BRIGHT LIGHTS, FILM CITY
story by GARY M. KRAMER, FOX ´05
Former fashion designer Sharon Pinkenson, CHPSW ´69, EDU ´71, was working as a stylist for commercials when the 1991 film Mannequin 2: On the Move was scheduled to shoot in Philadelphia. Hired as the film´s costume supervisor, Pinkenson assembled outfits and vigilantly tracked how actors were dressed in order to preserve visual continuity from take to take.
The summer after that film was released, she came across an article about the Pittsburgh Film Office and the state funding it received. It inspired her to wrangle the same benefits for Philadelphia.
Pinkenson took her case to Edward Rendell, then mayor-elect of Philadelphia. She thought that location shoots would draw money and tourism to the city, and submitted a proposal that emphasized why Philadelphia should focus on attracting film and television productions.
Within a month of Rendell taking office as mayor, Pinkenson launched the Greater Philadelphia Film Office (GPFO), which began serving the region. (The former office, open since 1985, had focused only on the city.) That same year, she welcomed Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme to Philadelphia. He was directing Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Antonio Banderas in a film about a man with AIDS who sues the law firm that fired him because of his illness. Though the project had several working titles, it would eventually be named after the city in which it was shot: Philadelphia.
The film was a smash; it earned two Academy Awards and grossed more than $200 million worldwide. Philadelphia remains Pinkenson´s favorite project. She recalls being thrilled when Demme agreed to "name it after my city."
"We changed the world with that movie," she says about the attention the film gave to the AIDS crisis. "It was the first Hollywood movie about HIV, and it was a universal story with big stars that was seen around the world."
Twenty years later, Pinkenson is executive director of the GPFO, a nonprofit corporation that has generated $4 billion in revenue for the southern Pennsylvania region through on-location film and television production. (According to the Motion Picture Association of America, Pennsylvania´s more than 16,000 film and television jobs provided upward of $730 million in pay in 2011.)
The GPFO works to expand the local film and video industry, and attract film and video productions of all kinds to the region. Once a production is in town, it helps producers secure permits, local labor, locations and more. The GPFO also nurtures the local film community. In 2001, it launched Greater Philadelphia Filmmakers, a program that provides the local film and video industry with educational and professional opportunities.
CITY IN DISGUISE
Pinkenson reconnected with Demme in the late 1990s, when he sought a location for Beloved. Originally, he wanted to shoot the adaptation of Toni Morrison´s novel—about a slave visited by a ghost—on location in Cincinnati, because he "wanted to be true to the material." When Pinkenson heard that, she called the producers and was told the same thing.
"A couple of weeks later, the producers in Cincinnati said they could not find two 19th-century buildings next to each other," Pinkenson recalls. "They complained that there were no good hotels or food [in Cincinnati], and asked if we could do 1880s Cincinnati. I knew Old City as well as anyone, so they sent me the screenplay and I brought them to 3rd Street between Market and Race. They loved it and shot a pivotal part of the film there."
Beloved is one of many instances Philadelphia has "played" another city on film or television. Filmmakers often shoot the city as New York, as in Safe (2012), about a man protecting a young girl with a secret, and Limitless (2011), in which Philadelphia native Bradley Cooper plays a writer whose life is enhanced by a dangerous drug.
With City Hall in the background, Sharon Pinkenson, CHPSW ´69, EDU ´71 (left), recalls the groundbreaking film Philadelphia for this story's writer, Gary Kramer, FOX ´05. Photo by Ryan S. Brandenberg.
Please check back for a video walking tour with Sharon Pinkenson,
CHPSW ´69 EDU ´71, and Gary Kramer, FOX ´05.
Pinkenson cannot understand why some Philadelphians complain about seeing films in which New York signs hover above Philadelphia streets. "They should be cheering!" she exclaims. "We´re fooling them again, because we can! I love shooting for New York—I have no problem with it. Toronto and Vancouver have been shooting for Philly for years."
