She’s as dynamic as she is down-to-earth, a perfect blend of energy and organization. And for more than 23 years, SHARON PINKENSON’S nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic has worked in perfect harmony with her eyes-on-the-prize vision for Philadelphia to become a movie metropolis.
As Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office (GPFO), Sharon Pinkenson has become the face, and the name, behind Philadelphia’s now-sturdy reputation as a “movie city.”
From 1993’s groundbreaking AIDS drama, Philadelphia, to M. Night Shyamalan’s blockbuster, The Sixth Sense to Silver Linings Playbook (based on the novel by former South Jersey high school teacher Matthew Quick), Pinkenson’s played the leading role as Philadelphia’s film industry power-player.
And while many will rightly credit Pinkenson for driving the more than $4 billion impact the GPFO has had on the region since she took over the film commissioner’s job in 1992, she shares the credit with the city itself, and its many undeniable (and sellable) charms.
“It’s a great city with this incredible architecture,” the 60-something-year-old Pinkenson says. “You drive 20 minutes and you’re surrounded by rolling countryside. We’ve got tremendous resources and tremendous versatility—and that’s attractive to potential filmmakers.”
Pinkenson has become synonymous with her role as head of the GFPO, and is known as one of the region’s most ardent cheerleaders.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I love Philadelphia,” said she recently. “I think that comes through.” Indeed. Her passion—as much as her innate business talent—is what enabled Pinkenson to successfully elevate the GPFO from a little-known permit department to one of the most respected film commissions in the industry. She’s also cemented Philadelphia’s reputation as one of the best media production centers in the U.S.—for everything from movies to TV shows to video production—while helping boost the city’s morale in the process.
“It’s been a wonderful journey,” Pinkenson says. “Every day is different.”
Pinkenson’s decades-long career has been as diverse as it’s been successful. Ultimately, she says, her role at the GPFO can be traced back to her childhood, where she grew up in the clothing business, the granddaughter of a men’s neckwear manufacturer.
“I was selling Girl Scout cookies at my grandfather’s business,” Pinkenson recalled, adding that she also learned how to sew and make patterns as a youngster. A graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls and Temple University, she began her career as a dental hygienist before opening a successful Center City clothing boutique, Plage Tahiti, in the late 1970s, and also designing the clothing line.
Then the AIDS crisis hit in the mid-1980s, decimating the fashion industry. “It was the most depressing thing you can imagine; so many friends started getting sick,” Pinkenson recalled. “I thought, ‘I gotta get out; this is too much to bear.’” A fashion photographer friend recruited her as a stylist for a retail photo shoot. Describing the role as “window dressing humans,” Pinkenson said she knew she could “do that with my eyes closed.”
Before long, the then-single mom had segued into an eight-year career as a wardrobe stylist in the advertising and movie industry, working on an array of small-budget films that included Mannequin II and Renegade.
Always enthralled with movies and filmmaking, Pinkenson was well-aware that the GPFO—initially established in 1985 as part of the Philadelphia City Government—was virtually stagnant at the start of then-Mayor Ed Rendell’s first term in 1992. Several Rendell supporters, Pinkenson among them, urged Rendell to focus on reviving it to drive revenue into the city. Rendell, in turn, told Pinkenson she could fill the vacant film commissioner role for a salary of one dollar a year, plus health insurance. Pinkenson said she’d commit to 60 days to raise money to get the office going; if it didn’t happen, she’d leave for a paying job.
On the 64th day, Pinkenson found funders to keep the office open for half a year, as well as pay her retro-actively. She immediately got to work retooling its operations. Film production in Philadelphia had generated about $2.1 million for the local economy in 1991; a year later, under Pinkenson’s leadership, it jumped to $22 million. (Her first year in leading the GPFO brought both Philadelphia and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence to the city, the latter of which used the Academy of Music for an opera scene.)
Since then, an array of high-profile movies have been filmed—in part or in their entirety—in the City of Brotherly Love or in its surrounding communities. Some of the bigger hits include: the Brad Pitt-Bruce Willis futuristic thriller 12 Monkeys; the feel-good/true-life story of short-term Eagle Vince Papale Invincible; In Her Shoes; National Treasure and last year’s Creed, which earned Sylvester Stallone his first Academy Award acting nomination since the original Rocky.
“There’s so much for this city to be proud of,” Pinkenson said. “All these films have brought so much civic pride, and that’s something that money can’t buy.”
Philadelphia, she says, has a lot of pluses when it comes to attracting film-makers, including the fact it can double for Washington, DC and New York City.
“We’re very versatile in that way,” she says, adding that the Film Office’s ultimate role is “all about economic development.”
“I don’t care how they show Philadelphia, but we want them here,” she said. “We’re all about jobs and building the economy. Sometimes we get lucky and we make art, too.”
Having Philadelphia (or its surrounding counties, four of which are also served by the GPFO) showcased in a film not only attracts new businesses, but also impacts tourism, Pinkenson says, noting “they call the Art Museum stairs the ‘Rocky steps’ wherever you go in in the world.”
Her personal favorite? Philadelphia—and not just because of its title: “We changed the world with that one,” she says.
The GPFO is a busy place with clear (and ambitious) goals: to grow the local film and video industry in every way possible; to attract everything from feature films to TV commercials, music videos and industrial films to the region; and to provide producers with free assistance with everything from permits to labor and locations.
“We act as the liaison between the production and the local community and government, cutting through red tape as we go,” Pinkenson said.
The GPFO’s biggest challenge as of late, she says, has to do with budget constraints. Last year’s state budget staredown resulted in a nail-biter in both Philadelphia and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s two filmmaking hubs.
Philly apparently lost a planned ABC drama series and a film set to star Josh Brolin, while $60 million in annual state film tax-credit money was held hostage on the political front. About 40 states in the U.S. offer tax credits as incentives for film projects; Pennsylvania’s has been capped at $60 million for years. In comparison, New York’s is $420 million and Georgia has uncapped tax credits.
As a result, Philly has only a few smaller film projects in the works presently, but Pinkenson says that will change: “We’re turning business away, and that’s unfortunate, but I’m a ‘glass-half-full’ person. There’s nothing to complain about. We’re on the map and we’re staying there.”