Pittsburgh, in 21 Films

Last week I went to see Fences, the film adaptation of August Wilson’s play by the same name. It represents the 1950s-era installment of his Pittsburgh Cycle, a century-long portrait of the African American experience in the 20th century, using the city of Pittsburgh as its platform.

I’ve been on a kick of watching movies set here in my adopted hometown for the past few years. It’s easy to find a list of movies that have been shot here (e.g., Wikipedia or IMDb). The city’s history, architecture, and varied geography make it a good proxy for almost anywhere, real or fictional. (That, and the tax credits.) But I’m particularly partial to films like Fences where Pittsburgh is essentially a character, not just a backdrop or surrogate city.

PGH Scores

After seeing more than 20 movies set in Pittsburgh, I thought it would be fun to rate them based on how central the city is, and then compare them. Note that this is not a quality rating: it’s based on my memory of landmarks, references, and other “easter eggs” that would make any Yinzer smile knowingly.

Of course, being an analytical person armed with a new data set, I wondered how my PGH scores did correlate with film quality. So I looked up the Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and Metacritic ratings. A correlation table for these is shown below (along with year of release, to see if there were any temporal trends):

PGH -0.25 +0.12 -0.26 +0.19
R.Tomatoes +0.92 +0.87 -0.09
Metacritic +0.80 +0.17
IMDb +0.07

The only significant relationships (practically or statistically) seems to be among the quality ratings, which makes sense. But then… while eyeballing the data I noticed a difference between older and newer movies with regard to PGH scores and quality ratings. To visualize this, the plots below show the PGH and Rotten Tomatoes numbers for the movies released before the year 2000 and after 2000:


Before 2000, the correlation is -0.910, but after 2000 it jumps to +0.73. Both quite significant. This suggests that up until the turn of the millennium, Pittsburgh movies that did the home town proud were “guilty pleasure” B-movie types (think Flashdance or Sudden Death), while the Oscar winners and classics either mostly took place outside Pittsburgh or just didn’t give it much screen-time (think The Deer Hunter or Groundhog Day). However, since 2000 Pittsburgh seems to have had a stronger presence in its more acclaimed films (think Wonder Boys, Adventureland, and Fences).

Now, 21 movies barely puts a dent the Pittsburgh Cinema catalog, and it’s possible that my scores were somehow subliminally “pre-informed” by this hypothesis. But I like to think that the shift is real, and that it signals a changing perception about the city, alongside high livability rankings, the influx of New Yorkers, and the recent tech boom.

The List

Okay, you probably didn’t come here for my scatterplots and theories, so here are the films and ratings, beginning with the most recent…

Fences (2016)

PGH: 9 / Rotten Tomatoes: 93% / Metacritic: 79 / IMDb: 7.4
Most movies on this list earned their scores for how they portray a contemporary Pittsburgh, but this one is for its history lessons. Most of the film takes place in a Hill District backyard, looking downward with a view of Gulf Tower in the distance (with other skyscrapers edited out, since they hadn’t been built yet). It’s still not hard to find a cobblestone road lined with streetcar rails like the one on Denzel Washington’s garbage route. Themes of how desegregation and poor urban renewal plans backfired on Black Pittsburgh feel eerily poignant today, as some of these communities are now struggling (and even leaving) despite the city’s current renaissance.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

PGH: 8 / Rotten Tomatoes: 82% / Metacritic: 74 / IMDb: 7.8
Much of this was filmed in the Oak Hill area, where I go to church and have several friends. (In fact, the “popsicle scene” was shot on the front porch of The Corner, a neighborhood center whose logo I designed that’s run by the church.) Other scenes take place in the now-defunct Schenley High School, with its picture-window classrooms and beautiful views of the Cathedral of Learning. All the hilly streets and brick row houses really polish off the feel.

Out of the Furnace (2013)

PGH: 3 / Rotten Tomatoes: 53% / Metacritic: 63 / IMDb: 6.8
Most of this movie actually takes place in underground boxing rings in rural New Jersey. The central characters, though, come from run-down Braddock, a post-industrial suburb of the ‘Burgh that’s struggling to bounce back.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

PGH: 8 / Rotten Tomatoes: 86% / Metacritic: 67 / IMDb: 8
I caught the trailer for this while seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild, and of course everyone in the theatre recognized the Fort Pitt Tunnel and Bridge as Emma Watson glided through to the tune of Bowie’s “Heroes.” Many PGH easter eggs, including a passing reference to the Schenley Park Fruit Loop. If you’re a music lover who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s you’ll find even more to love.

Jack Reacher (2012)

PGH: 7 / Rotten Tomatoes: 62% / Metacritic: 50 / IMDb: 7
Lots of shots of Dahntahn, Bloomfield, and even The Strip in this one. I remember having brunch at Deluca’s one Saturday in late 2011, when I noticed a plaque on my seat that said something about Tom Cruise eating there. When I saw the movie months later, the scene from in my booth is pretty easy to spot out for anyone familiar with “the best breakfast in town.”

