💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
After a year of salary cuts and pleas to elected officials, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office is no longer the only film commission in a major U.S. city without government funding.
A City Council committe on Wednesday approved a $100,000 infusion for the nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1985 — it owns the prized web domain film.org — and brings more than $300 million annually in economic impact to the region.
“I call us small but mighty,” said executive director Sharon Pinkenson, noting that with a five-person staff, the GPFO produces thousands of jobs every year.
The jobs aren’t just for actors and camera crew, Pinkenson said. When TV and movie shoots come to the area, they generate work for people in lumber, hardware, retail, trucking, catering, wardrobe, hairdressing, and hospitality.
The GPFO also runs a high school career advancement and apprenticeship program with the Philadelphia school district, and partners with other youth education institutions around the city.
The Kenney administration slashed the GPFO budget to zero during the first year of the pandemic, as the city faced a gaping budget hole. The reduction was necessary to focus on “core services while prioritizing Philadelphians’ public safety, health, and education,” said city spokesperson Kevin Lessard.
Like nearly everyone else during COVID, Pinkenson dealt with the hardship.
To keep GPFO going, she and her staff members had their salaries cut by half. Without funding to hire someone to take on development work, the team scrambled to raise money, and even started a GoFundMe. It raised just $46k of a target $200k goal.
“People think of the film industry as being rich, but we’re a tiny nonprofit that helps people get jobs in film production,” Pinkenson said. “So many small things that people don’t think about get coordinated through the GPFO.”
From serving as a liaison with city departments to obtain necessary permits, to location scouting, to connecting filmmakers and TV producers with local crew members, vendors, and more, the GPFO plays an integral role in ensuring film productions are attracted to the city and are able to operate on the ground
Greg DeShields, executive director of PHLDiversity at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the GPFO “a priceless entity for Philadelphia.”
He described the wake of economic activity each production creates, with crew members and others involved in the project spending money in hotels and at local businesses. He also cited the intangible tourism boost that comes with having Philadelphia appear in popular culture.
Yet when the city budget for Fiscal Year 22 was approved this summer, flush with federal aid, film office funding was still not restored.
Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson, calling the city “out of touch,” sought to change that by requesting restoration of some funding as lawmakers discussed their midyear transfer ordinance legislation. The ordinance was just passed out of committee, and is slated to be voted on by the full Council on Dec. 2.
It will bring back some of the GPFO funding — though not at the same level as before.
Prior to the pandemic, the film office had received regular funding from the city since becoming a nonprofit in 1992, Pinkenson said, first around $170k per year and most recently around $130k. There also used to be a state grant in the range of $200k, but it was eliminated in 2010, according to Gov. Wolf’s office.
Helping Philly high schoolers achieve their dreams
Anchoring film productions in the city is also vital for the next generation of filmmakers, screenwriters, and directors, said DeShields, of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, helping “support the evolution of a more vibrant arts and culture community in Philadelphia.”.
The GPFO runs the Tripod Initiative, which is currently operating inside Strawberry Mansion High School through a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of the Arts and Creative Learning.
Through the program, students have been able to learn photography, filmmaking, and screenwriting. At the moment, there are about 40 to 60 students involved.
Elijahwan Cannon Jr., an 11th grader who dreams of either going into TV acting or dancing and singing on Broadway, said that through the program he’s “learned how the business works.”
“It’s a very professional community in show business,” Cannon Jr. said. “You have to always be giving 150%, and you should always be focused and ready on what you’re doing.”
The partnership with GPFO has also allowed students to connect with various film professionals who have been in Philadelphia for productions, including actor Nakia Dillard of “The Wonder Years,” and Michael “OG Law” Ta’Bon, a West Philly-born activist who acted in the recent production of Concrete Cowboys. Future guests will include a cinematographer, and a storyboarder who’ll help students map out a film about their neighborhood and school.
Marc Holley is a media arts educator who’s been working with the Strawberry Mansion students on fundamentals. He tries to convey how profound working in the filmmaking industry can be.
“If we teach a learner how to create media — the impact that lighting, sound, and visuals have on the psychology of people — you can really teach them to change the narrative from the inside out,” Holley said.
The Tripod Initiative may soon expand to other high schools, according to Frank Machos, executive director of the district’s Office of Arts & Creative Learning. “It’s really a partnership that is building the future of the film industry in Philadelphia and sustaining it,” Machos said.
Breathing a sigh of relief, GPFO director Pinkenson said the restored funding, though short of the $200,000 they wanted to receive, will “start to fill a gigantic hole.” She plans to use the funds to hire another staff member, and ensure the rest of the team remains at full salary, which she was able to restore as of July 1.
“We’re thrilled. And we’re particularly grateful to City Council,” Pinkenson said. “The Commerce Committee was so supportive and so wonderful, and Katherine Gilmore Richarson took the lead.”
In the meantime, Pinkenson said that they’re still going to focus on garnering more funding to support their work.
“We will continue to pursue to get the amount we really deserve,” Pinkenson said. “We are an economic engine, and the city needs to recognize it.”