In the wake of massive layoffs, concern over the future of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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In the wake of massive layoffs, concern over the future of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

"A lot of us aren't confident that Filmmakers will be around a lot longer."

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Pittsburgh Filmmakers' headquarters on Melwood Avenue, in Oakland - PHOTO BY BILL O'DRISCOLL
  • Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
  • Pittsburgh Filmmakers' headquarters on Melwood Avenue, in Oakland

In 2006, two of the city's biggest arts groups, Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, merged. Though the merger followed the temporary closure of the debt-ridden PCA, longtime Filmmakers executive director Charlie Humphrey said at the time that, long term, the move might be at least as beneficial to Filmmakers.

A decade later, things haven't quite worked out that way. On June 2, Filmmakers/PCA dropped a bombshell on the local arts community, announcing the layoffs of 18 full- and part-time employees, about one-fifth of its staff. Most of the layoffs were at Filmmakers' Oakland headquarters, including: Brady Lewis, the group's longtime director of education; half of its equipment-office staff; and its entire marketing department. (Particularly shocking was the layoff of Lewis: He was the only upper management let go, and his roots with the group extend nearly to Filmmakers' inception, in 1971.) At the PCA's iconic Shadyside building, layoffs included curator Adam Welch, a rising star in the city's arts scene.

Filmmakers/PCA executive director Charlie Humphrey says the layoffs came in response to a large but temporary cash-flow problem he hopes will be rectified as soon as this fall — when, he says, many of the laid-off might be rehired. "I'm optimistic that we can restructure the way we're doing business now and we can create efficiencies and create better paths of revenue and get where we need to be," says Humphrey. Humphrey is forgoing his own salary in June, and taking a 30 percent pay cut in July and August.

While remaining staff will be stressed, summer programming at Filmmakers/PCA will continue largely as scheduled. But many current Filmmakers employees, saying problems at the organization run deep, are pessimistic about the future. As one staffer put it two days after the layoffs, "It feels like a lot of this is just the first pass. A lot of us aren't confident that Filmmakers will be around a lot longer." The staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added, "It feels like end-of-days."

Humphrey says the cash shortfall behind the layoffs was due partly to unforeseen capital expenses, including a "fairly catastrophic" HVAC failure at the PCA. There were also "major upgrades in software and computers that we had not planned for," he says. The upgrades, Humphrey acknowledged in a phone interview, came following a 2014 legal dispute over software "licensing issues" that was settled with a nondisclosure agreement, a process that also contributed to the cash shortfall. Overall, he says, such expenses totaled more than $150,000.

Humphrey blames another portion of the cash shortfall on his own overly optimistic estimates of how quickly new Filmmakers education programs would generate significant revenue. He tells CP that the first two years of Filmmakers' eight-month "intensives" program in filmmaking and photography fell about 10 students short of his expectations, for a revenue gap of $168,000.

But current and former Filmmakers staffers (most speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for their jobs) tell a different story.

Brady Lewis, who created the intensives program, tells CP that his own year-by-year projections for the classes fell behind actual enrollment by only about one student. Many associated with Filmmakers charge that Humphrey is "kind of blaming it all on the education program, that it underperformed," as one former staffer puts it — and even that Lewis himself was being scapegoated. Staffers say that at an all-staff meeting called after the layoffs, and in a letter addressed to staff, Humphrey emphasized under-enrollment as the culprit — a theme news stories about the layoffs picked up on.

Humphrey says that he does not blame Lewis for the shortfall. "It's not Brady's fault," he says. Humphrey acknowledges that his expectations for enrollment differed from Lewis' projections. (Humphrey declined to comment further about Lewis' layoff; Lewis says he can comment further only with Humphrey's permission, a statement Humphrey says might have resulted from a misreading of language in Lewis' severance agreement. "Brady is free to say whatever he wants," says Humphrey.)

In local arts and funding circles, Humphrey is widely respected: Along with rescuing the PCA, he guided Filmmakers' explosive growth in the 1990s and, more recently, helped save the struggling Pittsburgh Glass Center.

Within Filmmakers, however, staffers say, poor morale predates the layoffs. Many describe the work environment as "dysfunctional." They say buildings including Filmmakers' North Oakland headquarters are in poor repair, suffering everything from broken office equipment to leaky roofs. "I feel like the facilities are physically crumbling around us, and sometimes it feels like a metaphor for the organization as a whole," says one current staffer.

Morale was, if anything, damaged by the post-layoff staff meeting. Staffers say that when they asked Humphrey what the short-term plan was, he told them to expect "chaos."

"I think I said, ‘Expect it to be chaotic," Humphrey tells CP. "I don't know how you could expect it to be anything else." But the comment worried some. "It feels more like a sense of desperation," says one staffer. "There is no plan for moving forward."

Other concerns date at least to the merger. Some staffers say that as Humphrey has taken on new projects, like merging with the PCA and launching nonprofit news organization PublicSource, he seems less interested in Filmmakers itself. Filmmakers staff "have felt neglected by Charlie's leadership, because he pursues these other interests," says one current staffer. "He gets really excited about non-Filmmakers activities and doesn't perceive our core Filmmakers program as a priority for him."

Humphrey acknowledges that Filmmakers' headquarters "needs some new life breathed into it." But he says that for arts groups, lean times and morale swings are "the nature of the beast." And he says he remains deeply invested in Filmmakers. "I love this place," he says. "I feel that I demonstrate that every day. And if you're going to ask me which of my children I prefer, you're not going to get an answer from me."

Humphrey agrees that Filmmakers/PCA faces big challenges. Prior to the merger, Filmmakers earned up to 85 percent of its income, with only 15 percent coming from grants and other contributions — a sterling figure for a nonprofit arts group. Today, says Humphrey, earned income is about 60 percent. "I don't like that number," Humphrey says. "We need to get back to a more entrepreneurial way of thinking."

Filmmakers is best known for its exhibition program — including the Three Rivers Film Festival and year-round screenings at the Regent Square Theater and Harris Theater — and the PCA noted for its art exhibits. But most of the group's earned income is from education, especially Filmmakers' college-level classes in film, photography and media, and PCA's art classes for kids and adults. Humphrey says the big blow to earned income wasn't the merger, but the gradual loss of Point Park University film students after Point Park began its own cinema program in 2003. Meanwhile, in the digital era of affordable gear and DIY instruction, enrollment by independent students has declined, too.

Filmmakers/PCA has balanced its budgets with help from foundation grants, including $1 million over the past three years from the Heinz Endowments, largely to support new education initiatives. On June 9, the Filmmakers/PCA board unanimously approved a $5.2 million budget for the fiscal year that begins in July. "Organizations go through tough times ... but I have a lot of confidence we'll get through it," says longtime board member Cheryl Capezutti.  "I feel really confident in Charlie's leadership."

Humphrey is working on a recovery plan. Such a plan, he said, would retain Filmmakers' college-level classes, including the intensives, and he adds that Filmmakers is looking to strengthen ties with the colleges and universities who still supply most of their students. But Humphrey is also looking to include more classes along PCA lines: workshops and short-run classes for more casual independent students. (Examples, he said, might be "How to Get the Most out of Vine," or an introduction to Photoshop.) Humphrey notes that while classes at Filmmakers bring in more revenue than do those at the PCA, PCA's shorter-run classes are more profitable in "dollars per contact hour" than Filmmakers' full-term sessions.

If the groups' future remains uncertain, its support in the funding community, apparently, remains strong. "We do have faith in the management and we believe very strongly in the mission of Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts," says Heinz Endowments spokesman John Ellis. He says the foundation has supported both groups for decades "and will continue to do so."

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