair stylist and production assistant programs, according to the Pittsburgh Film Office website. And trainings completed and scheduled for fall and winter included production sound, wardrobe and set construction/carpentry. The sessions are held at WQED-TV in Oakland.
IATSE is a major partner in the training, Pittsburgh Film Office Executive Director Dawn Keezer said, as it provides mentors for the training sessions. “They support us as a local,” she said. “We have an amazing relationship with them and couldn’t do this program without them.”
First, those union mentors became acquainted with education sessions offered by Reel Works, a nonprofit organization based in New York City and a partner in this effort, to follow as a guide. About 14 union members have led CREATE PA sessions to date.
Mamie Stein, president of IATSE Local 489, said her union members traveled to New York City and watched a Reel Works studio mechanics boot class. “New York is very different than how we work here …,” she said. “Now we are going to take it and make it our own.”
She said the CREATE PA sessions are the first based on Reel Works’ efforts to be offered outside of New York City.
Keezer and Morgan Overton, the workforce director who leads the CREATE PA program, both said the training session planning and scheduling is union driven. “We have worked directly with the union where we need to fill gaps in the employees we have to go to work [on sets],” Keezer explained. “The union tells us where the gaps are.”
Overton believes CREATE PA “is the perfect blend of Pittsburgh’s creative heritage but also its union heritage.” The union members serve as the trainers teaching the students the “tricks of the trade and more.” That more includes demystifying for the students what it means to join a union, the process and what it entails. “The beauty of these trainings is that it is not a one and done workshop,” Overton said. “[The trainees] learn the technicalities of sound or wardrobe. [But also] they are building a network with peers, and they are learning the pipeline into the union.”
Keezer and Overton cited a $24 per hour starting wage for employees who work behind the theatrical and performance stages and screens and film and TV series sets in the area. Many of IATSE Local 3 Stagehands and Local 489 members — who work on film, movie and advertising sets — carry cards for both. Stein reported even higher pay rates for experienced members of her local here and an incentive for future trainees.
She said most of her local’s 600 members work in Pittsburgh under the Area Standards Agreement negotiated by its international union every three years, with different pay rates for film and television productions. Those can be a living wage, she said, and the amount members make depends on the number of assignments they undertake and complete, as well as the number of hours worked.
For example, she said, for films, the third rate pays a minimum of $33.93 an hour for the first eight, then time and a half after eight hours and double that minimum after 12 hours. Television set work pays a minimum of $33.09 for the first eight hours, then time and a half after eight and double after 12 hours.
“It’s a really viable job,” Stein said. “Once you live in it it’s a good way to make a living. The job tenure varies — two weeks, three months [for films], and TV can be nine months. A short day for us is 12 hours. The average day is 14 to 15 hours, five days a week.”
Those hours and days can be long, but the new trainees once they begin working on sets also can qualify for benefits — health care and retirement, for example. Stein said the local also teaches the new recruits the key points of the contract the local enforces and federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration and other safety regulations, as well as the complete list of perks members receive.
The local has requirements for applying for membership, specifically that interested people will need to be over 18 and submit proof of residency within its jurisdiction. “Once your class is completed, you may join our permit list and begin accruing 30 days toward full membership,” Stein explained.
Keezer said some students in CREATE PA’s initial classes have already found work. For example, a hair stylist graduate worked on “Frida,” staged by the Public earlier this year. The first graduates from the grip and electric programs also were immediately hired prior to the writers and actors strikes that halted productions this year.
She expects the same for students who have or will complete upcoming sessions once film and TV series production starts. Keezer said “Mayor of Kingstown,” from Paramount+, is here now and will begin principal photography in 2024. Freevee’s “American Rust” will be here after the first of the year and will begin filming in the spring.
Overton said she received more than 400 inquiries about the sessions after the partnership announcement on May 31. Seventy-three people applied for the 16 slots in the sound training.
Keezer noted that because these are very specialized programs, they are kept small intentionally. “You will learn a lot when you get to the program,” she said, adding that the other applicants remain on the lists for future sessions.
Overton said the demand for the CREATE PA training sessions has not stopped. “It keeps growing because more people are hearing about it,” she said. “It is amazing how CREATE PA comes up in a conversation …. It is really exciting and reinforces how hungry people are for creative work in Pittsburgh. It’s time we harness what our strength is.”
Attracting a diverse group is also deeply personal for her, a Black woman who left Pittsburgh after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh and headed to Massachusetts for her first job at Boston Children’s Hospital instead of pursuing creative work. A visual artist, she felt the pull to come home. The 29-year-old Penn Hills native worked in several jobs here, including as a manager with the city of Pittsburgh’s Office of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access, before connecting with a mentor, Public Theater Managing Director Shaunda McDill, and learning about her current position.
Her intention as the program’s director includes collaboration, reaching out to others and finding people who have a desire to work in the creative arts but don’t know a way in.
“It’s easy to get into a scarcity mindset for Pittsburgh,” she explained. “When I am making my connections in the community, I am making sure I get to that person who has worked with Black and brown people in their work, and they can share the opportunity. It can’t exist in name only. It can’t only be for quotas and checking the box. We need to make sure we are doing what people need in this moment and make sure people don’t feel that scarcity mindset anymore.”
Keezer, McDill and Overton meet each week to keep track of the current sessions and plan for the coming year. The number to be offered is being kept open to align with the unions’ needs, plus the projected film and stage productions scheduled here.
“That’s my guiding light: Whatever the unions need, that’s what I am using as my goal,” Overton said. “The goal is we have a whole generation of workers ready when productions start up again.”
Stein started out in theater about 30 years ago, moved to film work 10 years ago and currently works as an on-set dresser, ensuring the continuity of furniture on sets. She “was pressed” into a leadership role in Local 489 when membership was small. It’s grown exponentially, and Stein said the needs for specialized people — such as accountants, animators, teachers and medics — on sets just keeps growing, and many will become local members.
She agrees wholeheartedly with the diversity objectives of CREATE PA. “We realized a few years ago we don’t look like our community. The way forward is building bridges, [which is] a pathway to membership broadening. There is a massive amount of talent in Pittsburgh that we don’t realize we have. And they don’t realize this [type of work] can be a full-time job for you.”
Reel Works strives to reach younger people to consider careers behind the scenes and on film sets, Stein pointed out. “The mindfulness for diversity has grown. They were bringing in young people. The union’s future is with younger people. That is our future, finding people who are really motivated to be in the union and learn their craft,” she said.
Keezer and Stein truly expect the need for trained staff only to grow with the new two 60,000-square-foot film sound stage and production facility and a tech-flex space buildings at Carrie Blast Furnaces in Rankin among other endeavors spearheaded by the Pittsburgh Film Office. Keezer sees this project as something that can be even bigger with more fundraising and grants. She’s thankful for Citizens’ major grant, calling it huge to this pilot project’s success.
CREATE PA has received $675,000 in first-year funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and the Allegheny County Gaming Economic Development Tourism Fund.
“It’s amazing that Citizens understands what our goal is,” she said. “It allows us to train three more classes of people and get people to family sustaining wages immediately. It’s thrilling to have a business supporting us and stepping up a big way. We’re excited about this partnership and what it means to us.
“I am already pitching them to take this statewide. It’s important that they understand that creative economy matters. They understand the business of this and want to support it.”
Stein pointed to Keezer’s leadership for CREATE PA’s initial success. “She had the vision,” she said. And she is in awe of the Overton’s management of the program. “The two of them are amazing. We’re partners, but I am excited about all of this and what we are going to do with all of this.”