To bring film and TV back to Philly, crew workers want own union local

Stephen Breslin (left) and Jozef Jozefowski are leading the push for a locally based union branch. “This is millions and millions of dollars being lost,” Breslin said of the lack of film work in Philadelphia.

As film and television projects have disappeared from the Philadelphia region this year, area crew workers are largely blaming the self-interests of a New York union and want to start a Southeastern Pennsylvania branch to revive the industry here.

The newly formed Coalition of Philly Crew is made up of about 50 nonunion technical workers who say they have been denied membership in the Queens-based local of a powerful union that supplies labor for motion picture and TV productions.

The high wages the New York local charges for work done in Philadelphia, the coalition contends, have contributed to the loss of lucrative projects in recent years - many of which have gone instead to lower-cost Pittsburgh.

The coalition argues that a Philadelphia-based union branch could negotiate rates more attractive to producers and restore the region's reputation as a marquee location.

"I'm going to do whatever I can to make sure we get representation and make sure Philadelphia is production-friendly again," said Stephen Breslin, 34, a Temple University graduate who is leading the effort with Jozef Jozefowski, 27, a fellow Temple alum and nonunion crew worker.

Philadelphia has had no major TV or film projects since 2015 brought Kevin Hart: What Now? and Split, an M. Night Shyamalan thriller, to the area, according to state records.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is turning down work.

"This is millions and millions of dollars being lost," Breslin said.

Lighting and set electricians, sound specialists, production and wardrobe designers, many with four-year college degrees, have been unable to build careers in one of the biggest U.S. metropolitan centers, and are forced to leave town if they hope to find good work, according to coalition leaders.

A reason, they say, is that Local 52 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees represents crew workers in both New York and Philadelphia. Because many members are New Yorkers, the union is thought to be reluctant to promote Philadelphia to producers for fear of yielding work, the coalition leaders say.

"We feel they do not have the best interests of Philadelphia in mind at all," said Breslin, a camera operator and lighting specialist who graduated from West Chester East High School, lives in Fishtown, and is married, with a baby at home.

Said Jozefowski, "The fact that I want to be in a union, and I can't, just drives me crazy."

Joining Local 52 has been impossible, both men say. Nonmember crew workers can't be hired for major film or TV shoots in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

A Philadelphia IATSE branch, they say, would be more inclined to negotiate lower wage rates and other terms so the region could better compete with Pittsburgh, whose lower cost of living has made it an industry boomtown.

In recent years, Pittsburgh IATSE Studio Mechanics Local 489 has charged $25 to $30 an hour for crew work - below the $30 to $35 in Philadelphia and other regions governed by Local 52, according to wage-scale documents available online.

Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, said she supports the push for a new local.

"I'm all for it," she said. "If that's going to get us to the end game, then let's go. Let's give it a try."

Pinkenson has been pummeled with criticism over the lack of work in a city brimming with development and reinvestment.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, "We're filming our second season of Outsiders," by Sony Pictures, said Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. "We are in the first season of a show for Netflix called Mind Hunter, directed by the acclaimed David Fincher, and Downward Dog, an ABC series."

Last Flag Flying, a film starring Steve Carell and directed by Richard Linklater, is to begin shooting in November, Keezer said.

Pinkenson said wages aren't the only problem in the Philadelphia market.

"I hear all the time from producers who are very dissatisfied with the negotiating style and the tactics of the New York union," she said. "They tell me that they won't shoot in Philadelphia because of it."

Top IATSE officials in New York declined to comment this week.

Breslin said he reached out to IATSE International president Matthew Loeb last month about forming a new local. The pair never spoke, but Breslin connected with Dan Mahoney, assistant department director of motion picture and television production.

"The chances of you getting a local in Philadelphia are slim to none," Breslin said Mahoney told him.

Mahoney said he would "make some phone calls," Breslin said.

Mahoney did not return several messages seeking comment this week.

Local 52 president John R. Ford did not respond to a request for comment. John K. Fundus, the vice president, deferred to Ford when reached by phone Monday.

Although he has spent years in the industry, Breslin said, he has been summoned only once by IATSE for a major film project, Split. He did so on a three-day "permit contract" with Local 52 to work at Sun Center Studios in Chester Township.

For about six years, Breslin said, he has been rebuffed in attempts to join IATSE. Consequently, he can work only on small TV commercials and low-budget films. Several times he was told the union wasn't accepting applications or membership was frozen, he said.

Philadelphia crew workers have been covered by the New York local since 1995, when film jobs were abundant. That brought them higher New York wages for work in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

But to blame IATSE now for the lack of work seems misguided, said David Haddad, longtime owner of a studio equipment rental company in Pittsburgh and a former president of the Pennsylvania Film Industry Association.

"I've done 3,200 movies and television shows in the last 30 years," he said. "The reason they're not filming in Philadelphia has nothing to do with the union."

Many scripts without distinct geographic elements - known in the industry as "Anywhere USA Films" - are being shot in low-cost places like Georgia, home to a significant tax-credit program.

Blaming Local 52 is like "drinking the Kool-Aid" and an "unfair characterization of the situation," Haddad said.

"The only reason no one's filming in Philadelphia is there hasn't been a script that works."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

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