This article was originally published in March of 2010.
Philadelphia has long been a destination for filmmakers. The gritty exteriors, the iconic landmarks and the everyday people of the city that often find their way into productions make for great location shooting.
But at Philadelphia Soundstages, the goal is to do more, to turn the city into a place where not only homegrown filmmaking talent, but productions from all over, have a facility to accommodate modest budgets. And now, as most states, including Pennsylvania, have passed some sort of tax incentives for the film business, it makes Philly as likely as any other major city to become a filmmaking center.
The studio, founded by real estate developer and businessman David Sabag, is in a former warehouse that Sabag found lying dormant and in foreclosure on North 5th Street, but saw something in to spark his business interests.
Sabag has international connections, but first and foremost he believes in promoting Philadelphia. He also has a knack for finding people with complimentary talents. As the visionary, but having never been in the film industry, being surrounded by people with backgrounds in the business was key.
Enter Thomas Ashley, CEO of Invincible Pictures and Director at Philadelphia Soundstages, and Scott Kuhn, Director of Corporate Development and Government Affairs. Ashley is the filmmaker of the group operating out of the studio, and he speaks the language to other filmmakers and brings in projects with his industry connections. As Kuhn says, he “does the actual work.”
Kuhn, a banker by trade, has experience as a producer, a financial background, and his expertise in government affairs is crucial in getting deals done at the city and state level.
Sabag and Kuhn were professional associates, and Kuhn remembers how Sabag approached him with his idea of turning the warehouse into a soundstage.
“He and I were talking and he said, ‘you know, I think we got a great facility here.’ He said, ‘I think we have an opportunity here,’ and then brought in an architect out from L.A. We got some specs drawn up for our sound rooms, built the buffer walls and everything, and we realized it was pretty simple.”
Kuhn calls Sabag a “grass roots kind of guy,” and somebody who is always looking for a new venture, so he was definitely up for the challenge of starting a film studio in Philadelphia.
“He wanted to get into the film industry because he felt like Philly is such a great venue,” Kuhn said. “And with Tom’s knowledge, and his abilities, we all felt like this could be a good opportunity.”
The studio offers several amenities, including three bay doors for loading and unloading, and since it is a former warehouse, trucks can pull inside completely with the doors shut. On the production side, Ashley and his partner Kevin Glickman, who has an extensive background in the music industry, make sure clients have a full range of services, down to DVD and CD authoring.
“Tom brings the knowledge of the industry, the technical knowledge of the industry, producing film and digital as well as distribution,” Kuhn said. “Because of them we can offer the production services, all the equipment, all the talent and finishing services.”
Philadelphia Soundstages works because of the approach taken with the business. Kuhn sees the studio avoiding the pitfalls that other facilities fall into. There is a balance between the three elements at work in the film industry: the overall vision for the studio, the actual production work, and the financial aspect, which is where many studios fail.
“It’s literally 33/33/33,” Kuhn said. “You look at other studios, and usually in the film industry there are always great ideas that have all the motivation in the world—‘I got some money,’ but they don’t have a realistic business approach. That’s why I think we’re unique, because our projects are going to be affordable but still have all full services needed. We want to do everything for everybody, but we don’t need to. As long as we’re booked every week I’m happy.”
The studio caters to smaller budgeted projects, but ESPN2, MTV, and Oprah Winfrey’s network, OWN, have all used the facility. Bradley Cooper, recently of “The Hangover,” came down to shoot. It also features a high end recording studio, and even the unfinished space is put to good use as some bands use the industrial backdrop in their music videos.
Kuhn, who has an astonishing knowledge of Pennsylvania state film tax credit law, looked at some of the other big budget studio projects that sprang up around the state and why they didn’t make it. Some were supposedly $60 million to $80 million projects, looking for massive tax credits. With the entire stake going into a few big budgeted projects, they were setting themselves up for failure.
“None of them ever happened, because they were just too big. In my opinion you want to build something that you can actually cash flow. So for us we started small; we are the only ones to do that slowly,” he said.
There are plans to expand the existing studio, to which Kuhn says will bring even more benefits to filmmakers. But the expansion will be done the right way. Plans are to build a 150,000 square foot studio which will be able to accommodate even larger projects, all the while keeping the original studio free for smaller budgeted productions.
“Right next to us, contiguous to the property…was the property, a flat lot three times the size of our property. The city has sold us that lot for cost, basically. That space has been sitting there, basically an opportunity for us for years.”
Kuhn helped Sabag and Ashley set up a meeting with several state and city officials, including the governor, and the expansion plans will bring an entirely new dimension to the facility.
“We all sat in a room and hashed this out to start a plan to build out a brand-new theatrical quality feature film-capable studio. So we’re going to build a big box; we’ll have three studios in there. We’re going to keep the existing studio for the smaller productions and the new building will be a full blown, top-of-the-line project,” he said.
As the studio continues to book jobs, and the new expansion project is on the horizon, Philadelphia Soundstages appears to be doing it the right way. The line between art and commerce can have a successful outcome if it’s done by people who actually care about what’s happening. Sabag, Ashley and Kuhn see this as just the beginning for filmmaking in the City of Brotherly Love.
“We’re trying to jump on the bandwagon—now, we’ll actually create the bandwagon.”
For more information, including how to contact Philadelphia Soundstages, go to http://www.invinciblepictures.com/studio/