Following Turmoil, New Leaders Of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Center For The Arts Look Ahead

Nov 21, 2018

This past Saturday, Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Center for the Arts held an auction at the group’s Melwood Avenue headquarters, home to Filmmakers for more than two decades.

After years of financial turmoil and leadership troubles, the organization is drastically downsizing, selling off the 40,000-square-foot Oakland building, with its screening room, equipment office, darkroom, classrooms and soundstage. The one-day auction was held to divest cameras, lighting gear, computer equipment, movie posters, photographs, even furniture that Filmmakers no longer needs as it consolidates at the Center for Arts’ campus on Fifth Avenue, in Shadyside.

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, known for its all-ages education program and art exhibits, dates back 70 years; Filmmakers, founded in 1971, has held classes, screened films at multiple theaters, and run the Three Rivers Film Festival. The two groups merged in 2006.

The consolidation and plans to sell the Melwood were announced in May by then-CEO Germaine Williams, along with the end of Filmmaker’ long-time business model of offering for-credit college-level courses in film, photography and digital media. The decisions capped years of turmoil for the group. Artists, students, former staffers and other long-time fans of Filmmakers have lamented the moves as marking the end of an era, even the effective demise of the venerable organization itself.

On Saturday, the mood for many was somber. Outside the shuttered equipment office, an entry hallway once alive with artists and students was now full of upended furniture and wheeled carts bearing sold-off gear. Buyers wandered through, or lined up to pay for their finds. One visitor entered a stairwell to the second floor.

“It’s such a shame,” she said to another woman.

“They’re not closing,” said the second woman. “They’re moving.”

“Yes,” said the first woman. “But they’re closing.”

Not so fast, say the PFPCA’s new leaders.

“I don't think that the organization is ending at all,” says Dorinda Sankey. “In fact, it's being rebirthed.” In October, Sankey, a Filmmakers employee since 1988, was promoted to chief administrative officer, and another long-time employee, Kyle Houser, was named creative director. In an interview two days after the big auction, Sankey and Houser spoke hopefully of the group’s future.

The consolidation, they say, was long overdue.

The Melwood building bustled in the pre-digital 1990s, when most Filmmakers classes in still and moving images still used actual film, and enrollment by area college students was growing. In recent years, with computer-editing gear requiring a fraction of the space, and college enrollment dwindling, most of the cavernous building was empty most of the time. Meanwhile, the multiple gallery spaces at the Center for the Arts’ main building – the big yellow mansion at the corner of Fifth and Shady avenues – housed exhibits that are expensive to produce and generate little revenue. According to tax filings, the group, whose budgets run between $3 million and $4 million, has been running six-figure deficits for years.

Converting one of the PCA’s first-floor galleries into Filmmakers’ equipment-lending office, and another into a small screening room, will draw more foot traffic, said Sankey. Like the Melwood building, the campus will also incorporate a photographic darkroom, she said.

PFPCA’s new educational philosophy, meanwhile, is a return to Filmmakers’ roots of serving independent artists – “the general population,” as Sankey puts it. “We had too many course offerings. We were spread too thin,” she said. “We’ve got to hone down and offer the kinds of classes that people want.”

"We've got to hone down and offer the kind of classes that people want."

Houser said that means new classes emphasizing “digital storytelling,” which he defines as “shorter-format, web-ready” pieces. He also sees demand for courses on podcasting. He notes that starting in January, PFPCA instructors will include Emily Thomas, former associate producer of the Netflix series “Longmire.” Thomas, a Pittsburgh native, will teach Writer Room Experience, a class about how to pitch and develop television concepts through conversation and storyboarding.

In May, Filmmakers canceled its fall classes in film, photography and digital media. Other winter classes include courses in digital and black-and-white photography. In all this winter, PFPCA is offering 33 classes in subjects including drawing, metalsmithing and ceramics. And Houser is looking forward to creating a new digital-printmaking studio, which he says will bridge the gap between the photographic arts and the PCA’s established printmaking program. He says PFPCA already has much of the gear it needs for digital printmaking, and he hopes the studio is up and running by spring.

Meanwhile, the PCA’s long-running summer art camps for kids will continue, with one notable change: no more classes for children ages 8 and under. “I hate to say it, but I think the 4-year-olds, it’s a little bit glorified day-care there,” said Houser.

Other things won’t change much.

