A year that opens with the shutdown of the Carnegie Museum of Art's indispensable Film and Video Department has a lot to answer for. Last January, amidst job cutbacks, the Carnegie pulled the plug on an internationally respected, quarter-century-old program it deemed inessential to its mission.
Why the past century's most important art form got short-shrifted at the region's primary art museum is a question that baffles many, but in any case, nothing has yet emerged to take the place of the shuttered department's well-chosen year-round series of foreign-language and classic cinema.
For those taking the pulse of Pittsburgh's film scene, however, this body blow to the exhibition side of things wasn't the only news. For the people who make feature films, in fact, there were more than a few bright spots.
One was the continued box-office success of The Bread, My Sweet, the crowd-pleasing, independently produced romance shot mostly in the Strip District. After record-breaking runs at local theaters here, the film ventured into wider distribution; it's now screened commercially (to mixed reviews) in nearly 100 U.S. cities and is close to grossing $1 million -- a huge achievement for a modestly budgeted independent film. A Feb. 3 DVD/VHS release is scheduled; the video's distributors, Universal Films and Screen Media Films, have retitled the film A Wedding for Bella -- because, says producer Adrienne Wehr, they don't want the film to sound too independent. Wehr and writer-director Melissa Martin are also developing a TV pilot based on the film's characters, and Martin is writing the script for their next feature.
Meanwhile, Brady Lewis' unconventional and locally produced Daddy Cool continues making its unconventional but impressive way around the festival circuit. So far it's screened in seven festivals -- including the lesbian- and gay-themed Outfest, in Los Angeles, which no doubt homed in on the film's heroine, a woman who started life as a boy. (That screening also garnered Daddy Cool a positive review in film-industry bible Variety.) The film -- a dreamlike blend of science fiction, horror and film noir -- had a bigger coup, with two packed screenings at November's Flanders (Belgium) International Film Festival; one viewer, says Lewis, was director of the Buenos Aires International Film Festival, who promptly booked Daddy Cool for exhibition in April.
Both The Bread and Daddy Cool were the first feature-length projects for their writer-directors; likewise The Forgotten and Why We Had To Kill Bitch. The Forgotten, Vincente Stasolla's Korean War drama (shot in eastern Pennsylvania and completed after Stasolla moved here), premiered at the Three Rivers Film Festival. Meanwhile, John-Paul Nickel's indie comedy Bitch earned a profile out of proportion with its extra-low-budget, shot-on-video production: Its June premiere at the Loews Waterfront drew a capacity crowd of 580 (with hundreds more turned away at the door). Bitch subsequently screened at three festivals and aired on cable locally; Nickel, a recent Point Park grad, plans a DVD-release party by early February.
Perhaps the year's most ambitious film-related undertaking wasn't a movie at all. The newly formed Steeltown Entertainment Project hopes to use Pittsburgh's underutilized Hollywood connections to foster movie and TV projects benefiting the local economy. The SEP got off to an auspicious start with October's Pittsburgh Entertainment Summit, which drew about 200 attendees, including luminaries such as Pittsburgh native and Chicago director Rob Marshall. Getting more movies made here won't be easy -- advocates hope proposed state tax breaks for film production will help -- but it's heartening to see more people out there trying.