USA - Philadelphia
Written by Nell McShane Wulfhart
From 12 Monkeys to Witness to After Earth, the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ has been the setting for a slew of successful films – though rarely the carefree romantic comedy. The city, like the films it appears in, can be rough around the edges, but getting to know it is ultimately rewarding.
A brisk run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fists pumping in the air, is a rite of passage for the Philadelphia tourist. Rocky Balboa, after all, is a hero here – a working-class guy in a working-class city who made it big. When Sylvester Stallone came to Philadelphia to shoot the third film in the series, he commissioned a larger-than-life bronze statue of his character, which now sits at the bottom of the museum steps as a testament to the city’s best-known celluloid appearance and one of its most loved landmarks. (Fun fact: the Steadicam, first used in Rocky, was invented in Philadelphia by Garrett Brown.)
Philadelphia doesn’t lend itself to movies about the very rich. It’s a city less glossy than gritty, where big chain stores are still outnumbered by independent businesses, and where an artist can rent a studio for a couple of hundred dollars a month. It doesn’t appear to be – or care to become – a city where only the wealthy seem to exist, as in so many of the films that come out of Hollywood. Filming a movie here automatically takes it out of the ‘aspirational’ genre – no shiny-haired Jennifer Anistons working as art curators – and puts it into the ‘realistic’ category, sometimes even with a dash of crazy – think a wild-eyed Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys. A character in a Philadelphia movie, like Bradley Cooper’s Eagles-jersey-wearing Pat in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, eats cheesesteaks much more often than he eats steak.
But it’s this kind of character that fits right in in Philadelphia, where the underdog is king. Trading Places, a classic comedy from 1983, highlights this too, with Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine character first appearing onscreen as a homeless man who eventually switches places with Dan Aykroyd's supercilious snob. Pretending to be a Vietnam veteran, Murphy wheels himself into Rittenhouse Square, the city’s most upscale park, surrounded on all four sides by posh restaurants. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most Philadelphians, instinctively and by feelings of economic comradeship, would feel more kinship with Murphy than Aykroyd. (Rittenhouse Square, thankfully, is free and open to all, and a picnic on its grass in the summer beats a meal at one of the restaurants surrounding it hands down.)
Philadelphia is a city that celebrates the loser. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, an irreverent television show about four people who work in an Irish bar, is in the working-class tradition of Rocky – the characters live in small apartments, are perennially short of cash, and have aspirational dreams far beyond their capabilities. Sneaky and delusional, the characters are still sympathetic, winning laughs from an audience who can recognise courage and determination as locally bred characteristics.
The city’s doing its best to draw more moviemakers east. “Philadelphia played an integral part in the early history of the motion picture industry in the early 1900s, but the city and surrounding counties have seen a significant boom in activity over the past six years,” says Adam Rotwitt, senior vice president of Sun Center Studios. He adds: “This exciting growth of the local film industry is largely due [to] the introduction of Pennsylvania's very successful Film Tax Credit programme that has helped stimulate over a billion dollars of investment in film and television production.”
One director in particular has played a big role in growing the city’s reputation as a movie location. M. Night Shyamalan might be the best thing to happen to Philadelphia filmmaking since…well, ever. Raised in a Philadelphia suburb, Shyamalan has set more than a few of his films in or around the city: The Village, Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense, to name just a few. His newest film, Labor of Love, will also be set in Philadelphia and is set to star Bruce Willis.
Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, can identify several reasons why filmmakers choose this city over others. “We have consistently had the support of government, which makes the entire process of filming on our streets doable, and we even offer the fee-free support of two Philadelphia police officers per day per production. We've done a great job of retaining our historical architecture, and you can get to quaint villages, countryside, and small industrial towns in less time than it takes to get from the east side to the west side in New York City. And, as the fourth largest city in the US, we have all the resources and manpower that productions need at a lower cost than NYC. In addition, Pennsylvania offers one of the best film tax credit programmes in the nation, which is the industry’s linchpin for location decisions.”
The state’s film tax credit programme currently offers tax credits of 25% of production expenses if more than 60% of a production’s total budget is spent in Pennsylvania – a significant incentive to locate a production in Philadelphia. According to Rotwitt, this programme has helped stimulate over a billion dollars of investment in film and television production.
An added inducement is the additional 5% rebate offered by qualified production studios. Sun Center Studios, based in nearby Aston, is the first such studio in Pennsylvania, and it’s been doing booming business since it opened in 2011. Sun Center’s first project was After Earth (directed by Shyamalan and starring another Philly native, Will Smith, who as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air left his rough-edged hometown for swankier Beverly Hills). Sun Center’s also been the base for 2013’s Paranoia (with Liam Hemsworth and Harrison Ford) and Franny (starring Richard Gere and Dakota Fanning), scheduled for release this year. With projects like this, Sun Center’s efforts to position the city as ‘Hollywood East’ don’t seem so far-fetched.
As Philadelphia continues to draw more and more filmmakers, it will draw more and more film fans. Already, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office runs tours of the top sites from locally shot films, playing clips from the films on the tour bus as ‘trailers’ for the sites themselves (moviesitestour.com). While Philadelphia doesn’t yet have its own Walk of Fame or Hollywood sign, the city’s appeal to cinema buffs (and filmmakers) might – one day – eclipse even the Rocky statue.
It’s impossible to visit Philadelphia without bumping into history at every corner. The city played a prominent role in the founding of the nation, and it’s home to some of the country’s most important landmarks: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Franklin Court (Benjamin Franklin’s former home). A walk around the Old City neighbourhood takes in all these and more – and it’s not unusual to see a few people dressed as colonists wandering the streets. One of the city’s most unusual events is the Mummers Parade, held every New Year’s Day since the 1800s. Clubs of musicians and dancers prepare for months to create the most elaborate, colourful, and occasionally bizarre costumes possible (feathers and glitter play a big part); then they strut down Broad Street cheered on by crowds of locals.
Fabric Workshop and Museum
Philly’s got more than its fair share of world-class art museums, but the off-the-radar Fabric Museum deserves a visit for its unusual, stimulating exhibits; colourful permanent collection; and three floors of gallery space. Plus, admission is just US$3.
1214 Arch St. +215-561-8888
Artisan Boulanger PATISSIER
A breakfast sandwich at this South Philly bakery is a beautiful combination of delicate – a textbook flaky croissant – and indulgent mouth-watering ingredients. Owners Amanda and Andre produce an array of delectable pastries daily, as well as good coffee. This is the place for breakfast in the neighbourhood.
1218 Mifflin St. +215-271-4688
The Library Bar
The effusive Pablo ‘Papi’ Hurtado is the master mixologist at the Rittenhouse Hotel’s Library Bar, a cosy hideaway that’s the perfect place for a post-dinner tête-à-tête. Papi’s dynamite menu of hand-crafted beverages – the Sage Pineapple in particular – is one of the best in town (and the bar snacks are top-notch, too).
Rittenhouse Hotel, 210 West Rittenhouse Square.
+215 546 9000
Joseph Fox Books
This tiny independent bookshop on Sansom Street has remained in business since 1951, thanks to its knowledgeable staff who seem to have read every book in the place and are always happy to make a recommendation. The perfect antidote to soulless online shopping.
1724 Sansom St. +215 563 4184
Distance: 10,892 km
Flight Time: 13 hour, 50 minutes
Frequency: Daily Flights