“Mayor of Kingstown” wrapped up filming in Pittsburgh last Friday. Anyone hoping to catch of glimpse of more stars and movie sets in the region now, well, forget about that any time soon.

The state’s $100 million in film production tax incentive is gone, promised to the third season of the Jeremy Renner Paramount+ show and two productions shot on the other side of the state: HBO’s “Task,” a limited series spinoff of “Mare of Easttown,” and Apple TV+’s first season of “Sinking Spring.”

It’s an opportunity lost, according to political leaders, film office directors, union members who work on the productions along with actors and film crews, and vendors. So 200 backers of increasing the incentive to $300 million rallied in Harrisburg on May 6, stressing that the measure is an economical boost and not a handout but a rebate for the film production companies working here and spending money in Pennsylvania. Increasing the limit brings the state closer to competing for more films and commercials, with businesses, restaurants and all types of service industries reaping side benefits, too, from those productions.

Here’s how it works:  The Department of Community and Economic Development administers the program, and Pennsylvania offers a 25% tax credit to films that spend at least 60% of their total production budget in the commonwealth. Projects eligible for the credit are the production of a feature film, a television film, a television talk or game show series, a television commercial, a television pilot, or each episode of a television series intended as programming for a national audience. An additional 5% is possible if a project meets some minimum stage filming, and if the companies use a qualified post-production facility, it may be eligible for a 30% tax credit of the film’s qualified post-production expenses.

Other perks include exemption from hotel occupancy taxes for stays in excess of 30 days and no charge for state-owned property while filming, with a few exceptions.

Dawn Keezer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, says Western Pennsylvania usually gets between five and seven Hollywood productions per year and set a record with 11 projects in 2021. With this and commercials shot here, the tax incentive brings $150 million into Western Pennsylvania’s economy.  

But, as she and state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington County and a co-chair of the state Legislature’s Film Caucus with Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County, stressed, increasing the limit — or even uncapping it — could make that number jump.

The push is on now as the Legislature is in the thick of budget negotiations. A bill does not need to be voted on; rather, the increase could be pushed through with changes to the tax code. At the rally, David Haddad, chair of the PA Film Industry Association board and CEO of Haddad’s in Pleasant Hills, which is a major equipment vendor for the film industry, said less than seven weeks remain to make the case for an increase.

Pennsylvania started the incentive in 2007, along with New Mexico and Louisiana. Before states started pushing their locales for movie settings, the competition was mostly international. Keezer said a movement with legislators on board pushed for a federal incentive, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed everything.

All the rally speakers and those interviewed after it stressed that even though Pennsylvania’s incentive program increased to $100 million in 2022, it is no longer competitive.

For example, New York’s program is at $450 million, New Jersey’s $710 million, and Canada offers incentives on national and provincial levels, a double incentive to filmmakers.

Add to that the fact the state has two major film production centers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, plus additional regional film offices. “We’re splitting the tax credits,” Keezer said. “We’re woefully undersubscribed and the most underfunded.”

Haddad said at the rally the reality now is that Pennsylvania is one of 41 states and cities that have incentive programs, and 95 worldwide programs pose additional competition. “We are no longer competitive, and that is the bottom line,” he said. 

What further frustrates Keezer and Bartolotta and the others is that the film companies want to come to Pennsylvania. And return for repeat productions. The state with its varied geography can stand in for many locations.

Keezer said the production companies know the state and region have “great crews, great locations, great governments. They want to come back.”  

If the incentive is increased to $300 million, it could double the number of productions here to between 10 and 15. The difference is the content streaming services now need to provide, which Keezer said has “substantially increased — all the budgets have gone very large.”

For example, “Mayor of Kingstown” had a budget of more than $100 million. The money goes quickly.

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, co-chair of the Pennsylvania Senate Film Caucus, makes a point during the rally. (Courtesy of Senate Republican Communications Office)

Bartolotta understands all of this because of her background. She grew up in the Los Angeles area and worked in the film industry. She said, “I know what it can do for the economy.” When she moved here in 1986, she worked in television and modeling before entering politics and created the caucus several years ago. The House of Representatives has two co-chairs — Reps. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery County, and Kathleen Tomlinson, R-Bucks County.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s February budget proposal surprised all of them because when he was campaigning for office he said he would love to uncap the incentive or raise it to $500 million. But two years in a row what film advocates heard from him was “crickets,” Bartolotta said.

In response, Shapiro spokesperson Manuel Bonder wrote in an email: “The Shapiro administration recognizes the importance of the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit as a tool to support local economies and create jobs, and as we keep working to create economic opportunity all across Pennsylvania, we look forward to continuing to engage with leaders in both parties and community stakeholders on this issue.”

