“The Dark Knight Rises” has already been a blessing for Pittsburgh and Newark, N.J., two non-traditional film locations that replaced Chicago as Gotham City in the third Christopher Nolan-directed Batman film.
The superhero movie, in theaters Friday, is proof that both Eastern cities can handle a blockbuster (estimated at $250 million) budget, which should lift them in the eyes of Hollywood for years to come. But what the most anticipated film of the year is not is a postcard for those cities — at least not like 2008's “The Dark Knight,” and to a lesser extent 2005's “Batman Begins,” was for Chicago.
Gotham City is far less vibrant and enticing in “Rises” than it was in “Dark Knight.” Sure, as “Rises” begins, crime is down and the city is as peaceful as it's been in a long time (thanks to the late Harvey Dent — or at least that's what the citizens of Gotham think), but the mood begins to match the cold and gloomy cinematography. Not long into the film, viewers suddenly feel like they're watching an apocalyptic scenario with people hiding in their homes rather than bustling around a metropolis.
It doesn't help that “Rises” — which also filmed in New York, Los Angeles, Scotland, India and England — spends a good portion of the movie underground. Sewers and subway tunnels don't exactly shine on screen, not even in IMAX. (You know what does shine? Bruce Wayne sitting in his bat suit sans mask in his luxury penthouse high above Chicago with the skyline in the background, as in “Dark Knight.”) And while viewers will now be more familiar with the subway tunnels in Newark, the city probably would have benefited more if its architecture and landmarks were showcased instead.
(The Chicago-filmed “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” had more of a destructive, end-of-the-world feel as well, but director Michael Bay's flashy and over-stylized sequel showcased Chicago. The city's old buildings looked historic and new buildings glistened, even when under alien attack.)
An extra scene or two in an actual nightclub or restaurant would have given Pittsburgh and Newark some life. They certainly did in “The Dark Knight,” which filmed Batman roughing up Sal Maroni's men at Sound Bar nightclub in the River North neighborhood, police arresting Maroni at The Berghoff Restaurant in the Loop and Dent approaching a crooked detective by the bar at Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern in Lincoln Park.
To be fair, “Dark Knight” filmed in Chicago for three months; in Pittsburgh and Newark, “Rises” filmed three weeks and two days, respectively (and in New York for about 21/2 weeks). It's also harder for a city to look its best in the winter, which is when “Rises” takes place.
Pittsburgh, however, still manages to impress when given the opportunity. Overhead shots of the city's picturesque skyline will have some viewers thinking “Who knew?” And the unforgettable scene at Heinz Field and cameos by actual Steelers and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl can only add to civic pride.
The good news for Chicago is the city and western suburbs will provide part of the backdrop when the Superman reboot “Man of Steel” is released June 14. The movie filmed here last summer at the same time “Dark Knight Rises” filmed elsewhere. It is being produced by the Chicago-raised Nolan.
“It would have been difficult to have two big blockbusters from the same producer side by side in the same town,” said Chicago Film Office director Richard Moskal. “Perhaps there were some concerns about that. Sure, we were disappointed, but we're pleased Chicago was chosen as the location for Superman.”
(Director Tim Burton was supposed to film a Superman movie starring Nicolas Cage in Pittsburgh in 1998. The movie eventually fell through.)
In “Man of Steel,” Plano doubles as Smallville, where Clark Kent/Superman was raised. The town 57 miles from Chicago isn't waiting for the movie's release to take advantage of its potential claim to fame. Plano plans to host Smallville Superfest — a Superman-inspired street fest with a parade and live music — Aug. 17-19.
Pittsburgh began reaping the economic benefits of “Dark Knight Rises” immediately. Pittsburgh Film Office director Dawn Keezer said the city's hotels, car rental agencies, restaurants and hardware stores saw a boost in business. And as of late, there have been more calls about potential film projects there.
“It really woke people up (to the fact) that the film industry is alive and well in Pittsburgh,” said Keezer, later claiming that last August “the unemployment rate in southwest Pennsylvania dropped one percentage point because of the 10,000 extras at Heinz Field.”
Keezer said Nolan and company approached Pittsburgh because of its many bridges (the city closed a bridge for 30 days during filming of 1999's “Inspector Gadget”), but ended up using bridges in New York instead. Nolan's staffers approached Newark because they wanted to film a subway scene in the city. But Newark's City Hall caught their attention as well, and they decided to film more than just the subway. It took months to prepare for the two-day shoot in Newark, according to Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission, mainly because the city was closing down a subway line.
“There was so much attention and media for Newark,” said Gorelick. “We estimated they dropped $2 million during their time here. They created a lot of sets in City Hall and were here weeks before and a number of days after. … We were thrilled. Newark is enjoying this renaissance. Any attention and positive publicity is a good thing. We got a lot of good PR out of it.”
Well before Newark and other locales were chosen there was little to suggest that the third film in the rebooted Batman franchise would bolt Chicago. “Batman Begins” and “Dark Knight” filmed here, and in addition to earning nearly $1.5 billion at the box office, the movies contributed an estimated $50 million to the local economy. Nolan and city officials had nothing but good things to say about each other in interviews.
Chicago was Gotham City — or so we thought.
Rumors began to circulate that Nolan was scouting other U.S. locations to double as Gotham. What appeared to be a given was in doubt. Eventually, it was revealed Chicago had, in fact, been replaced and, even more surprising, would be left completely out of the film.
“I've learned that you can't ever take anything for granted,” Moskal said. “I certainly thought that, based on how successful ‘The Dark Knight' was, there wouldn't be any reason not to shoot in Chicago. … Chris Nolan was so pivotal in bringing both of those films to Chicago. He clearly likes to work here and loved the look the city offered and the cooperation he received. He fought to bring those films here.
“I believe that he felt Gotham needed freshness to keep the franchise interesting. The decision to not shoot here wasn't anything against Chicago. He was in favor of a unique, fresh look after shooting here so extensively.”
Even though Chicago got Superman, its six weeks of filming in the area was only about half as long as “The Dark Knight” shoot. So Nolan's decision to film elsewhere meant less business for Chicago casting agencies, film scouts, film crews, prop rental stores and catering services, some of which worked on the previous Batman films.
“Some Hollywood producers and designers are going to look at something like imdb.com and see what films you were involved with,” said Al Cohn, a Chicago location scout and manager who worked on “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” “Certainly, decision-makers would look to see if you worked on a blockbuster.”
There are plenty of Chicago actors and extras who no doubt would have loved to add “Rises” to their resumes. The movie prominently featured locals, including Pittsburgh student C.J. Coyne, who sang the national anthem during the football scene. But Chicago didn't get completely shut out. “Rescue Me” actor and Mount Carmel High School alum Daniel Sunjata plays a Special Forces operative brought in to assist Gotham's police department.
“It would have been awesome to film (in Chicago),” Sunjata said. “It's still one of the things on my bucket list to do. It didn't work out that way, but … I would have assumed it would (film in Chicago). I wonder what's up with that. I need to write a letter to Rahm Emanuel.”
Chicagoans shouldn't feel too sorry for themselves. There will be other films, and the city will have Batman to thank, in part, for that. “There's disappointment, but we're still benefiting from the previous two films shooting here,” Moskal said. “Chicago is associated with the Batman franchise, and the franchise has been a blockbuster success. Other filmmakers saw what Chicago was capable of. I prefer to think of the opportunities we're still seeing.”
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