PITTSBURGH — "I've been walking since February," Mike Meehan said, taking a giant step and grabbing a handrail to steady himself on the small boat as it rocked in the wake of a passing barge on the Allegheny River.
Meehan, a veteran Hollywood location manager, was on a tour of Pittsburgh's Allegheny and Ohio rivers while scouting locations for "Gung Ho," a new Ron Howard film starring Michael Keaton. The river tour, made earlier this summer, was just a small part of the most extensive location search Meehan has ever conducted.
Meehan logged more than 20,000 miles, crisscrossing the nation three times and traveling up and down the U.S. Heartland and the Eastern seaboard twice. By the time filming ends (scheduled for the end of this month), the movie will have been shot here, in two Ohio cities and in Japan and Argentina.
The Pittsburgh river tour--including the boat, complete with skipper and guide--was only one of myriad services provided free to Meehan by the Pennsylvania Film Commission.
This kind of service isn't unusual. Consider: Nearly two-thirds of the 75 films slated for release from Labor Day to New Year's Day were shot entirely outside of California, according to the California Film Office.
The more aggressive states--among them, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois--have been known to make some pretty seductive proposals to get into the pants pockets of the film biz. Commissions have stopped and started rivers flowing, arranged to grow crops on abandoned farms and handed the keys of real banks over to production managers.
They regularly offer governors' planes for location scouting (and helicopters for closer looks) and provide posh hotel suites (with hot tubs large enough to hold Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice) to location scouts free of charge.
The nation's right-to-work states--such as Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas--boast about the substantial labor savings that can be had by filming in states where union work rules and wage scales can be avoided. Like Georgia's ad in the Hollywood trade papers says: "Shoot here for peanuts."
The wooing of Hollywood by Pennsylvania illustrates the tough competitive pressures California is up against in its effort to reduce the growing number of "runaway productions."
While most movies were made in California just a decade ago, now it's about half. Film commissions have sprung up in 60 cities and more than 40 states to compete for the $2 billion spent annually on feature film production.
During 1984, of the 165 features films shot in the United States, 56 were filmed exclusively in California, 80 were filmed entirely outside the state and 29 were shot in California and elsewhere, according to the California Film Office.
Arkansas offers film makers a 5% rebate on any production-related costs for a film that spends at least $1 million on a project. Last year the state returned $51,000 in rebates.
Walt Disney Productions plans to build a $300-million film studio adjacent to Walt Disney World and Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. This is simply one more studio in a string of facilities in New York, Houston, Miami and Dallas that compete with Hollywood. North Carolina is at work on its fourth studio complex in its bid to become the most extensive film center outside Hollywood.
The Ontario Film Commission reported that the Canadian province, whose capital is Toronto, pulled in $72 million in film and television production in 1984, generating $200 million for the region's economy.
"As far as we're concerned, they're run-to productions," says R. C. Staab, director of the Pennsylvania Film Commission,
Staab has the dark, youthful good looks of a soap opera doctor, but as the director of the Keystone State's film commission, he plays quite a different role--or roles.
When Meehan and production designer Jim Schoppe were scouting locations for "Gung Ho" in Pittsburgh, Staab was their driver, tour guide, adviser, general trouble shooter--he booked hotel reservations, made travel arrangements and acted as liaison between the film unit and Pittsburgh's mayor and chief of police. Staab runs his small but effective operation from his office in Harrisburg, the state capital, with one assistant.
"Gung Ho," a comedy about what happens when some jobless blue-collar auto workers recruit a Japanese management firm to get the assembly lines of their shut down auto plant rolling again, is set almost entirely in the fictional city of "Hadleyville," represented by Pittsburgh's working-class, blue-collar neighborhoods. The Steel City was picked for its "Eastern look," Meehan said. Filming began here Aug. 14.