A buzz of excitement spread through the Lehigh Valley when Academy Award winning director M. Night Shyamalan filmed portions of his 2019 film “Glass” in Allentown in 2017.
“People said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you can make a real movie in the Lehigh Valley?’’” said Bill Hartin, CEO of FIFO, a nonprofit film making consortium based in Easton.
“Well, yes. Yes you can,” he added, “and there have been many.”
In addition to “Glass,” said Hartin, portions of other big budget Hollywood movies have been filmed in the area, including “Transformers”, “School Ties,” and “Hairspray.”
And it hasn’t just been the occasional Hollywood blockbuster that has been filmed here. There are independent filmmakers who are making movies to great acclaim right now in our own backyard.
These films don’t just have an artistic impact, but a financial one. Make no mistake, film is not just an art, but a business.
The film and television industry in Pennsylvania directly employs over 14,000 people, and pays more than $760 million in wages, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Those wages are being spent in Pennsylvania’s communities, further fueling the area’s economy.
To determine the economic impact of a film on any given area, according to Hartin, the standard formula is the “rule of 2.5.” That means that the amount of money spent on the film in a specific location can be multiplied by 2.5 to determine the economic contribution.
Thus, hypothetically, if it cost $2 million to film a scene for “Transformers” in Bethlehem, $4.5 million made its way back out into the community.
Certainly, with independent filmmakers and big budget studios choosing to make movies in the Lehigh Valley, there is a positive financial impact. Yet, the film industry remains a relatively under the radar and undervalued segment of Lehigh Valley business.
LVB talked to key players in the area film industry to find out why.
*movies listed with filmmakers below are just a sampling of their work and not a full list
Long Island based director/writer who films in the Lehigh Valley, works in the horror genre
Malevolence (2004), Brutal Massacre- A Comedy (2007), Bereavement (2010)
I’ve shot four out of my last five movies in the Lehigh Valley. I was first invited to film there by Cathy McCauley of the now defunct Lehigh Valley Film Council.
I quickly fell in love with the area and its locations. You can go from farmland to cityscapes to mountain ranges in minutes. And you’re just 90 minutes from Manhattan and Philadelphia, making for a great pool of actors and crew talent.
I live in Long Island, but shoot in the Lehigh Valley, which tells you a lot about how much I love working there.
Here’s where the Valley can improve when it comes to attracting more film makers, however. In Long Island every town has a welcoming committee for filmmakers. The Lehigh Valley needs something like that. Harrisburg has a state film office but it doesn’t expand into the Valley.
There needs to be a web presence that is designed for filmmakers. It would be smart to have something set up with a list of resources, like filmmaker friendly hotels, companies that are open to investing through product placement, rv rentals…I’ve had to find this all on my own. I had to negotiate my own rates for 30 people to be housed in hotel rooms for a month. There is nothing already in place at hotels in the area.
There is also a huge pool of untapped investors who would be interested in investing in film locally, but don’t know where to start. Setting up some orchestrated meetings between investors and film makers, some meet and greets, where deals can be set up, would be a great first step.
CEO and founder of FIFO (Fade in/Fade out), an Easton based nonprofit film making consortium dedicated to independent film making
Here in the Valley, we don’t yet have soundstages and backlots, but we have filmmakers. What is really lacking is the seed money. What I would like to see is a half a million dollars in an angel investor fund. We could decide, if a film came to us and applied, if we wanted to invest in that film to fill the gaps in funding it might have.
We could set up meetings of select potential angel investors where we say, “Look, we are not here to talk about art, we are here to talk about an investment opportunity for you.”
The Valley also needs local accounting firms that specialize in film financing. We need entertainment lawyers. These things will attract film makers who won’t have to go to the more expensive firms in Philly or New York.
At the end of the day, the more people we can get to make films in the Valley, the more of an identity the Valley will have, and the more film makers will come.
It’s that famous movie line, “If you build it, they will come.”
Lehigh Valley native and area director/writer/producer who primarily works in documentaries
RoboDoc: The Creation of Robocop (2019), King of the Arcades (2014), Hell’s Half Acre (2006)
I’ve done this full time for over 20 years. One thing I know is that for as much as you love it, it is a business, and to survive, you have to make money.
