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At the Movies

Point Park alumni, faculty and students are a growing part of Pittsburgh's movie and television industry

Cinema and digital arts students shoot a scene along the banks of the Allegheny River.

The Point
Winter 2010

Pittsburgh is now a magnet for feature film and television production, and Point Park plays an important role behind the scenes.

For years alumni have worked as talent, crew members, and post-production professionals for companies filming in the region. The University’s role increased significantly after the establishment of the Cinema and Digital Arts Department, part of the Conservatory of Performing Arts

Point Park now offers three degrees – cinema production, screenwriting and digital arts – and a widening pool of talented students and experienced graduates.

The expanded role comes at a key time. The success of the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit and the Pittsburgh Film Office, new sound and production facilities in the area, and increased recognition of diverse locations and experienced crews, have helped boost the surge in film and television production.

The Pittsburgh Film Office serves as a resource for all film-related activity in southwestern Pennsylvania, and Point Park is a valuable partner, says director Dawn Keezer.

“The university has experienced faculty and is turning out great graduates. It’s a vibrant, thriving program that just keeps growing.”

Keezer notes that the office’s assistant director, Jessica Conner, is a Point Park graduate, one of the many former interns working at the office or on productions. Now Conner (COM 2003) returns to campus to talk about various aspects of filming in Pittsburgh, including securing permits and how to be a good neighbor when working in local communities.

Katie Woolridge, a 2008 cinema and digital arts grad who also interned at the Pittsburgh Film Office, recently worked as an assistant to Transformers 3 producer Ian Bryce

The first role for many young graduates is production assistant. Steve Mannella, a 2010 graduate with concentration in digital file editing, is currently working as a production assistant on a studio feature film, Abduction.  As a student he assisted on a commercial for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the reality television series Shaq Vs. and the feature film Warrior. He also worked on an independent film.

Fred Johnson, the dean of the Conservatory of Performing Arts who has more than 15 years of media production experience, says the increase in productions taking place in Pittsburgh means more students and alumni are gaining critical experience in the city.

“One of the challenges Pittsburgh faced previously was that its talented crews were depleted with one or two productions shooting. Now the city has several productions going on at the same time. Our graduates are finding jobs and adding depth to the crew base.”

Graduates and students are contributing to such areas as camera work, wardrobe, locations, post-production and more. This spring, they will find multiple opportunities on an independent film that the University is helping to produce, The Umbrella Man. The film is based on the original play that opened The REP season this fall. 

The hands-on experience, small class sizes and ability to work in a concentration all four years sets Point Park’s cinema and digital media programs apart from the competition. The University emphasizes the collaborative nature of media production and students work in teams to produce short form documentaries, commercials, public service announcements and experimental works while learning about real-world roles and responsibilities.

In one screenwriting workshop, students pitch their stories and get feedback from fellow students on the strength of both the story and the pitch. 

 “The story is the constant,” says Rick Hawkins, an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, studio executive and media consultant who teaches screenwriting courses.  His classes and workshops address writing screenplays, teleplays and works for online media. Hawkins, a recent transplant who has lived all over the world, says experienced screenwriters can live and work anywhere, including Pittsburgh.

 “Pittsburgh is a great place to find your voice and gain invaluable experience,” says Nelson Chipman, department chairman and a screenwriter and filmmaker himself. Along with developing projects, opportunities and contacts for students, the department produces an annual cinema showcase for industry professionals, he notes.

 In the past, people needed to move to New York City, L.A. or other cities, but no longer. Point Park alumni are finding more and more professional opportunities in Pittsburgh, says Chipman, and everyone benefits.

“Production companies coming here realize they are getting educated, bright young people who are willing to work hard,” he says. 

Text by Colleen Derda
Photo by Frank Walsh
The Point is a magazine for alumni and friends of Point Park University.