From her business experience, Bartolotta said the incentive’s “return on investment in this business is incredible. It’s such low-hanging fruit. Tomorrow the studios could be here and hire thousands of people with really good-paying jobs. They could bring in billions of dollars in investment.”

Both she and Keezer — and others at the rally — pointed out that Georgia realized $6 billion in investment from the films shot there in one year. What makes this important, they said, is that the Pittsburgh area is one of the top 10 areas for the film industry. “People [who work on films] here are phenomenal,” Bartolotta said. “They’ve been doing this for decades.”

She and others at the rally emphasized the union jobs that film projects generate, family sustaining jobs.

“These people really make good money,” Bartolotta said. “They have retirement and health care plans. And it’s work people care about and are passionate about. They invest here and stay here. Our [state] population is dwindling. We want to keep people here.”

Teamster and IATSE leaders and members figured prominently in the rally. A Teamster tractor trailer circled the capitol building during it, and union members held signs urging the increase to $300 million, and their chants reverberated through the building, something normally not permitted inside.

Mamie Stein, president of IATSE Local 489 in Pittsburgh, told the crowd that right now she has 600 members, but the proposed increase could double the size of her local with people “just waiting for jobs you can give us.”

 She continued, “Union members have been able to rely on the film industry to build their careers. Our knowledge and skills are rewarded with good family sustaining jobs, benefits and a future. We can send our children to school, and we can save for our retirement, which is a lot.”

But all that is in jeopardy, Stein said, without more incentives. “We are waiting now for movies to come into town,” she said. “They are just waiting for somebody to push the button and say yes, let’s commit to this. We need the commonwealth to commit to the film industry here in Pennsylvania [in a way] that is just. We’re just standing here, waiting for work. We are waiting for you to support us.”

Stein, Keezer and Bartolotta stressed that more than those who work on films realize benefits. Restaurants, businesses, lumber yards and all types of service industries — from hotels to dry cleaners to car services and taxis — make money by providing what the film companies need during the productions.

For example, Keezer said one film crew went to a Home Depot and bought 12 refrigerators.

Paul Haller, studio manager at Cinelease Studios in Pittsburgh, said at the rally his industry faces significant challenges. The incentive increase would not only help his company but also stimulate local economies, urban and rural. He said one production can infuse $90 million into a local economy and create thousands of jobs.

Further, “Since its inception, the film tax credit program has attracted hundreds of productions. Pennsylvania has built an entire industry around filmmaking that no longer requires productions to bring in the equipment from Hollywood. Much of what is needed is available right here, from equipment to vendors to onscreen talent.”

The increase represents more than just economic policy, he said, but also harnesses the state’s potential and “cementing our place as a leader in the film industry nationally.” 

The other benefit – tourism and spinoff economic development. Keezer noted that Pittsburgh’s past Smoky City image can persevere. At the rally speakers pointed out how thousands of visitors still want to run up Rocky’s steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And that film is 48 years old.

Bartolotta also would love to see the incentive work the same as other tax abatement programs companies receive to build plants and factories here, most often stretching over a period of years. What that brings, she said, is predictability. 

She said the film industry plans two, three, five years out with scripts, casts and locations. “It is really important that we can assure them,” the senator said. In particular TV shows looking at a fourth or fifth season need to know they will have a tax incentive program.

Keezer and Bartolotta both said films and commercials costs have risen along with everything else. And there is quality control: The state ensures the money rebated – money spent in the state – is audited several times.

The rally started the major push, and the lobbying has begun, too. Bartolotta wants the legislators to learn how the incentives have affected and helped workers and is “not a big handout to the film industry.” Keezer pointed out during the rally the Create PA: Pittsburgh Film and Theater Works! initiative as one example of how the Pittsburgh Film Office and Pittsburgh Public Theater are educating young and diverse people for jobs on the sets and behind the cameras in the state, another benefit that links to the incentive.

PAFIA has issued a call for supporters to send emails to Shapiro and House and Senate leadership in support of the increase. On its website it emphasizes for every $1 spent on a production, $4 comes back to the community.

Bartolotta understands completely. “I know how beneficial it can be. I want our economy to thrive,” she concluded. “We’re losing good people out of Pennsylvania. Our young people are leaving. Our tax base is going down. This is the way to change all of this with a flip of the switch.  To bring billions of dollars in investment, it could start tomorrow. It’s that easy. Adapt or die.”

Mamie Stein, left, president of IATSE Local 489, listens to another participant at the May 6, 2024, rally in Harrisburg. (James A. Mahathey)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.