“King of Arcades” was funded in part by raising $50,000 on Kickstarter. For every million dollars made, how much does a filmmaker take home of that money? Everyone takes a piece of the profit. The distributor takes a piece. It is so tough to compete these days. The profit margin can make it not worth it.
But when a community is supportive of independent filmmakers like myself, it helps develop a sense of pride and we become heavily invested in the area. When we return with our next project we often have additional knowledge, more experience, bigger crews, and more money. All of which benefit the area economically.
I’m confident that more productions will embrace the sense of magic and convenience the area has to offer and find their home in the Valley.
Los Angeles based director/producer/actor and Lehigh Valley native who now produces faith based films in the Valley
The Hail Mary (pre-production), Getting Grace (2017), The Fugitive (actor 1993)
I like to focus less on the financial impact and more on the emotional impact movie making can have on the Valley. Show the rest of the world how great it is before you can monetize it.
The Valley fought back after the loss of Bethlehem Steel and art is a part of that. We can use art like film as bait to bring in other business.
Once Hollywood notices, the economic impact increases, more hotels are rented, more local crews are hired, more money is spent on catering…
Would it be great if there was an area film commission? Yes, but I would worry that it would be corrupted. I don’t know that the government should help us with incentives to make a movie. As a businessman, I’ll look for investors.
There were investors who believed in my vision. I partnered with St. Luke’s for “Getting Grace,” and what a blessing that was. It brought a sense of realism to the film (in which the main character has terminal cancer). We filmed in St. Luke’s Hospice and we used St. Luke’s scrubs and tags.
I’m open to subtle product placement as a way to help fund a film as well. The Jaindl family, of Jaindl Farms, were producers on “Getting Grace.” They own A-Treat soda, and we had a character drink A-Treat in the movie.
The right and emotional thing to do is the best investment. God has a plan for me, I just have to honor that. I live in California now, so why shoot in Bethlehem? Bethlehem chose me. I realize that part of my destiny is the Lehigh Valley. I was placed there as a child so I could grow up and celebrate it as an adult.
I did what I set out to do, and that was to make a love letter to the Lehigh Valley.
My third film will also shoot in the Valley. The intention is to grow the area’s film industry, to ultimately bring more movies to be made. We are growing it. Zeke’s (see below) growing it. FIFO is growing it.
Initially, let’s look at the emotional impact. The more that impact, the more the financial impact. The more people that know that the Lehigh Valley exists, the better for every film made here, including my own.
Lehigh Valley based director/writer/producer and Valley native whose films have debuted at the Sundance Film Festival
Billboard (2018), Pandemic (2011), In Search Of (2009)
My family founded Dorney Park in Allentown in the late 1800’s. So I grew up immersed in the entertainment business in the Valley. It’s what I know.
Over the past 20 years of making films here, I have spent over 10 million dollars. Multiply that by 2.5.
The 2.5x multiplier shows the ripple effect of movie making on a local economy. It’s not just the people being paid, the actors, and the crew. There is the renting of hotel rooms, the catering, the film equipment rental…
The problem is that there is not enough infra-structure in place for filmmakers in the Valley. The cities can create a film fund and find a pool of investors. As creatives we don’t think enough about management or finances. We think about creation. But funding is needed to create.
Other states ask me to come and produce there, but I stay here because it is my mission, even though it is harder for me to create here.
Because of my own fortitude, we do well. I am investing in my own projects. We are on average only 8 to 10 percent investor funded while a lot of films are 100 percent investor funded.
As you get bigger, you need more capital and more resources. People on the outside don’t think about the economic impact of it. They don’t know the business aspect. They are only familiar with box office numbers. That doesn’t tell the whole story.
And people don’t understand what they don’t know. Let’s help them understand what the film business can do for the Valley.
Can I bring more film to the area? Absolutely. The challenge is we need the resources to do it.
The filming of “Glass” did make Allentown money, and the same for “Transformers” in Bethlehem.
Why aren’t there more films like “Transformers” and “Glass” being made here? Because there is no one marketing the Valley as a filmmaking destination. That’s what a film office does. That’s why Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are getting all the films. We are the third largest area in the state of Pennsylvania. Why isn’t there a film office?
I know the positive impact filming here has, and that is why I moved back to the Lehigh Valley after film school.
I’m living my mission. I wanted to expose the Lehigh Valley to the world and I am doing that.
This is my home. I want to make a difference.