by Lucy Leitner
The Steeltown Film Factory proves that it’s not just our police corruption scandals that make Pittsburgh the Hollywood of the East.
On Saturday morning, Pittsburgh’s finest exports, imports, and homegrown domestics gathered in the Frick Fine Arts building on Pitt’s campus for the first event of the annual Steeltown Film Factory competition. Like last year’s event, twelve quarterfinalists were tasked with pitching their 12-page screenplays to a three-man panel of Pittsburghers turned Hollywood success stories.
Readers Unlimited founder Asher Garfinkel returned to the panel, imparting his knowledge and experience as a professional coverage giver to the aspiring screenwriters. Fear of a Black Hat writer, director, star and returning panelist Rusty Cundieff extolled the virtues of making yourself invaluable by being a multifaceted talent in the industry. The Chapelle’s Show director spoke of the benefits of learning the basics of acting in order to create a more compelling screenplay pitch, to add charisma to the typically introverted writer. Editor Doug Crise, who has cut such acclaimed films as Kill the Irishman and Arbitrage, provided an interesting perspective on how editing is the final stage of screenwriting. Crise also edited this weekend’s release Spring Breakers, which Steeltown Entertainment Project President and event moderator Carl Kurlander described as “an amazingly artistic movie that my 13-year-old daughter will never see.”
With accompanying movie posters, the twelve quarterfinalists pitched their scripts to the panel. And lecture hall filled with people. And cameras. And media. When every single activity becomes a reality TV show, this will be how pitching is done. This may be more of a glimpse into the future than Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics program that inspired the first quarterfinalist.
My Date with Adam
Cundieff really enjoyed CMU School of Drama professor Dennis Schebetta’s romantic comedy about a wedding planner whose ideal man is apparently a robot. Though the panel agreed that it has feature film potential, “it runs out of batteries at the end,” Garfinkel said.
Two Thousand Bridges
CMU grad student Laci Corridor just moved to Pittsburgh in the fall and was struck by our abundance of bridges. But instead of wondering how the combination of that plethora of places from which to jump and the past 20 years of Pirate baseball does not lead to a higher suicide rate, she used the bridges as a mechanism for a young boy to cope with the death of his father. While Crise praised the use of Pittsburgh’s unique geography, Cundieff cautioned that she would benefit from infusing a little humor into the drama. “American dramas are too damned serious,” he said.
Tire Stem Sushi
DVE Morning Show personality Randy Baumann’s script did not have the “why so serious?” dilemma. That would be a strange problem for a script involving a tailgating Pittsburgher whose identifiable struggle to park in the Strip District inspires a battle with what may or may not be an Asian sushi mafia. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you,” Baumann said. Garfinkel noted that the script felt like a Seinfeld episode.
Cundieff enjoyed Brandon Clemens’ story about a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome who meets the girl of his dreams via speed dating while Garfinkel warned that the quirky character should propel the plot instead of being led along by it.
2011 Film Factory semi-finalist Bruce Johnson returned to the competition with an emotional script about a man who looks like a “young Don Knotts” and his decision to run for mayor of his small fishing town. Garfinkel enjoyed the quirkiness and noted its departure in subject matter from Johnson’s previous entry.
Cundieff praised the dark beat of 2012 Film Factory quarter-finalist Jarrett Fisher-Forester’s story of a young boy who uses his imagination to escape his abusive father. Maybe it was because both he and Fisher-Forester showed little fear of the newsboy hat. Crise and Garfinkel were a bit more disturbed by the short, comparing its mood and subject matter to Precious.
Cruelty Towards Animals
Point Park screenwriting student Kevin Fuller’s script deals with a young couple that moves to a Pittsburgh house where they suspect the downstairs neighbor is torturing animals. Fuller’s script tackles the naive outsider perspective on our city’s odd living arrangements. After living in the South Side, one becomes immune to any Rear Window curiosity about downstairs neighbors.
Life After Deaf
Sign Language interpreter Heather Gray pitched her story about characters communicating via Sign Language in Sign Language. While the simultaneous English and signing was interesting to watch on the stage and Crise liked the same juxtaposition in the script, he warned against making a “cause movie.”
Garfinkel offered similar criticism about Dan Wilkerson’s story of a young squatter learning how to ask for help that he did to Clemens’ script—the character should propel the plot. The panel appreciated Wilkerson’s use of Pittsburgh’s abundance of abandoned houses as a setting for the short.
The Greater Image
After Pitt freshman Cameron Roeback presented his script about a gay man seeking acceptance from his religious family before he gets married, Crise said, “I love this passion. You’ve got to calm down.” This was in response to both Roeback’s earnestness and the overwhelming intolerance of the religious family in his script. “Hitler thought he was a good guy,” Cundieff said. “Make the bad guys think they’re good.”
After Roeback’s empassioned plea for tolerance (I think), Glenn Syska’s nerves were a welcome contrast that illustrated the diversity of the entrants. The panel was unanimously impressed by his script about a lonely artist who falls in love with a nude model in a sketching class. “He’s like me and he can’t go talk to her,” Syska said. Asher and Crise found it unpredictable while Cundieff checked out the movie poster and said, “I can see why he’s in love with her.”
Samuel Krebs described his short script as a fast-paced action sequence in post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh. Adolescent bike messengers are tasked with delivering supplies to various parts of the city while they search for some kind of hope in the violent world that Krebs created. While Crise and Cundieff both got a bit lost in certain parts of the script, Garfinkel labeled it as one of his favorites.
The twelve quarterfinalists have a week to revise their scripts before semifinalists are selected. The Director’s Pitch will take place on April 20 at Point Park.
The Steeltown Film Factory received over 250 entries this year — the highest in its existence. Last year’s winner Yulin Kuang’s The Perils of Growing Up Flat Chested was recently screened at Lion’s Gate in Los Angeles to much acclaim. Second place winner Chris Preksta’s Echo Torch was recently purchased by Vuguru studios. Third place winners Scott Peters and Tony Poremski parlayed their $5,000 winnings into a successful Kickstarter campaign and have completed filming Escape from St. Quentin’s. Audience members on Saturday were treated to a preview of their film, cleverly cut to look like an adventure from the 1950s.
“Our mission is to show talent in Pittsburgh and I think we’ve done that in the Film Factory,” Kurlander said.
Yes, Pittsburgh imports and exports talent better than Art Vandelay imports and exports… whatever.