How Sharon Pinkenson Helped Transform Philly Into a Hollywood Mecca

The Greater Philadelphia Film Office director is the reason so many movies are filmed here.

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 11 | Posted Oct. 17, 2012

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Pinkenson flanked by Law Abiding Citizen stars Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler.

It never gets old: Seeing your city on a movie screen produces a certain frisson, a jolt of civic pride comparable to the triumph of a sports team. For a long time, Philadelphians only rarely encountered that feeling. While filmmaking in this town had a great start—Siegmund Lubin, Polish émigré and ophthalmologist, started making films here in 1897 and founded the Betzwood Motion Picture Studio in 1912—that first wave only lasted till 1923, after which Philly-based movies came few and far between. The Philadelphia Story, shot on the MGM lot. Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Dressed to Kill. John Landis’ Trading Places. A little something called Rocky.

Then 1992 rolled around, and suddenly, Martin Scorsese was here to film a section of The Age of Innocence. Then came an Oscar-winning behemoth actually called Philadelphia. Then the apocalypse was set here in 12 Monkeys. Then a local kid named M. Night Shyamalan made good and started filming all kinds of stuff here.

Today, Philadelphia regularly pops up on movie and television screens—even if sometimes it’s as a stand-in for New York City or D.C. You can thank Sharon Pinkenson, the executive director—or, more colloquially, film commissioner—of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. She’s been wooing the big names here for two decades.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Pinkenson worked in the fashion industry, designing clothes for department stores, but the monotony of churning out the same product every year got to her. In the early ’80s, she started gigging as a costume designer for television and film productions shooting in Philadelphia; at the time, her hometown wasn’t particularly considered a significant film location, Rocky notwithstanding.

When she became executive director of the then-seven-year-old Greater Philadelphia Film Office, after leading a campaign to expand and prioritize it, Pinkenson took a fledgling, semi-professional operation and turned it into a thriving machine that brought in scores of major and indie productions—and, with them, a plethora of jobs.

This year, in honor of her 20th anniversary at the Film Office, the Philadelphia Film Society has renamed its Philadelphia Film Festival prize for the best Philly-based entrant the Sharon Pinkenson Award for Best Local Feature Film. As the festival prepares to kick off its own 21st year, PW sat down with Pinkenson to chat about her history, the changing face of her job, the renowned Pennsylvania Film Production Tax Credit and the famous people she’s helped bring to town.

What was the state of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office when you came in in 1992?

It was really that it needed someone minding the store full-time. The mission of the Film Office was to attract productions, but there hadn’t been any strong marketing or an effort to lure the industry for quite a few years. And I was a crew member, working freelance. We noticed they were getting all this business in Pittsburgh. Why weren’t we? This new mayor was coming in, and he was talking about economic development and tourism and bringing new money in, and the arts. No one was talking about the film industry. We didn’t have a director at the Film Office. I led the bandwagon on getting [then-Mayor] Ed Rendell to rejuvenate the office and put in a director. And I ended up getting the job.

Not to mention productions shooting here would bring with them plenty of work.

Exactly. We had this civic duty to make the city better. When Rendell took over, it didn’t look like [city government] could make payroll that week; the city was that broke. I got hired without pay till they could find a way to pay me. Everyone was working together to improve the business climate in the city, trying to get more jobs, get more money from the government, try to turn things around.

The first productions under your watch were The Age of Innocence and Philadelphia, which didn’t have a title while it was shooting.

Well, the first version of the script, at least that I saw, was called At Risk. And then it had other titles, like People Like Us. Finally, they realized they didn’t have a good title. Originally, it wasn’t set anywhere; it was just a big city. While we were making it, it was just Jonathan Demme Untitled Fall Project. And Jonathan actually challenged the cast and crew to come up with a good name for the movie. Two weeks before we ended principal photography, he came up to me and said, “We decided to call the movie Philadelphia.”

Did he say why?

I don’t think I even asked. I almost broke into tears. I couldn’t imagine a bigger blessing.

How has your job evolved?

It’s changed enormously. When I first started, it was just television commercials. When we got movies, they’d only come for an iconic location. But Philadelphia was the very first movie since silent pictures, I think, to shoot every single frame in Philadelphia. Then, as cable TV grew and evolved, we started doing a tremendous amount of reality shows in Philadelphia, which are done by resident companies. It’s a huge business. Now we have our indigenous film and television productions, the independent filmmakers, a lot of documentary filmmakers who are local, plus all the movies and television series that shoot here. We get quite the variety of work.

The Inquirer recently ran a piece about movies set in New York but shot in Philadelphia. How do you feel about that trend?

