By Heidi McDonald

Among my fellow film students at Chatham University, I’m something of an anomaly. Several of my classmates look forward to graduating and moving to Los Angeles, New York, London or even New Zealand. I am pursuing a film degree with the express intention of staying right here in Pittsburgh, because I believe there’s enough work to sustain me. In fact, I’m betting my career on it.

Pittsburgh actually has a long-term relationship with the film industry, and I’m not just talking about zombies. The world’s first movie theater opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. The Warner Brothers (yes, those Warner Brothers, responsible for the Batman/Dark Knight series, filming this summer in locations around the city) got their start in screening and distributing films in the region. (Downtown’s Warner Center office building is on the site of one of the brothers’ theaters.) Pittsburgh Filmmakers  is the nation’s oldest and largest independent media center, and there are scores of people from our region who have gone on to successful careers in the movies.

Nobody knows this better than Carl Kurlander, a Hollywood screenwriter who returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh and co-founded the Steel Town Entertainment Project, which sponsors an annual screenwriting contest and a set of seminars designed to train filmmakers. The University of Pittsburgh, Point Park University, Chatham University, Carnegie Mellon University and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh – among others – are graduating more film and digital technology students every day.

Even if you’re not checking the Pittsburgh Film Office site every day for more news and opportunities, there’s a lot going on here. In addition to the Three Rivers Film Festival, there are smaller festivals and regular events around the city for filmmakers and enthusiasts alike. Pittsburgh participates in the global 48 Hour Film Project, and there are great organizations such as the Pennsylvania Film Industry Association (PaFIA) and Women in Film and Media which can help aspiring filmmakers network and learn about new opportunities.

Speaking to Chatham students earlier this year, Pittsburgh 48 Hour Film Project producer Nina Gibbs said that “Pittsburgh is an incredible place because of the collaboration in the artistic community. You’ll always be able to find someone who wants to help your project succeed.”

I’ve found this to be true, as I’ve had no problem being as busy as I want to be with film-related activities since I started school last fall. In my first year as a film student, I’ve had three film-related internships, screened my work at a festival and an art gallery, participated in a 48 Hour film festival and a locally-filmed web series, attended tons of local film events, and worked on a major movie. I can’t wait to see what the future brings!

The Pittsburgh Film Office’s filmography page lists some 156 titles that have filmed in our city. In 2010-11, according to new Pennsylvania State Film Commissioner Lenwood Sloan, there were 15 major feature films shooting in Pennsylvania; seven of these were in Pittsburgh. This summer alone, thanks to the re-establishment of the Film Tax Credit for 2011-12, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Steel Town,” and, of course, “The Dark Knight Rises” have filmed here. At a recent PaFIA event, Sloan hinted at four major upcoming productions in Pennsylvania for the fall and winter months.

The Bat Signal on top of the Highmark Building is more than just cool. It’s a beacon, inviting more big-budget films to our city and signaling Pittsburgh as the new “it” place for major movies. So when my classmates board planes bound for Hollywood after graduation, I’ll wish them luck, wave goodbye, and send my resume to productions right here in town.

Heidi McDonald enters her senior year at Chatham University this fall, double majoring in Film and Digital Technology, and Communications. She is Pittsburgh’s beat reporter for Yahoo! Movies, writes the “Reel Life” blog on Patch.com, and is interning this summer with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development as a multi-media producer.