The PCA, though now limited to five second-floor galleries, will still host art exhibits. (In fact, on Nov. 30, it opens a Pittsburgh-based Group A’s 75th anniversary exhibit.) And while selling the Oakland building forfeits two theaters -- the 140-seat Melwood Screening Room, which mostly hosted special events, and the smaller Mini-Melwood, used for classes -- PFPCA plans to hang on to its two off-site theaters, Edgewood’s Regent Square Theater and Downtown’s Harris Theater.

In fact, the group seems to be shoring up its cinematic offerings: In September, it hired as director of film programming Joe Morrison, a former PFPCA director of operations who worked most recently at Dormont’s Hollywood Theater.

The Regent Square Theater seems marked for particular attention: PFPCA will pursue long-delayed plans to refurbish the building, said Sankey. And in October, PFPCA announced that local artist John Eastman had leased retail spaces on either side of the one-screen moviehouse to launch a new store for his furniture and other contemporary-design products.

"This is the first time since the merger that we're going to be one organization."

And starting next November, said Sankey, PFPCA will revive a full-scale version of the Three Rivers Film Festival, which ran for decades until it was canceled in 2017, and which this year existed, in a greatly scaled-down form, only as part of the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Financially, Sankey said, PFPCA will benefit immediately from the sale of the Melwood building for $3.75 million. (At press time, the building was under contract but the buyer had not been announced.) After paying off debts including $340,000 in remaining mortgage on the Melwood, the group will have $2 million. Sankey says she plans to invest half the proceeds in a liquid fund, and put the other half in a reserve account for upgrading studios and gear.

Many challenges remain. The PCA campus, with its five buildings, is owned by the City of Pittsburgh, which has long leased it to PCA for $1 a year. But PFPCA is responsible for upkeep, and in addition to the renovations to accommodate the new programming, the buildings are aging. Sankey said she is trying to re-establish relations with funders, which have been “badly damaged and broken since 2015.” It will also seek new sources of earned income to complement tuition – perhaps including offering analog-to-digital transfers of photographs, films and videos, or printing banners for other nonprofits in the planned digital-printmaking studio.

PFPCA has been in turmoil since the 2006 merger.

The merger was engineered by longtime Filmmakers executive director Charlie Humphrey, who stepped in after the PCA, badly mismanaged, went dark in 2005. But Filmmakers’ business model had already peaked, and the group was subsequently hit by waves of layoffs. Humphrey resigned in December 2015, after more than 30 staffers submitted to the group’s board a letter of no confidence against him. More layoffs followed under interim director Pete Mendes and CEO Germaine Williams. The latter headed PFPCA from January 2017 through this past July, when he resigned. Earlier this year, multiple current and former PFPCA staffers told 90.5 WESA that Williams was verbally abusive and led the group poorly; morale, they said, was in tatters even before Williams signaled the consolidation which many saw as a death knell, at least for the Filmmakers half of the group.

But Sankey and Houser are largely following the broad plan Williams announced in May. The only question, they say, is why something like it didn’t happen sooner.

Sankey says that PFPCA’s business model of earning revenue from college tuition has been on life-support since 2003. That was the year that Point Park University – which then supplied most Filmmakers students -- announced it was starting its own digital-cinema program.

Students trickled away gradually; enrollment by independent students plummeted over the past few years. Hope that University of Pittsburgh students would take up the slack after Pitt launched a film-production academic track never panned out (and Pitt said this past spring it would teach those classes in house, too). According to figures supplied by Williams, between 2008 and 2018, total enrollment in Filmmakers classes fell from nearly 1,500 to less than 600 – a drop of some 60 percent.

Offering college-credit classes “was a wonderful model for the day and age,” Sankey said. “But not today’s age.”

Why take a new direction only this year? “Change is hard for some people,” she said.

PFPCA is now down to 11 full-time employees; after the sale, according to a spokesperson, its budget will drop to $2.5 million or less. Sankey and Houser agree that among the hindrances to the group since 2006 was the lack of a true merger: Filmmakers and PCA remained on separate campuses, with distinct cultures and, in some cases, redundancies of staff. Now, its hand forced, the group is at last on one piece of real estate.

“This is the first time since the merger that we’re going to be one organization,” said Houser, who joined PFPCA in 2013 and most recently served as its studio-arts program manager.

No longer needing to cater to the needs of college curriculums is a big help, too. “This frees us up in a lot of ways,” said Houser, who notes that most independent students these days are not interested in semester-long classes in film, photography and digital media.

“Now we can focus on the general population” says Sankey. She added, “I think there’s a formula that’s going to be a winning formula for our next rebirth.”