by Lucy Leitner
The Film Factory is an appropriate name for this Steeltown Entertainment Project venture. At Saturday’s The Director’s Pitch, Steeltown President Carl Kurlander reiterated his non-profit’s mission to discover, incubate, and export talent.
Yes, the project exports talent — like last year’s winner Yulin Kuang, who is currently in LA working as an NBC page and screening her short films — but the ultimate goal is to keep that here. To be able to sustain an industry in Western Pennsylvania, for the demand to meet the rapidly growing supply. It’s not an embargo against Hollywood. It’s an honest factory that cultivates talent and grooms it, not a sweatshop that churns it out en masse for quantity.
This emphasis on quality is evident in the grueling Steeltown Film Factory process. Twelve semi-finalists were selected from over 200 entries. Those twelve were whittled down to three finalists whose scripts will be read by Carnegie Mellon drama students at the And the Winner Is… event at CMU next month.
The panelists for Saturday’s event represented a departure from the usual Steeltown judge selection in that only one, Gretchen Berg, is a native Pittsburgher. She knew she wanted to write since she was a student at North Allegheny High School and became involved at the TV station there. She studied film at Northwestern University where she met future writing/producing partner and fellow panelist Aaron Harberts.
Harberts was originally a journalism major whose first assignment was covering the Clinton scandal. But when he didn’t feel like going out in the snow to get quotes and decided that he much prefer making them up instead, he realized, “You should get out of journalism today!” So he transferred to the film school. With Berg, he has written and produced hit TV series, including Beverly Hills 90210 and Revenge.
Writer’s Guild of America — West President and Party of Five creator Chris Keyser took a different path from college to Hollywood. He was originally studying law, but took playwriting classes when he realized that he wasn’t going to be a lawyer anyway.
It proved not to matter where the judges were from — this was a tough panel. With a superiority complex.
“We feel very strongly that our notes are better than the previous panel,” Keyser said.
“They should never be invited back,” Harberts added.
The semi-finalists presented not only their revised scripts, but also their budgets.
Judges worried that Dennis Schebetta’s budget for My Date with Adam, in which a wedding planner falls for a robot, would be too tied up weddings. Harberts cautioned about the expense of these spectacles and the need for extras that get taken for granted.
“Locations aren’t really where the heart of the movie is,” Keyser said.
Glenn Syska’s The Sketch was universally praised during The Writer’s Pitch for its uniqueness, but it encountered some obstacles when it came to production. One of the central characters is a charcoal drawing. Animation is time-consuming and expensive, particularly when juxtaposing it against live action. Though Syska had the total budget accounted for down to the cent, Harberts cautioned the he may have “short shrift the post-production.” Berg said it reminded her of something French, romantic, and tragic while Keyser praised it for being imaginative and surprising.
Heather Gray signed while she pitched her script and budget for Life After Deaf. Since her short film about the collision between the deaf and hearing worlds is not profane, it’s a good thing she was speaking or else I would have been lost. The panelists appreciated the simplicity of the story and the fact that it all takes place in a hospital, which makes it easier to shoot on a budget. The lone concern appeared to be whether the one day that Gray allotted would be sufficient to shoot the entire film.
Laci Corridor acknowledged that her plans for Two Thousand Bridges are ambitious in terms of cast and locations. The central character of the short, which Keyser described as “beautifully written and subtle,” is a young child. While Corridor is open to either a male or female, Berg cautioned about the regulations for child actors and that the shoot would have to revolve around the young performer.
DVE Morning Show host Randy Baumann’s Tire Stem Sushi would require a closure of the Strip District for filming. The panelists warned that this may pose a problem, even with the proposed all-star cast that includes Billy Gardell, Steve Byrne, and Iliza Shlesinger. A major point in the script is the cult following surrounding several Strip staples — it would be an exercise in cruelty to deprive Pittsburghers of access to them even to film a movie.
While the judges deliberated, last year’s winner Kuang presented her latest short film and announced that The Perils of Growing Up Flat Chested has been accepted into the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Third-place winners Scott Peters and Tony Poremski debuted their finished short Escape from St. Quentin’s.
At the end of the event, only Syska, Schebetta, and Gray are moving on to the next round in which their films will meet another round of constructive criticism before the winner is granted up to $30,000 to film the short in Pittsburgh.
“Hollywood is wonderful,” Harberts said. “You have all these people legislating your creativity and killing your soul.”
Maybe that won’t happen if that creativity is kept in da ‘Burgh.