Steeltown Film Factory inspires local filmmakers

Yulin Kuang, a junior at Carnegie Mellon, is one of six finalists of the Steeltown Film Factory competition. (credit: Courtesy of Jonny Paterson) Yulin Kuang, a junior at Carnegie Mellon, is one of six finalists of the Steeltown Film Factory competition. (credit: Courtesy of Jonny Paterson)

The Regent Square Theatre offers a musty, old Hollywood feel in its crumbling walls and red-velvet aura. On Wednesday night, the small building’s lobby was crammed with a mix of a young grungy crowd and what looked like the older version of these 20-somethings, complete with blazers and scraggly beards. This was the Steeltown Entertainment Project’s Film Factory Showcase, part of the Three Rivers Film Festival. It was packed with attendees either already in the film industry or just beginning to claw their way in. This was a night to celebrate the burgeoning talent of the blooming film industry of Pittsburgh.

According to the brochure handed to people upon entering, the Steeltown Entertainment Project offers opportunities to entertainment professionals in order to build a more sustainable film and media industry in the Pittsburgh region. The host of the night, Carl Kurlander, a professor at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and writer and producer of shows including Saved By the Bell, raved about the talent of this town through anecdotal stories. In reference to the accelerating growth of the industry, he thanked the audience for “being part of the monster, because it really has become a movement.”

This movement is fed by the incubation of projects like the Steeltown Film Factory, which awards winners with $30,000 to produce their short film. In 2010 Yulin Kuang, a senior creative writing major and film and media studies minor, was a top three finalist. Her screenplay, First Kiss, tells the story of a 14-year-old romantic named Adam Schoenberger searching for his first kiss. The film will be shot in Pittsburgh this December and is an “unabashed ode to the agonies of adolescence.” The production is made possible with the bountiful help and resources provided by Carnegie Mellon’s Filmmaking Club, in which Kuang is an executive officer.

Although First Kiss was not chosen to receive funding from the Film Factory, Kuang will be producing it for her senior thesis and is now fundraising through a crowd-funded platform called Kickstarter, where donors can support online. In order to successfully shoot her film, she hopes to raise $6,000 by Nov. 26. She noted Kickstarter’s fickle success rate, though, saying, “I’ve seen a lot of great projects get funded, and a lot of great projects not get funded.” Kuang created a short trailer for First Kiss, which can be viewed online at kickstarter.com. The warm and colorful aesthetic of this short preview alone alludes to the tickled feeling that the film will surely provide. The trailer was shown during the Film Factory Showcase before the work of last year’s winner premiered.

Christopher Dimond, a Carnegie Mellon graduate with a master’s degree in dramatic writing, won the 2010 competition with his film, Flour Baby, which tells the story of a Catholic school girl who faces the typical childcare assignment of a flour baby in a not-so-typical situation. Directed by Carnegie Mellon faculty member Melissa Martin, the short film features juniors Grace Rao and Gina Le Vine, students in the School of Drama. While the writing was remarkable, the execution of this film just did not seem to follow suit. The cinematography was strangely disjointed, featuring quick paneling of the camera and confusing cuts between characters. The film had amazing potential, yet it seemed to fall short of its high expectations.

Other notable speakers were Lauren Elmer, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a B.A. in film studies, and Chris Preska, a Pittsburgh native. Elmer is manager of post productions for Sony Pictures Classic, and showed a beautifully shot and endearing short film called Smile about a girl who is in love with her orthodontist. Elmer’s own aesthetic seemed to match that of her film: Short, curly haired, and adorned in a baby doll velvet dress, she commanded the attention of the room with an unexpected but pleasant air of experience. She advised the audience of hopeful filmmakers to work with other writers in order to develop their ideas and begin building a team. This idea of building a network is what the Steeltown Entertainment Project hopes to implement here in Pittsburgh.

The following speaker, Chris Preska, created the award-winning sci-fi series The Mercury Men, which can be found on Hulu or on OnDemand. Preska developed the web series on an extremely tight budget of $7,000 for a total of 10 episodes. He showed the first episode, a thrilling black and white piece featuring pounding beats and suspenseful moments reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. Preska shared the phrase he continuously used on set: “limitation breeds creativity.” He set high expectations for the series and claimed that he was just stupid enough, and just ambitious enough, to do it. “There was no one to tell me I couldn’t … including myself.”

He shared that he has a poster of an Alex Ross painting depicting Super Grover from Sesame Street in his office, and paralleled his own blind ambition to that of Grover. “I love it because in my mind, that’s what Super Grover sees,” he said. “It’s a symbol that you can be greater than your circumstances might typically allow.” The second season of The Mercury Men is currently being developed, now with a significantly higher budget.

Pittsburgh may be referred to as an underdog city in the world of filmmaking, but even so, opportunities abound. Pittsburgh is breaking its way into the industry, as best evidenced by the filming of The Dark Knight Rises here this past summer. Students are encouraged to keep their eyes open.