Nearly a year after it opened, lawyer-developer Jeff Rotwitt's Sun Center Studios, built from the former Sunoco employee-recreation center on Concord Road just off I-95 and north of Chester City with $50 million from banks, investors, taxpayer financing, plus tax breaks, is frantic with Haddad movie set-up trailers, Sony studio executives, L.A. and New York grips, costume, make-up and special effects pros, caterers and all the other movie-industry workers and paraphernalia supporting Philadelphia native Will Smith, wife and costar Jada Pinkett-Smith, director M. Night Shyamalan, and others supporting their latest sci-fi film, After Earth. (Revised)
"This thing has been a baptism by fire," Rotwitt tells me, laughing. In the three vast studio buildings are shops building spaceships and alien models, a department store's worth of costume changes, Smith's custom-built trailer (banished from New York as too wide for city streets), and boards groaning with warm meat and vegetables for hungry crews, prepared in open kitchens on site.
"They've been here since October. They'll be here til July," at least, says Rotwitt.
The number of out-of-town workers on site has Rotwitt performing a delicate labor role, familiar from his past as a developer or developer's rep on, among other projects, the high-rent Mellon tower, Atlantic City's Ocean One mall, the controversial Family Court building, and other projects: approaching local carpenters, electricians, Teamsters, show technicians and other unions to develop possible apprenticeship programs that would help ensure a permanent Philadelphia movie presence.
That was, after all, part of the justification for state and local government aid to this private-sector project: "If I can develop a pool of experienced (local) workers they don't have to fly guys in or put them up," Rotwitt says. "Our guys can go home to Bridesburg every night."
How's finances? "We are positively-cash-flowing," says Rotwitt, though Hal Katersky's Pacifica Ventures is no longer an investor.
Meanwhile, Rotwitt says he's looking for expansion space. "I have to raise an additional $40 million," for the project's planned new stages, including the studio-tourism center that will help Sun Center pay during any production downtimes, like at night.
He'd also like to add a digital-production center. And maybe a satellite attraction out of state (Atlantic City?). And maybe a longer-term movie tax-credit law that will help studios plan future productions here.
There's other shows filming in the area. USA Networks' Sigourney Weaver-as-a-Hilary Clinton-typeTV series, which has been scouting Philadelphia locations, though that crew wants to get started soon. (I called to confirm they're in town; no response from USA Networks' or Weaver's publicists.)
Who's next at Sun Center? Depends on when Shyamalan and Smith wrap and go. "Hollywood is skeptical of when people say they are going to leave," Rotwitt says. "But sometime in the next 90 days, we'll pick up another project."