Pittsburgh Filmmaking Group Refocuses On Education

Jun 13, 2019

Fingertips clack on computer keyboards as Jeremy St. Hailer and Robert Starzynski work on their film project. St. Hilaire is a teaching artist at Steeltown Entertainment Project, and Starzynski is one of a half-dozen students in today’s session of the Reel Teens program, all sitting at a row of computer monitors in a fluorescent-lit room on the South Side.

It’s late March, and St. Hilaire and Starzynski are editing the video profiles of Steeltown’s high school seniors that will be shown at the group’s annual awards banquet, just two weeks away.

At the moment, the question is how long to hold a particular shot of one senior.

“I feel like that one’s pretty short for like his introductory shot, you know?” says St. Hilaire.

Wendy Burtner-Owens is president and CEO of Steeltown Entertainment Project.
Credit Photo courtesy of Steeltown Entertainment Project.

“That’s true, but I feel like at this point in the video, though, the audience won’t necessarily be paying attention to the length, ’cause like, I feel like they’ll be waiting for it to wrap up and go into more montage,” says Starzynski, an 18-year-old senior at Mount Lebanon High School.

“It kinda gets drawn out.”

“Yeah, you’re not paying attention to the length as much.”

Such are the issues filmmakers ponder – matters of craft that on this March day occupy students in three different classes in a warren of rooms in the office building Steeltown has occupied for years.

But while you wouldn’t know it on a visit to the organization, last year saw some of the biggest changes in the history of the nonprofit group, founded in 2003 to advance film and TV production in Pittsburgh. The turmoil included layoffs; internal tensions; the departure of the co-founder who was the only president and CEO Steeltown had known, and a realignment of its mission.

Now the group is finding its feet again, says Wendy Burtner-Owens, the Steeltown COO who was named interim president and CEO last year, and then permanently hired in those roles. It’s refocused on training a new generation of filmmakers, even as it continues supporting those working in the craft.

Currently, the group runs three different after-school programs, three days a week, for students recruited mainly from local high schools. (On the day WESA visited, students also came from schools including Pittsburgh CAPA, Perry High School and U Prep; another student was an 18-year-old who’d earned her GED.) Steeltown Film Academy is for beginners to learn the basics of camera, audio, lighting and storytelling. In the apprenticeship program, students work in a group to produce videos for either outside clients or internal use. And Reel Teens students produce a web series of six to eight episodes per season. (Season three began April 15.)

The classes are led by teaching artists – professionals who also work on local film and TV shoots.

In all, about 30 students are enrolled at any given time, about 20 of whom are paid for their work. “Those kids are really professionally producing content,” says Burtner-Owens. “It’s essentially their after-school job.”

Steeltown also supports local filmmakers and film workers with networking events, job referrals and fundraising help. In April, it launched adult screenwriting and acting classes. “We’re just here for the independent filmmaker,” Burtner-Owens says.

Steeltown was created to leverage Pittsburgh’s Hollywood connections to foster movie and TV projects here. Its co-founders were attorney Ellen Weiss Kander, writer Maxine Lapiduss, and screenwriter and television producer Carl Kurlander. Kurlander, best known for the 1985 film “St. Elmo’s Fire” and sitcom “Saved By The Bell: The New Class,” is a Pittsburgh native who returned here from Hollywood in 2001 to teach screenwriting at the University of Pittsburgh. He became the group’s president and CEO.

Steeltown’s early focus was on assembling production deals to get movies made here. Its signature early success was “R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour,” a 2007 adaptation of the book by the “Goosebumps” children’s author. Other projects included documentaries like “The Shot Felt ’Round the World,” about the polio vaccine, and “The Rehabilitation of the Hill,” a feature set in the Hill District. In 2014, Steeltown worked with noted Hollywood producer Chris Moore on “The Chair,” a reality-TV series about two young filmmakers each making their own movie from the same script, which aired on Starz.

Along the way, the group also developed its youth-media programs.

But financial problems were brewing. Except for “The Haunting Hour” – a direct-to-DVD project that continues to earn Steeltown royalties to this day -- Steeltown’s film projects were not making money. And the foundation grants the group relied on weren’t enough to close the gap.

“The old model wasn’t sustainable and we were on very shaky financial ground,” says Jim Rogal, a longtime board member and current board chair. He says that Steeltown’s leadership decided in mid-2017 to move away from assembling production deals. “We started to realize that, well, if we’re really going to focus on Western Pennsylvania production, we need to help develop that workforce, because it’s not there.”

In late 2017 came salary cuts and layoffs; more layoffs followed in early 2018. Then last June, after leading Steeltown for 15 years, Kurlander resigned. Accounts of his departure, however, vary.

Several former Steeltown employees tell WESA that Kurlander was verbally abusive to staff, and that he kept pursuing production deals even after it seemed clear to many that it was hurting the organization financially.

Four former employees WESA spoke with did not wish to be named. But another former staffer backs up their story. Brett Wormsley was a Steeltown production manager and later director of youth media. He says that he admires much of Kurlander’s work, and was never himself a target of abuse.

But, he adds, “There was a lot of yelling and I guess you could say kind of verbal abuse.”

Wormsley also agrees with other former staffers that the board gave Kurlander too much leeway in how he led the organization.

“The problem is, Steeltown was run like it was a production house, but Steeltown is not a production house, it’s a nonprofit,” says Wormsley.

In May 2018, several employees sent a letter to the board complaining about Kurlander. They believe that’s what resulted in his departure just a week or so later.

WESA reached out to Kurlander for comment, and in an email exchange he acknowledges that at Steeltown, he quote “might have come off as abrasive” to some. But he says he was aware Steeltown’s path was unsustainable, and says he left of his own accord, to pursue other projects. (He also still teaches at Pitt.)

Board chair Rogal acknowledges that staffers complained about Kurlander, but he seconds Kurlander’s version of events. “He might have had a management style that some didn’t agree with. That wasn’t the reason that Carl and Steeltown parted ways,” says Rogal.

Kurlander has been gone from Steeltown for a year, but the group he co-founded lives on, with a smaller staff and a budget of about $800,000.

The group believes its future lies with students like Caio Gomez, a U-Prep student who started coming to Steeltown after school in summer of 2018. Now he’s on the Teen Film Crew, learning new skills.

“What I like the most is editing,” he says. “And I also like being able to tell a story and write it. That’s what I think is most exciting.”