Philadelphia also acts as the nation´s capital. "Girard College is our ´D.C.,´" Pinkenson boasts ebulliently. Founded in 1848, the buildings on the school´s sprawling, 43-acre campus look positively presidential. When Disney spent $1 million prepping in Maryland for the 2006 film Annapolis, the production team had trouble securing locations with the U.S. Naval Academy. But once the crew saw Girard and weighed the cost and access versus what they faced in Maryland, the studio moved the shoot to Philadelphia.
Annapolis also was a key film for the GPFO: It was the first production attracted to the city by the Pennsylvania Film Production Tax Credit Program. Championed by Pinkenson, that program allows filmmakers—from low-budget indies to $100-million blockbusters—to shoot in the city affordably.
"I fought for it over a couple of years," Pinkenson admits. "I got the business community and the citizens to realize that the film office was great for economic development, tourism and civic pride."
Temple has been used as a set, too, most recently for the NBC series Friday Night Lights. In July 2010, Main Campus welcomed those who crossed its threshold with a banner celebrating the fictional Braemore College. Flags emblazoned with Braemore "B"s replaced those with Temple "T"s. (In the 1980s, the teen film The In Crowd also was shot on Main Campus.)
Shooting on campus was a homecoming for Pinkenson. After earning an associate degree in dental hygiene, she returned to Temple to earn a bachelor´s degree in education. Surprisingly, she never took a radio/TV/film class. She went from getting a degree in education to working in film "completely by accident. I also had a dental hygiene degree. I did that for eight years, but when I decided to move on, I opened [a clothing boutique called] Plage Tahiti with my best friend. It was an instant success." When her interest in the store had run its course, she worked as a stylist for commercials, which led to film work.
"At Temple, we´re very scrappy," Pinkenson says from her office in Center City. "You learn life skills, and how to find out what you don´t know, and create a career from an opportunity."
National Treasure, an action-adventure movie about a treasure allegedly hidden by the country´s founding fathers, was filmed in Philadelphia in 2003. With the action set in the city, the production crew was very excited about shooting on location. But it entailed a huge negotiation.
"National Treasure was the very first time filming was allowed in the tower of Independence Hall," Pinkenson recalls. "At first, they couldn´t do it because the film wasn´t historically accurate. We argued that it was a great promotion for Independence National Historical Park. We came up with a solution to add a promotional video for Independence Hall to the DVD. Then the filmmakers had tremendous access."
Perhaps because of the success of National Treasure, the 2007 film Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg as a marksman hired to prevent a presidential assassination, wanted to shoot—literally—in the city´s historical district.
"They wanted to put an actor posing as a sniper on the roof of the Visitor Center," Pinkenson says with a hint of incredulity. "But [the center] said, ´Absolutely not!´ They used the tower of Christ Church instead."
Other parts of the city also are filmmaker favorites. Boathouse Row was the backdrop for the 2012 rowing movie Backwards. And Pinkenson remembers the cast and crew of the 1998 film Fallen—starring Denzel Washington as a detective tracking a copycat killer—conducting Pat´s and Geno´s cheesesteak taste-tests between takes. Additionally, Pat´s makes an appearance in Shadowboxer, a 2005 film by Lee Daniels, whose oeuvre also includes the Academy Award-winning Precious (2009). Pinkenson served as Shadowboxer´s co-executive producer.
As she examines her career, Pinkenson is pleasantly humble, but justifiably proud."Now, Philadelphia is a movie town. Everyone wants to know what´s shooting and who is in town. It makes people feel better about where they live. That´s something money can´t buy."
Pinkenson also vows to remain at the GPFO. "I have no plans to leave the film office," she says. "But I could be enticed to consult again for a foreign country with an emerging film industry. I loved consulting for South Africa and Lithuania, and nothing makes me happier than traveling to new places where I can meet new people, cultures and talents, and perhaps even help others by sharing my experiences. But Philadelphia will always be home."
Gary M. Kramer, FOX ´05, is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose work appears in numerous magazines and journals. He also is publicity manager of Temple University Press.