Each week, 14 high school teens hop the bus or find rides to the Steeltown Entertainment Project on the South Side to work on the production of their very own reality TV show—where they are the stars.
It’s a unique opportunity, to be sure, a chance to not just dabble in but execute a professional production for broadcast. Steeltown’s Youth and Media Program is making it happen through a pipeline of programming. The end goal is the creation of a vibrant and sustainable workforce of artists in the region ready to work in the growing entertainment and media industry.
And all in Pittsburgh.
It all started seven years ago with “Take a Shot at Changing the World,” a contest that awards prize money and exposure to outstanding high school filmmakers. The success of the contest—the first winner was a video about Jonas Salk and the development of the polio vaccine that went on to widespread acclaim—has been instrumental in identifying local talent.
“We realized that what we needed was a comprehensive program (beyond the contest),” explains Carl Kurlander, the driving force behind Steeltown Entertainment whose Hollywood portfolio and connections are making it all happen.
“These kids are growing up in the digital world,” he says. “They’re natural content creators. We began by teaching kids from tough backgrounds and found them to be responsive in ways we never imagined.”
With the help of the Grable Foundation’s Remake Learning Initiative and the Pittsburgh Foundation, Steeltown has rolled out two more programs that offer training opportunities for young, aspiring filmmakers.
Digital Concierge offers schools a one-time consultation service; Steeltown teaching artists go into the schools and instruct teachers on the technical aspects of running in-school film projects. Steeltown partner schools include: Allderdice, Brashear, CAPA, Carrick, King, Montour, Obama, Perry, Penn Hills, Propel, Seneca Valley, Urban Pathways and YMCA Lighthouse Program at Westinghouse.
The contest and in-school programs assist in identifying students who are encouraged to take it to the next level with Teen Film Crew. Teen Film Crew is a competitive, serious commitment where crew members are paid to attend weekly classes and work on productions.
Teen Film Crew started out two years ago in response to nonprofits that expressed interest in having documentary-style videos of their organizations, explains Kurlander. The first project spotlighted Amachi, a nonprofit which offers assistance to children of incarcerated parents.
“This is the first of what we believe will be a pioneering model of bringing together kids from all over Pittsburgh and allowing them to be producers on real videos for real clients in need of visibility,” says Kurlander.
Success has raised the bar with the addition of a professional reality-style TV show. The working title is—as of this week—“The Reel Teens.” The Saturday morning program will tell the story of the maker movement in Pittsburgh as seen through their eyes. It will air on Fox Network this spring.
Still in the early stages, students have hatched plans to crisscross the city and film at several locations. Last week they worked with Steve Tolin at his special effects studio, Tolin FX. Another stop will be the TechShop in Bakery Square.
“The kids are working with mentors whose goal is to figure out how to guide them without stepping on their toes,” says Kurlander. “They will be out exploring the maker world of Pittsburgh. It’s a show where the making of the show will become the real show.”
It’s also a tall order, putting kids in charge of a professional production, says Brett Wormsley, director of the Youth and Media Program who orchestrates the nuts and bolts of the operation.
“Carl has huge resources to pull from,” he says. “He’s brought people in, big names in the business, that have given the kids a chance to learn from people (working in media) on a daily basis.”
The ultimate goal is to open the eyes of students and parents to the fact that that this is a viable career path, says Wormsley.
“We tell the parents this isn’t just club. This is a life choice,” he says. “The film industry is always going to be here in Pittsburgh. They may not direct a TV show, but they can find a job and build a career here in this field.”
Jazmin Navarro exemplifies this point. Now 21, she joined Teen Film Crew in its inaugural year when she was a senior at Westinghouse.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, near Hollywood, her parents moved the family to Pittsburgh several years ago. The aspiring cosmetologist says she saw her dreams fading—that is, until she found Steeltown.
Steeltown taught her the basics in filming, audio, editing and lighting, but it was their recognition of her talent as a beauty and horror makeup artist that jumpstarted her career. She met Steve Tolin who hired her on the spot as an independent contractor.
In addition to TolinFX, she remains active as a mentor with Teen Film Crew. “I want to show other kids that they can follow their dreams,” she says. “I am doing what I want to do.”
Montour senior Georgia Fowkes, 18, agrees. She will attend Point Park this fall.
“Steeltown means opportunity, but not in a cheesy way,” she says. “I’m producing, directing, working with lighting and sound. I’m gaining experience—real world skills that I can use as a resume builder.”
This article is part of the Remake Learning initiative, a multimedia partnership between NEXTpittsburgh and WQED Multimedia, Pittsburgh Magazine and WESA. Check out all the stories on Learning Innovation in Pittsburgh.