Hollywood starts here

Keezer enjoyed the gala sponsors party with Mt. Lebanon residents Percy Jackson, left, a Highmark pharmacy consultant, and Joe Smith, senior vice president of marketing for Dollar Bank. /Photo: George Mendel

Stashed somewhere in a computer folder, Dawn Keezer has digital photographs of nearly every bowling alley in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her favorite one is in Carrick. “It’s pink!” she says, eagerly sharing one of the many random bits of local minutiae rattling around in her brain.

Keezer has been the director of the Pittsburgh Film Office for the past 23 years—and it’s not just bowling alleys she keeps tabs on. She also has files on gas stations, courthouses and myriad other locations that might prove useful to a film production looking to shoot in the Pittsburgh area.

She’s the one largely responsible for Warner Bros. turning downtown Pittsburgh into Gotham City for the massive 2012 blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises (The local premiere of that film, attended by most of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was a career highlight, she says). Not every local production is of that magnitude, but it’s not uncommon these days for three to five movies or TV shows to be shooting here at one time.

It didn’t use to be this way. When Keezer got the job in 1994, she says the Film Office was lucky to attract one project a year. Hollywood got more interested, however, once the state legislature approved a tax credit for film studios that shoot in Pennsylvania—an incentive program that returns a 25 percent tax credit on money a production company spends in-state on local vendors. That led to the arrival of productions ranging in notability from the Tom Cruise blockbuster Jack Reacher to the David Fincher-produced Netflix series Mindhunter to the obscure 2011-13 Nickelodeon kids’ show Supah Ninjas.

The Pittsburgh Film Office provides employment for more than 3,000 film crew professionals who live in the region. /Photo: James A. Mahathey

“[The Pittsburgh region] can double for anything in the world, as long as you don’t need a beach or the desert,” Keezer says.

“But everything else we can do. We’ve done San Francisco; we’ve done the Ukraine; we’ve done Paris. We do New York better than New York does it because we can actually shut down traffic.”

Keezer moved from California to Pittsburgh when she first started the job, but 11 years ago she relocated to Los Angeles for what she describes as “the longest commute of anyone you know.” There she could meet film producers face-to-face to convince them to bring their casts and crews to western Pennsylvania. 

Now that Pittsburgh is one of the top five places to film in the country, Keezer’s job has gotten easier. (“I don’t call anybody anymore,” she says. “They call me.”) When her husband, Cody, a CFO for an international law firm, took a new job that he could do from anywhere, the couple decided to bring their family—including their 8-year-old son, Carter, and their two golden retrievers—back to where the literal “Action!” is. They moved into their home in Virginia Manor last August.

Dawn Keezer, her husband, Cody, their son Carter, and the family’s golden retrievers, Diamond and Doc Holliday, are all still getting used to Pittsburgh winters. /Photo: George Mendel

The dogs are still getting used to the snow, something that almost kept Keezer from taking this job in the first place. (“I’m not going where it snows,” she once declared. “Famous last words.”) But it’s clear she’s proud of the area she now calls home and what it offers to the productions her three-person staff brings here.

“There are still people who have an image in their head that this is a smoky gray steel town and that is what we still look like,” Keezer says. “That heritage is important, but it doesn’t really indicate the thriving, beautiful place that we now have and that we call home in the region.

And It’s not just the location that attracts productions, she says; it’s Pittsburgh’s warm, friendly welcome:

“We have movie sets where people in the neighborhood make cookies and take them to the set. They have block parties and invite the cast and crew. That doesn’t happen other places.” —Dawn Keezer

“In Los Angeles, people come outside of their house with a leaf blower and refuse to turn it off until you pay them money.”

Keezer considers her biggest success to be the number of local people hired to work on productions that come here. More than 3,000 film crew professionals, including special-effects artists, carpenters, painters, drivers and makeup artists, live in the area; more shoots means more job opportunities. Over the last couple of years, more than 40 of her Pittsburgh-area crew members have been able to purchase their own homes, which she calls a “huge deal,” for folks whose employment isn’t necessarily steady or guaranteed.

The film office works to minimize the impact of filming on neighborhoods. /Photo: James A. Mahathey

“We have one of the strongest crew bases in the country,” Keezer says. “We’ve been making movies here since 1914—The Perils of Pauline … where [the woman] is on railroad tracks tied up. We really hit our stride in 1968 when [George Romero] did Night of the Living Dead, which is credited with starting the commercial filmmaking you see here in southwestern Pennsylvania.”

Pittsburgh Film Office serves as a one-stop shop for active productions, and Keezer’s job contains a lot of moving parts. Daily activities can range from acquiring filming permits to picking up office supplies or taking costumes out for dry cleaning.

The office also works to ensure residents’ lives aren’t upended by the productions in their neighborhoods. She tells a story of a woman who called needing parking for her daughter’s wedding on a day when all the local spots were taken up by film-equipment trucks. Keezer got the crew moved, and the wedding went on unimpeded.

“There are some glamorous parts,” she says. “I got to meet Tom Cruise. I got to meet and have a conversation with Cate Blanchett. But a lot more days I’m dealing with how to get tax credits put aside or how to close a road or how to make sure a crew has the parking they need. 

“But I have a great job,” she continues. “My job is different every day. I’d be bored to death if I was trapped in an office all of the time.”

That shouldn’t be a problem any time soon. Not as long as there are film producers looking for that perfect house … or street corner … or bowling alley.