It is nearly a year since Jeffrey Rotwitt was forced out of his day job at the Philadelphia law firm Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel L.L.P. after The Inquirer reported his personal interest in the Family Court construction proposal he was bargaining for the state.
His 35-year law-firm career may be done. But Rotwitt has put his talents as a deal-maker with multipartisan political, business, finance, and labor ties to work as a movie-industry mogul-in-training at Sun Center Studios, the 33-acre film studio/tourist destination/corporate party campus he's building between an old factory zone and a wooded branch of Chester Creek, off I-95.
Rotwitt left Obermayer just as his $85 million plan to convert Sunoco's old recreation center, with its Grand Hotel ballroom and league-sized gym, into movie soundstages, meeting rooms, shops, and theater-and-wedding venues, was coming together. The development is fueled by a banquet-menu financial package of taxpayer subsidy, Hollywood investor Hal Katersky's Pacifica Ventures, bank loans, Carpenters' Union pension investment, and tax breaks from the cash-strapped Chester Upland School District and other local governments.
In April, Sun Center was host to a Pennsylvania Lottery commercial. Next, Rotwitt wants to land a feature film, which he says will let him double his staff of 12, host and feed hundreds of movie pros, and gain the Hollywood cachet to make Sun Studios a stop in the Center City-Brandywine Valley-Dutch Country tourist circuit. At, say, $19 a head, a QVC- or Camden Aquarium-style crowd of a few hundred thousand visitors a year, plus filming, feeding, hotel and event income, starts to look like real cash flow.
Movies, in suburban Chester? Rotwitt says "top people" from Sony Pictures, Comcast's NBC Universal, the group headed by Indiana Jones and Bourne Identity producer Frank Marshall, and local-hero director M. Night Shyamalan, among others, have motored over the gritty Highland Avenue exit from I-95 to talk about making a picture here. Hotel and restaurant chains, New York, London, and L.A. investors have called on him.
One at a time, Rotwitt says he tells the movie men. He'll cut a deal "any day now." Maybe next week.
Rotwitt's Hollywood disease has infected the state's top officials.
As Pennsylvania cuts subsidies to Philadelphia schools and other popular programs, and Republican governors from New Jersey to Michigan have cut film subsidies as if to punish left-leaning actors and directors, Rotwitt inspired Delaware County Sen. Dominic Pileggi and other GOP lawmakers to prevail on Gov. Corbett to add $60 million in filmmaker tax credits to his budget, over opposition from allies of State House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson).
The soundstage may be ready, but other interiors are still vacant. Rotwitt says his group has visited movie destinations (Universal Studios and Warner Bros., the Cinematheque in Paris, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens) for ideas: "What journalists call 'plagiarism,' business calls 'best practices,' " Rotwitt says. He's shopping actress Debbie Reynolds' Hollywood collection of film artifacts to display with holograms and bursts of recorded dialogue to make them interesting.
Rotwitt says he's still deciding between National Constitution Center designer Ralph Appelbaum's "Disney-style" wander-at-will approach, and National Jewish Museum of Philadelphia designer Patrick Gallagher's "linear" get-'em-through pacing. Philadelphia shopping-center mogul Ron Rubin recommended Gallagher, and Rotwitt says: "I figure if all my Jewish friends hired an Irish Catholic guy, he must be good."
Rotwitt's talking to Marriott and Ramada, Vegas-type restaurant chains, a "4-D theater." Four dimensions? "You have an earthquake, it vibrates. Bambi sneezes, you have droplets," Rotwitt explained.
He's blown up pictures of Center City's demolished Roman-temple Mastbaum Theater to inspire. He plans tables and shops on indoor Bacall Street and Bogart Street walks, to draw tourists by day and "DuPont and AstraZeneca at night." Though he worries kids might be forgetting the Bogarts and Bacalls: "People's attention span is so short today! You really have to grab them."
Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or JoeD@phillynews.com.