The Next Three Days (2011)

PGH: 8 / Rotten Tomatoes: 52% / Metacritic: 52 / IMDb: 7.4
“Pittsburgh’s tough,” says Liam Neeson. “So many bridges and tunnels they can block off. From the time they make the call, the police can have the center of the city sealed tight in 15 minutes.” Boy do we get to see all those bridges and tunnels, and trains, and rivers, and Steelers fans, and… this plot could scarcely take place anywhere else. Personal story: my band had to cancel practice one Sunday because our singer was stuck on the North Side. Turns out the Warhol, Carson, and Clemente bridges were all closed for “some Russell Crowe movie.” The bridges are identical, so they shot three different parts of the same bridge car chase in parallel — which is good for deadlines but bad for traffic.

She’s Out of My League (2010)

PGH: 7 / Rotten Tomatoes: 58% / Metacritic: 46 / IMDb: 6.4
I’m not into raunchy comedies, so the only reason I saw this was for the Pittsburgh Factor. There’s a lot here (although it’s not 100% authentic): a party at The Warhol Museum (which was laughably unlike the parties I’ve been to), a dinner at Market Square (which isn’t actually 5-star dining), a Pens game, the polar bear tunnel at the zoo, and of course the Airport all make an appearance.

Love & Other Drugs (2010)

PGH: 5 / Rotten Tomatoes: 49% / Metacritic: 55 / IMDb: 6.7
I don’t recall any explicit Pittsburgh name-checking (Jake Gyllenhall’s character is a Viagra salesman in “The Ohio Valley”). But Yinzers might recognize a few key hospitals and landmarks in signature neighborhoods like Lawrenceville.

Adventureland (2009)

PGH: 7 / Rotten Tomatoes: 89% / Metacritic: 76 / IMDb: 7.8
Nearly the whole film takes place at Kennywood, Pittsburgh’s 100+ year old amusement park (one of the few on the National Register of Historic Places). It’s a cute summer-job coming-of-age story set in the 1980s, which fully exploits the park’s purposefully-retro not-quite-updated look and feel. Bonus shots include the 16th Street Bridge and a Jack Lambert jersey. The soundtrack is pretty good, too, especially if you’re into Lou Reed or The Replacements.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (2008)

PGH: 3 / Rotten Tomatoes: 12% / Metacritic: 38 / IMDb: 5.4
With a title like this, you’d think the eponymous city would be all over the place. Not only is the scenery lacking in Steel City landmarks, even the iconic ones from the original novel (e.g., The Cloud Factory) were shot in weirdo alternate locations. Siena Miller calling the city “Shittsburgh” for not having proper ID at a local bar made a bigger splash than this movie did.

Land of the Dead (2005)

PGH: 7 / Rotten Tomatoes: 73% / Metacritic: 71 / IMDb: 6.2
George Romero‘s work is nearly synonymous with two things: Zombies and Pittsburgh. I haven’t seen the entire Dead series, but the Three Rivers area seems to play the biggest role in this one. Some of the filming apparently took place in Toronto, but there’s plenty of zombie action in the Triangle, the West End, and even a climax on Mount Washington. Protected by a confluence of fortifiable rivers, tunnels, and  hills, it makes sense that the ‘Burgh could be the last bastion of humanity in a zombie apocalypse.

Wonder Boys (2000)

PGH: 8 / Rotten Tomatoes: 81% / Metacritic: 73 / IMDb: 7.4
This adaptation of a Michael Chabon novel faired far better than The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, both as a portrait of the city and as a film in general. The university scenes will be recognizable to anyone who has spent time on the Carnegie Mellon campus (like myself). The grey autumn neighborhood shots in Friendship and Oakland really add to the film’s melancholy vibes.

Sudden Death (1995)

PGH: 6 / Rotten Tomatoes: 53% / IMDb: 5.7
The plot of this gratuitous action flick is a race-against-time terrorist bomb threat at the Stanley Cup finals… while the Penguins play the Blackhawks at the former Civic Arena. Jean Claude Van Damme even does battle with Icey in a kitchen. Not too many shots of the city outside of the now-defunct arena, but 1990s-era Pens fans should love it.

Striking Distance (1993)

PGH: 9 / Rotten Tomatoes: 14% / IMDb: 5.8
Wow. From the “Take Bigelow! Take Bigelow!” car chase to the serial killer nickname “The Polish Hill Strangler,” this movie is a hilarious goldmine of Pittsburghiness. Bruce Willis plays a river patrol cop, so there are plenty of shots of the rivers and bridges, along with a policeman’s ball at Point State Park.

