Ellen Gray: Tax credit, Philly hospitality draw TV-show sets

"Do No Harm" actors Steven Pasquale (who plays Jason Cole and Ian Price) and Alana de la Garza (Lena Solis) break from shooting near the Schuylkill.
"Do No Harm" actors Steven Pasquale (who plays Jason Cole and Ian Price) and Alana de la Garza (Lena Solis) break from shooting near the Schuylkill.
Posted: October 25, 2012

THEY'VE GONE a little bit Hollywood this fall over at school-district headquarters.

Banners for "Independence Memorial Hospital" hang high above the 440 N. Broad St. lobby, and the fifth floor's a warren of operating and waiting rooms, doctor's suites with views of the Ben Franklin Bridge in the distance and even a room with a genuine-looking (but hollow) MRI machine.

It's all part of the setting for an NBC drama "Do No Harm" that's leasing space the district once used for book storage and filming there a few days every episode.

The fictional hospital, where last week I saw actors, crew and two of the show's technical advisers choreographing the "surgery" on a young woman's carotid artery, is larger than it looks at first: It shares its modern exterior with the Convention Center down the street and the facilities of the old Northeastern Hospital - where Temple has some clinics and offices - for other scenes.

What's really big, though, is that it's all being filmed in and around Philadelphia.

USA Network's Sigourney Weaver series "Political Animals" shot its Washington, D.C.-set show here earlier this year, and "Do No Harm," scheduled for midseason, is setting its story of a neurosurgeon (Steven Pasquale) at war with his alternate personality against a Philly backdrop. (Phylicia Rashad plays his boss.)

It's been eight years since CBS shut off the meter on "Hack," the drama starring Philadelphia's David Morse as a disgraced cop-turned-cabdriver that was the first network TV show filmed entirely in and around Philadelphia.

We've had plenty of movies since then, and not a few "reality" shows - "Parking Wars," anyone? - but nothing on the scale of "Hack."

So how did two dramas find their way to Philadelphia in 2012?

My first thought was that Comcast, the cable behemoth that now owns both NBC and USA, had put in a good word for its hometown.

No way, insisted NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt in an interview this summer.

"Those guys are the most un-Hollywood guys on the planet. They wouldn't care if you were shooting in Rancho Cucamonga."

Not that filming in Comcast's backyard doesn't have perks.

The table read for the "Do No Harm" pilot last winter took place in the Comcast tower, said NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke.

"We had an incredible view," recalled Salke, who, along with Greenblatt, attended the actors' first reading of the pilot script.

"It was pouring rain, with like half the tops of buildings closed up. It kind of looked like you were up in the clouds," she said. And like many a tourist, she was impressed by the lobby-level big-screen show. "I took a movie of it and sent it around."

Still, it wasn't Comcast that brought the show here.

Instead, NBC did what everyone in the industry's doing right now: It followed the tax incentives.

"For the last couple of years, Philadelphia has been mentioned in the same sentence as New York and North Carolina and Vancouver and Toronto as viable places for us to shoot because of the tax breaks and rebates for production," said Salke, who also likes the city because "we haven't seen it on a million shows."

Tax credits, which can't be claimed till after the money's spent and often get sold to other companies to help a production's bottom line, don't sound very sexy. And most of us, accustomed to seeing film crews moving in and out of town, probably didn't realize that a seemingly small change in Pennsylvania's tax credit could mean even bigger bucks for the local economy.

The change, which came "just this last year," said Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, was that productions can now obtain not just a commitment for the current year, but a conditional commitment for the three years that follow.

"And with series work, it's critical" that networks and studios be able to plan for multiple seasons.

The payoff: "Do No Harm," now about halfway through its 13-episode initial order, is expected to pump about $7 million per episode into the local economy, Pinkenson said. "And that, by the way, is probably a low estimate."

There's the money the school district's making on rent - Pinkenson wouldn't say how much but did say negotiations were "complicated" - as well as the leasing for other facilities.

There's food, there's transportation, there's lodging, and there's even dry cleaning. As well as a cast that's paying wage taxes and is likely to drop money in local restaurants and buy tickets to plays. Not to mention Eagles games.

And that includes extras - hired through local Heery Casting. The show's employing 125-150 people a day, all but about 10 of whom live here.

Most of the show's regulars are here, either in apartments or hotels, until at least January.

"And that's one of the things that happens with TV that doesn't happen with film," Pinkenson said.

One new local is the show's star.

Pasquale, a Hershey, Pa., native who usually lives in New York, has been in Philadelphia since August. After a week of 16-hour days - he's not just the lead, he's essentially playing two characters - "I sleep the day away on Saturdays," he said.

"But on Sundays, I take a walk down to Old City and hit the Old City Coffee - my favorite coffee shop in Philly - and watch some football at, you know, the local pub. I've been sampling all of the incredible food in the Rittenhouse [Square] neighborhood. It's been great. We love Philly."

A theater actor who took a turn toward comedy on FX's "Rescue Me" as firefighter Sean Garrity (a character who wasn't exactly brain-surgeon material), Pasquale has noticed that "Philly has a strange percentage, a higher percentage than other cities" of "Rescue Me" fans.

"In any other city, maybe it's once a day or a few times a week somebody will say, 'Hey, Garrity.' But in Philly, it's multiple times, every day . . . which is great."

"Do No Harm" does have its commuters, including creator David Schulner, who lives and writes on the West Coast and flies in periodically. (In addition, the writers are on set when an episode they've written is in production.)

So which came first, Philly or the tax credit?

"When you're setting down to write your dream show, you know, tax credit never enters your mind. Until you're producing it," Schulner said. "This is an updated 'Jekyll and Hyde.' And what I wanted was to pay homage to Victorian London. I wanted cobblestone streets and I wanted foggy streetlights and I wanted old brownstones and I wanted a real classic look that I could really juxtapose with the most modern, state-of-the-art hospital," he said.

"And so Boston, New York, Philadelphia - those are the settings I had in mind. And when we got up to production, it was Nan [Bernstein, the show's line producer, who'd also worked on "Hack" and later in Texas on "Friday Night Lights"] who said we should go to Philly. And she said, 'No. 1, the tax credit. No. 2, it's not as crowded as New York. In New York, nobody wants you to shoot on their street. In Philadelphia, everybody's thrilled you're shooting on your street."

Rob McElhenney concurs.

The Philly-born star and creator of FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" usually brings the cast to shoot here once a season. They skipped the trip this year in part because his wife and co-star, Kaitlin Olson, gave birth to their second son in April, "but that really bums us out. It's the most fun part of the shooting every year," said McElhenney, who sometimes works the people who come to watch them film into the show.

"Not only is it a beautiful city to shoot in, it's so incredibly accommodating. And the film commission's done such a great job, not only with the tax credit, but with just making the entire environment really easy and great to work with," he said. "Whereas you walk around in L.A. and people just don't want you shooting on their streets."

Contact Ellen Gray at graye@phillynews.com or 215-854-5950. Follow her on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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