The Greater Philadelphia Film Office director is the reason so many movies are filmed here.
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?
The 21st annual PFF returns this week, with an array of movies and docs sure to delight local cinephiles. Here’s a sampling.
Among them is 1976's "Mikey and Nicky," starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as mobsters trying to escape a hit. Their chatty meanderings take them through Philadelphia at its scuzziest.
Calendar: Sept. 30-Oct. 7