July 21, 2008

Shyamalan Has Eyes on Filming in Chester Studio, Even Though It’s Not Built Yet

By William Bender, Philadelphia Daily News

Jul. 21--GROUNDBREAKING on an $85 million Hollywood-style movie-production studio in Delaware County won't begin for at least a couple months, but one director already wants to shoot his next film there: M. Night Shyamalan.

The studio's developers -- Philadelphia real-estate attorney Jeffrey Rotwitt and Santa Monica, Calif.-based Pacifica Ventures -- say they could be only days away from securing crucial tax breaks.

Their Sun Center Studios would be built in Chester Township on the 33-acre site of the Tri-State Sports complex.

They also are in advanced negotiations with Paramount Pictures -- which would use the studio to shoot "The Last Airbender," a $100 million live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon's wildly popular animated TV series -- and Shyamalan, who would write, direct and produce the film.

Plans are to build the movie props while studio construction is under way, so Shyamalan's crew can start shooting as soon as the soundstages open early next year, according to Chester Township Councilman Bob May.

"They're building this whole project right now around Shyamalan's movie," May said.

The first installment of "The Last Airbender" trilogy is set to hit the big screen July 2, 2010.

The timeline for Sun Center Studios, however, is contingent on the Chester Upland School District Empowerment Board -- a three-person panel appointed by Gov. Rendell -- approving tax incentives for the project.

Negotiations, which could wrap up this week, have focused on a tax-increment financing, or TIF, program, in which a portion of future tax revenue is used to finance a project.

Marc Woolley, chairman of the Chester Upland Empowerment Board, which oversees the academic recovery of the cash-strapped school district, had been reluctant to grant a multimillion-dollar tax break to the studio developers. Now, he appears to be warming to the idea. Woolley said last week that he hopes to have an agreement shortly.

"We're hopeful something may materialize this week," Rotwitt said yesterday.

Rendell has committed $10 million in state funding to the studio and adjoining tourist attractions, but Rotwitt would like to see him approve the full $15 million that was included in the capital budget passed this month.

That appears unlikely.

"Given the current economic and fiscal times, it would be difficult to see how the project could be funded to a greater extent than what the governor had already pledged," said Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo.

When fully built, the 370,000-square-foot studio will include seven soundstages for feature films, commercials and TV shows and a tourist museum with a 4-D movie theater and exhibits. It would create 1,000 permanent jobs and 300 temporary construction jobs and generate an estimated $400 million worth of local economic activity annually, Rotwitt said.

Hal Katersky, chairman and chief executive of Pacifica Ventures, a development and management company that specializes in the entertainment industry, said Shyamalan, the director of "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs," has not yet made a final agreement to using the soundstages for "The Last Airbender."

But, Katersky said yesterday: "I've been talking to Night's people regularly and I think we got a general agreement."

"They want to come here and we want them to come here," he said.

Representatives for Paramount Pictures and Shyamalan's production company, Blinding Edge Pictures, could not be reached for comment.

The final two installments of the trilogy might also be shot at Sun Center Studios, though talks are currently only centered on the first film, Katersky said.

"The intention is to shoot the first one, get it in the can, and do the next two right away," said Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office.

Shyamalan, who grew up on the Main Line and lives in Chester County, has frequently used the Philadelphia area for location shooting -- most recently for "The Happening" -- but Airbender will mostly be shot indoors, Pinkenson said.

Philly has great location-shooting potential for both inner-city and rural scenes, but doesn't have many soundstages to offer.

The construction of the studio, combined with $75 million in film tax credits approved by the state Legislature last year, could turn the region into a major player in the filmmaking industry, Pinkenson said. A similar studio project is planned for Norristown.

"One thing about Philadelphia is it's not a homogeneous look. We can look like an old city, we can look like a brand-new city," she said. "Then you can be in the post-war American suburbs, or have the look of the Main Line, the rolling hills of Chester County or old industrial towns."

The tax credits, which kick in only when at least 60 percent of a film's budget is spent in Pennsylvania, have helped boost the economic impact of filming in the state to $300 million for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, said Michael Chapaloney, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Film Office.

Location has become less important due to the use of digital effects, so quality stages and economic incentives are a bigger draw for filmmakers today, Pinkenson said.

The Delaware County and Norristown studios may lure production work from Los Angeles, New York and Canada. Sony Pictures and Warner Bros. have already expressed an interest in using Sun Center Studios, according to Rotwitt.


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