‘Fences’ brings in cash to Pittsburgh

By Rebekah Devorak | Opinions Editor 

Hollywood award shows, like the Jan. 8 Golden Globes, seem so far away from real life here in Pittsburgh. But if you watched Viola Davis win Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Fences,” you’ll know that the connection between the two is stronger than you might think.

“Fences,” which debuted in theaters on Dec. 25 and has a box office revenue of over $40 million as of Jan. 8, was shot locally here in Pittsburgh. The movie stars Denzel Washington, who plays a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh as he struggles to deal with a missed opportunity to become a professional baseball player due to his race and age. Neighborhoods such as the Hill District, the West End, the Strip District and other locations are featured heavily in the film. The original screenplay was even written by Pittsburgh native August Wilson, and it premiered on Broadway in 1987.

What’s even more surprising than the award-winning movie’s connections to the Steel City, though, is how much money it generated for the region.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the filming of “Fences” brought in over $9.4 million to the city. The flick also hired more than 900 local workers and paid out $5.6 million in wages. Those numbers don’t include the nearly $3 million spent on transportation, lodging, catering or supplies.

“Fences” isn’t Pittsburgh’s first foray into the film industry and the economic spoils that it can bring. Other box office blockbusters that were shot here include Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” and Steven Chbosky’s “Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Even Josh Boone’s teen favorite “The Fault in Our Stars” and Joss Whedon’s superhero-packed “The Avengers” were partially filmed in areas around Western Pennsylvania.

According to a 2012 article by Entertainment Weekly, Pittsburgh’s film production raked in over $100 million in local profits each year from 2010 to 2012. For comparison, Pittsburgh was projected to receive $134 million in real estate taxes for 2016, according to the city’s yearly operating budget.

Needless to say, the movie industry plays a vital role in Pittsburgh’s robust economic success, and it should continue to attract as many blockbuster features and Hollywood starlets as it can. After all, beyond the thrill of spotting a celebrity while walking to dinner down in Market Square or recognizing the famed yellow bridges on the silver screen, it’s exciting to know that fan-favorite films are helping to bolster the city’s ability to grow and thrive. That’s always a good thing.

One reason why it performs so well is because Pittsburgh has one of the best incentivized tax credit programs in the nation for producers and film companies. If a movie crew decides to shoot a picture within the city — while spending cash to hire local workers and use local lodgings and restaurants while they do it — they receive significant financial breaks in the process. However, one major problem is that the credits are capped at $60 million per year, according to the Pittsburgh Film Office.

As with any other business in any other industry, it usually comes down to the money. Cities that offer more incentives to shoot there will often win over more movies, and Pittsburgh should seriously consider raising the cap to allow the region more opportunities to capture work.

It’s been proven time and again that Pittsburgh benefits from having big-name pictures filmed here, as the projects themselves bring in significant revenue to the region and a general buzz to the area. But beyond that, having Pittsburgh on-screen across the nation leads to the widespread exposure of our diverse, vibrant 92 neighborhoods. Some of these are neighborhoods, like the Hill District featured in “Fences,” that often get overlooked by other publications that feature the city or general tourists.

The Steel City is voted year after year as being one of the best in the world to visit, with Harper’s Bazaar being the most recent publication to be named as only one of two American cities to its “17 Best Places to Travel in 2017” list. Showcasing Pittsburgh’s culture, people, landscape and entertainment in films can only help to strengthen tourism even more. Dreams to visit our city can be sparked in the minds of young and old after seeing matinees of movies set here just as hearts have yearned for New York, Paris or Los Angeles.

And knowing that the rest of the world loves Pittsburgh just as much as we do can only grow our community closer together.