Western Pa. film industry thrives with 3 TV series

Not too long ago, getting a single movie made in Pittsburgh was a fairly big deal.

With that milestone met, others came in steady succession: multiple movies in a year, multiple movies at the same time, a star-heavy, big-budget blockbuster like “The Dark Knight Rises,” an Oscar contender like “Fences.”

However, if you ask Dawn Keezer, longtime director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, there's been one goal above them all.

The “holy grail” is an episodic TV series.

Now, Pittsburgh has three of them: ABC's “Downward Dog,” Netflix's David Fincher project “Mindhunter,” and Millvale- and Monroeville-shot “Outsiders,” which is premiering its second season Jan. 24 on WGN America.

“It's exciting, and it's what we said would happen if we had sustainable film tax credits,” Keezer says. “Of course, Netflix doesn't consider itself television.

“(Series television) provides longer employment and more opportunities for internal workforce development. They train from within … which allows people to progress in their careers.”

If shows do well enough, they come back to shoot another season. And another.

“Outsiders,” which focuses on an off-the-grid clan in Kentucky, looks set to be that breakout show that sticks around for awhile. Even though WGN America isn't really established yet as a home for original scripted shows, people have been finding “Outsiders.”

“It's doing great,” Keezer says. “It's the No. 1 show on WGN.”

Nickelodeon's kid-friendly “Supah Ninjas” with George Takei, was made in Pittsburgh and lasted two seasons, 2011-13. An eight-episode mini-series “The Kill Point” also was shot in Pittsburgh, and aired in 2007.

Numerous TV pilots have been shot here, including “Justified,” which ended up going for five critically acclaimed seasons.

Only the first episode was shot here.

“Mindhunter” is a crime/detective story from David Fincher, who has made some of the best of the past few decades: “Seven,” “Zodiac” and “Gone Girl.” It's based on the book “Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit” and stars Jonathan Groff (“Glee”) and Anna Torv (“Fringe”).

“Downward Dog,” about a dog that speaks directly to the camera about modern relationships, is intended as a summer replacement for ABC. It stars Allison Tolman (“Fargo”).

“ ‘Downward Dog' is pretty special,” Keezer says. “It was created by Animal Inc. in Downtown Pittsburgh. It was produced by Jimmy Miller, who is from Pittsburgh. The production is Legendary Entertainment, which is Thomas Tull (the billionaire part-time Pittsburgher and part-owner of the Steelers). It was kind of this love story to Pittsburgh.”

Movies tend to give you a fixed amount of time to scout, select and prep locations, says location manager John Adkins, who has worked on both, including “Outsiders.”

“In a TV series, because you have this rotating cast of directors — and scripts come in as the series is shooting — we're constantly scouting, selecting and prepping throughout the season,” he says. “It's more of a hamster-wheel scenario.”

As more movies and television shows are shot in Pittsburgh, more people are drawn to the trade. Chip Eccles, business representative for the film technicians and allied crafts union, IATSE Local No. 489, says they added 70 members in 2015, and 67 in 2016. He notes that 157 people from his union worked on “Downward Dog,” 252 worked on “Outsiders” and 362 worked on “Mindhunter.”

This does not include the unions for camera, hair and makeup, production office, the Screen Actors Guild, the Director's Guild and Teamsters, to name a few of the unions that typically work on film sets.

“It also does not include all the production assistants, and all the other non-union people,” Eccles says.

Pennsylvania's film tax credit incentive is the key to making it all work, which Keezer never misses a chance to point out.

“The film tax program has been in effect for 10 years,” she says. “We have interest in more (productions), but we don't have enough tax credits to support them. ‘Manifesto,' a Lionsgate production, went to Georgia because we didn't have enough (tax credits). Those are jobs we're just giving to another state. We have a $60 million (capped) tax credit — once it's gone, it's gone, and we lose other work.”

When all things are equal (enough), Pittsburgh tends to win out on its own merits, Keezer says.

“We're very fortunate to have the skills and experience levels,” she says. “They're the best workers in the country. We're known in the industry for having an amazing crew in our region.”

For Pittsburgh residents, who find their street is blocked for a scene, it's still enough of a novelty that there's little backlash.

“Ninety-five percent are very excited,” Adkins says. “One or two don't like to have their lifestyle disrupted in any way. And we are a disruption. Anybody who's got an issue, we try to address in person. We're very proud of our city, so showcasing it in movies and TV shows is something that many people in this city support.

“There's still this sense around the country that we're this smoky city of the '70s. When people come in from New York, they're surprised at the beauty of the city, and how nice people are.”