Groundhog Day (1993)

PGH: 2 / Rotten Tomatoes: 96% / Metacritic: 72 / IMDb: 8
Bill Murray plays a Pittsburgh weatherman, but the city only really makes an appearance for the first 10 minutes or so. The rest of the action takes place over (and over again) in Punxsutawney, a sleepy town some 90 miles away. I’ve been to the actual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, and the movie set doesn’t resemble it at all, but it’s such a great story I’ll let it slide.

Innocent Blood (1992)

PGH: 9 / Rotten Tomatoes: 41% / IMDb: 6.2
The premise here is a sexy French vampire whose scruples only let her feast on the bad guys. But when she lets a hitman slip away half-eaten, she and a rogue cop are the only ones who can stop the growing threat of the Italian Pittsburgh Vampire Mafia. Seriously. This is a movie about that. There are battles in a Bloomfield church and our lead vampiress may or may not yell at one point, “We have to get to Shadyside! Where the hell is Shadyside?”

Flashdance (1983)

PGH: 10 / Rotten Tomatoes: 33 / Metacritic: 35 / IMDb: 6.1
Everyone alive in the 1980s remembers this soundtrack. It features a young woman with dreams of joining the big ballet. She bikes everywhere, from the Smithfield Street Bridge to Carnegie Music Hall to the Duquesne Incline. She works as an exotic dancer and a welder at a steel mill. She lives in an abandoned warehouse loft apartment that doubles as her dance studio. It’s kinda hard to imagine a movie that captures the work hard, play hard, blue-collar-with-big-dreams mindset of the ‘Burgh more than this movie.

The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh (1979)

PGH: 7 / IMDb: 5.1
This one is so obscure it has only a few hundred ratings on IMDb (and no ratings anywhere else that I could find). A goofy sports comedy/fantasy about the Pittsburgh Pisces, a fictitious basketball team (the only major American sport Pittsburgh doesn’t have) made up of players under the twelfth sign of the Zodiac. Lots of 1970s city shots, and classic local institutions like Wholey’s Fish Market get on the bandwagon during the team’s winning spree.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

PGH: 3 / Rotten Tomatoes: 94% / Metacritic: 73 / IMDb: 8.2
This Oscar-winning 3-hour epic is about how the Vietnam War disrupted the lives of steel workers in Clairton (a small town southeast of Pittsburgh). Most of the film takes place overseas so there’s not much of Steel Town in there, but as with other movies in this list, it does capture the essence of Pittsburgh’s industrious working class.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

PGH: 5 / Rotten Tomatoes: 92% / IMDb: 8.0
The second of three Romero entries on the list, and possibly the “breakthrough” modern zombie movie with its look at large-scale societal impacts of a zombie apocalypse. Most of the movie was shot at the Monroeville Mall in a sleepy suburb east of the city. Although the mall has changed a lot since then.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

PGH: 4 / Rotten Tomatoes: 96% / IMDb: 7.9
The first Romero zombie film, considered by some to be the most important American horror movie. It actually takes place in a cemetery and farmhouse in Evans City (35 miles north of the city), but there are many references to the Pittsburgh and surrounding areas over TV and radio broadcasts.

Honorable Mentions

Here are a couple of films that technically take place someplace other than Pittsburgh. But for anyone who lives here, it’s still pretty clearly Pittsburgh.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

PGH: 6 / Rotten Tomatoes: 87% / Metacritic: 78 / IMDb: 8.5
I remember when the bat-mobile casually drove past me one day in 2011. As an industrial city with plenty of gothic architecture, Pittsburgh makes a great proxy for the dark and brooding Gotham City. Particular highlights include a Steelers game (rebranded the “Gotham Rogues,” with a not-so-subtle nod to our former mayor Ravenstahl on the kicker’s jersey), the Mellon Institute standing in for Gotham City Hall, and the brick row houses (is there any other kind?) of Lawrenceville in Detective Foley’s neighborhood.

Inspector Gadget (1999)

PGH: 8 / Rotten Tomatoes: 21% / Metacritic: 36 / IMDb: 4.1
The fictional city of Riverton here doesn’t even pretend to be any place other than Pittsburgh. Dr. Claw’s skyscraper? Obviously PPG Place towering over the rest of the skyline. The epic bridge battle? Clearly on the Clemente Bridge (or maybe it’s the Warhol or Carson bridge… they all look the same, see The Next Three Days above). Go go gadget helicopter, n’at.


So there you have it. There are still many more movies on my to-see list, including Concussion (2015), The Fault in Our Stars (2014), Abduction (2011), Bridge to Nowhere (2009), The Mothman Prophecies (2002), Rock Star (2001), Dogma (1999), Stigmata (1999), Kingpin (1996), Only You (1994), Bob Roberts (1992), Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), Lightning Over Braddock (1988), Gung Ho (1986), All the Right Moves (1983), and Slap Shot (1977), among others.

See you at the movies…

One Comment Add yours

  1. albuhhh says:

    Add “Warrior” to your list. Surprisingly good movie about MMA, of which I generally have little to no interest in.

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