I think any time we can get unexpected work for Philadelphia crews and businesses and actors and Teamsters, that’s great. On the other hand, filmmakers who have made iconic movies about Philadelphia have provided a value to the city. We should encourage movies set in Philadelphia, and movies that could happen in any city should be encouraged to make Philadelphia a character in those movies. By doing that, we’ll be able to see more employment, and our visibility overseas would make us automatically attractive to businesses and tourism. There’s no amount of marketing dollars that can do what a wonderful movie about Philadelphia seen around the world can do.

How do you tend to pitch Philadelphia to producers and productions?

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 11 of 11
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1. Anonymous said... on Oct 17, 2012 at 10:08AM

“Kudos to Sharon and her incredible efforts to make Philadelphia the backdrop for countless movies, and her battle to increase the PA Tax Credit Program. Her (and her hair) are legendary.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Oct 17, 2012 at 02:49PM

“Fabulous job.”

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3. Skeptic said... on Oct 17, 2012 at 05:54PM

“Interesting how the glowing comments are being made by Anonymous. Self-promotion maybe? The Greater Philadelphia Film Office is mostly populated by public relations weasels, so it wouldn't surprise me.”

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4. Jamie Moffett said... on Oct 18, 2012 at 11:59AM

“Sharon, Joan & the gang at GFPO are doing an amazing job for filmmakers- both studio and indie (like me). A million thanks to them for their tireless efforts”

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5. paul said... on Oct 18, 2012 at 07:36PM

“great job Sharon...nothing would promote our city more overseas than being featured in a movie..preferably an action adventure youth oriented type film along the lines of Avengers and the like..all the young people watch that stuff”

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6. broke ass film worker said... on Oct 18, 2012 at 08:34PM

“Film production may be the backbone of the industry, but it's only a small part of the film world. There is no real pre or post production scene in Philly at all. Either you work for Shooters, NFL, or Banyon, or you're not really getting paid. And all of these big productions that come into town aren't bringing that many jobs. All of the skilled trade positions and union jobs are all New York guys. If you're serious about making it in production, you're not staying in Philly. All these shoots hire a few scouters and some assistants and then turn all of the other low paying P.A. jobs into free internships for students. It's really a croc. But it does help the local economy, it's just silly for Sharon to take soo much credit for EVERYTHING. Her ego knows no bounds. She's done a lot of good and there's no need to diminish that, but it's insulting to everyone else in the city to lay claim that she's the sole reason why anything happens here.”

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7. broke ass film worker said... on Oct 18, 2012 at 08:49PM

“And it was Rendell's support through out his mayor and governorship that made Sharon's work possible, & it's a shame there's no mention of her co-workers who are actively in the field doing their best to aid actual Philadelphians with locally made productions rather than just putting their names on everything & setting up photo-ops with A-list celebrities. Still, there's a much much bigger picture than just the glitz & glamor of film-making. There is distribution, PR, casting, advertising, & so much more that simply doesn't exist on a professional level here outside of a few small insular agencies. Philadelphia is no mecca for film although there is a thriving DIY subculture here that rarely gets the press it deserves. It's outrageous to take claim for Shamaylan's career & success. He's one of the nicest, best directors to work for, but all four of his last films were Razzie winners, not sure if I'd pronounce him one of the greatest directors alive.”

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8. Skeptic said... on Oct 20, 2012 at 05:04PM

“Broke-ass-film-worker is spot on. Pinkerson is credited with Philly's booming position in the film world, but really it's not booming. Most of the revenue generated by these productions is short-lived. There really isn't much of a film community in Philadelphia. Mostly production workers are brought in from NY for the medium and large projects.

I can't say she's done nothing, but I can say she hasn't don't as much as she implies ... and certainly not a fraction of what should be done to promote the local filmmaking industry.”

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9. Philly fan said... on Oct 24, 2012 at 11:12AM

“It's so typical how the haters are always the losers and blamers,finger pointers, etc. get a Life and try and Learn something instead of blaming your own misfortune on the successful.”

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10. Aspiring Film Maker said... on Aug 17, 2013 at 06:46PM

“Who, exactly, proposed and succeeded in getting it passed, a bill capping the total amount allowable for Film Tax credits to never again exceed $60 million dollars? Whose bright idea was that? I would really like to know so that I can make sure I never vote for him or her ever again, or anyone who voted for it to become law. What about inflation? Idiots!!!
What lies between Philadelphia and Pittsburg in this wonderful Commonwealth? Give up? The answer is "Alabama". Get it!!”

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11. sharon needs a haircut said... on Aug 19, 2013 at 01:20PM

“It's all about Sharon. She knows how to bang a drum...and not pay her interns who are college graduates; nor introduce them to players in Los Angeles or NYC who can help their careers. I think she has a salary of about $ 250,000 per year. Wow. I think the money would be better spent on (5) people who have marketing;film etc. degrees. She knows how to clean teeth.”

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