First stop Pittsburgh

Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg continues her blog about meeting with film organizations and communities in cities between Washington DC and Minneapolis.


My visit to Pittsburgh was brief and limited to only one organization, but even this small window into the city's filmmaking culture gave a sense of how a filmmaking organization can take a broad approach to serve both aspiring and existing filmmakers.

The organization happens to be Pittsburgh (a regional investigative journalism site); has its own in-house production company (primarily serving nonprofits) and, yes, still lets both students and members borrow equipment.  The organization not only serves filmmakers and video producers, but also still photographers (in fact, photography makes up about 35% of its programs).  It also expanded to include all forms of visual arts after a 2006 merger with the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Although this time of year did not have typical level of activity at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Melwood Avenue location (since it was between the summer and fall sessions), I did have a chance to meet with its Executive Director Charlie Humphrey.  He took me on a tour of the facility and sat down to discuss the evolution of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, the idiosyncrasies of the filmmaking community in Pittsburgh, and what he sees as the opportunities and challenges for media arts organizations more broadly.

Pittsburgh is blessed with a strong documentary legacy, particularly from local public television station WQED which was at one time one of the largest producers of content for national PBS broadcast, including not only popular children's programming like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, but the National Geographic Specials in the days before cable television.  However, fiction filmmaking is also quite strong and Pittsburgh Filmmakers has continued to supply education, equipment, studio space, and screening opportunities for its community.

What seems to have helped Pittsburgh Filmmakers thrive in the midst of changing technologies and arts funding levels is an entrepreneurial spirit.  The organization appears to have a healthy balance of income from foundations, memberships, educational program fees and tuitions, and renting its facilities.  What appears to set it apart from many other film organizations with an educational component is the partnerships it has formed with local colleges and universities to allow courses to be taken for college credit - something that might be increasingly more difficult for arts organizations to do as colleges and university bureaucracies expand.

It is also looking for new ways to engage its community in ways they want to be engaged.  Equipment rental has become more of a purely transactional relationship than its initial coop-inspired roots.  Students don't necessarily want to take courses in a specific sequence, but instead want to pick and choose what is relevant to them.  While the urban Melwood location tends to attract mostly young single student or recent-graduate filmmakers interested in the credit-focused programs, the organization also offers photography and youth filmmaking classes (as well as other art classes) at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' more pastoral location in Mellon Park.  Monthly programs like the Doc Salon and Film Kitchen give filmmakers a chance to connect and share work with each other.  And don't underestimate the power of a cafe or a library - Pittsburgh Filmmakers has both -- to bring people together around a shared love of film (or at least coffee).

All in all, Pittsburgh Filmmakers provided a lot of food for thought about how a film services organization can be nimble in adapting and expanding its services while advancing artistic excellence in media arts.

Next stop: Cleveland...

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