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Life as Commercial Production Experts in Baltimore

Company Profiles 576 Add to collection

Workingstiff’s Matt Pittroff and Steve Blair reveal how a tight-knit community, an engaged city office and endless locations make Baltimore, Maryland a production dream

Life as Commercial Production Experts in Baltimore

Matt Pittroff, director / managing partner, founded Workingstiff in Baltimore in 2004 with a goal of creating a production company that honoured the process as much as the product and cultivated new relationships, nurturing them into long standing ones. His business partner and executive producer Steve Blair has produced over 200 commercials for broadcast TV and online creative content after coming up through the production ranks.

They kicked off 2022 with two local productions for The City Fund and Center for Medicare & Medicade Services, which were both shot in their hometown. We caught up with them find out more about exactly that - what life is like as production experts in the small market of Baltimore, Maryland - AKA Smalltimore. 

Q> What makes Baltimore a good production town?

Matt> Location, location, location. A plethora of them in and around the city...Victorians, craftsmen, mid-century modern residential homes and good pockets of them too, so when you’re looking to shoot that street scene and you want some uniform architecture, we’ve got it. The city centre is production friendly too, standing in as many different cities in many films. Modern glass front buildings that read tech or Wall Street. Columns, ornate, art deco, whatever. 

It’s not a huge red tape place, making planning easy and therefore less expensive than larger markets. More rowhomes than any other city in the world, classic brownstones, brick with classic marble stoops, all the looks. There are still people that get a little excited about someone knocking on their door, asking, “hey do you wanna rent us your house for a tv commercial?” It’s as close to a backlot as you can get without being on a backlot, but better than a backlot because there are actually doorknobs and not an immediate cost plus plus plus situation. 

Steve> Baltimore is one of the best-kept secrets in the industry. (Well, HBO has known it for years.) The crew base is deep enough to support multiple productions at once, and I can’t say enough great things about the Maryland Film Office and the folks at the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts who handle permitting. Closing a city street may cost you several hundred dollars here, as opposed to the thousands, if not tens of thousands, to pull it off in a larger market. These myriad locations are incredibly affordable, and great stand-ins for other cities. You also can’t underestimate the advantages of our proximity to New York (two-and-a-half hours by train). This allows us to tap into world class casting and any additional niche production support the job may require. 

Q> Where is Baltimore comparable to in relation to its production-friendliness? 

Matt> Probably in line with Minneapolis, minus nine months of subzero temps. It’s friendly, it’s authentic, and has a good art, music and food scene. The better weather and proximity to both the mountains and the beach give this place a leg up, to me. Is Baltimore production friendly for every project? No. But for ones that are looking to cram a square peg into a round hole (which happens regularly), there’s a ton of upside. It’s a great town to tell little hilarious stories that feature rich characters with charming foibles. 

Steve> We recently filmed in Milwaukee and St. Louis, and I think Baltimore has a lot in common with them: friendly crews who impress with their skills, experience and welcome. 

Q> What type of clients tend to flock to Baltimore?

Matt> Ones who weren’t set on a location. We always try to understand what is driving an agency's desire to film in a certain market. Talent? Locations? Climate? Price? Does the client live there? Or the creative director thinks Lisbon sounds nice? If there is no motivating factor driving shoots to a specific market, we are happy to welcome clients to Baltimore. We know they won't be disappointed. It’s a familiar territory, crew and language, we’ve got a pulse on it all because we have been shooting here for 20 years. Those that are cool with coming to town to work are usually repeat partners from previous productions in other markets. They trust us. They’ve seen how we work. They know what we do, how conscientious we are about everything and when we say, “hey this will be tough to shoot in LA or CHI, but we can do it here”. They know we are coming from a place of added value. If Baltimore can support the creative, we’re always happy and feel really good about offering it, without compromise. 

Steve> I can’t say clients flock here, but we’ve certainly done our part to point out the benefits to our clients. DC agencies see the value in filming in Baltimore over their own town. When I wasn’t full time here, I worked freelance and most often with LA and New York production companies that needed to hit a number 15-20% lower than their production zones. And that’s doable here.

Q> What’s a little known secret about filming in Baltimore?

Matt> There are great actors with great faces in small markets. If you look hard enough, you can discover a needle in the haystack, finding the relatable, authentic character I seek out when building a cast. At the end of the day, that’s all you need, one perfect person for each role.

Steve> The variety and affordability of our locations and permits. EPs are often wary of dropping their location fees and permit costs to what they really are during the bidding process, and in the end, it’s those line items that are their clearest, biggest savings.

Q> Where do you think Baltimore’s creativity comes from? 

Matt> It comes from the honesty of the people. There’s something about artists that work in cities not known for their art. It’s harder to ‘make it’, and I appreciate that. Trying to find success as a fine artist or a musician in a place like Baltimore gives the art an inherent edge. And ‘edge’ is always a good fuel for art.

​​Steve> It goes way back, and is at the core of its identity. Baltimore has kinda always been Philly and New York’s ugly stepchild. I’m no historian (that’s my wife’s job), but I do think the Cone Sisters’ role in the international art scene helped give our city a sense of accessibility that broke down barriers. They made modern art famous, and they made that art accessible to the people. Subsequently, that newness and that unusualness may have fostered our sense of experimentalism, and to this day encourages artists to take risks creatively. Some people may think this makes our city a strange place, but many of us here like that it’s defined us.

Q> What is Baltimore best at when it comes to production? 

Matt> Hard work - which comes from being an underdog. The underdog is always going to play harder than the team expected to win and I’m always going to root for them. The two/three major markets will account for 80% of the work but that other 20% needs to be serviced. We work hard for the small stake we have. When people come into this city for work, the community (and not just film) appreciates it… vendors, crew, hotels and every ancillary industry. For example, we can have a client dinner and if they know you’re a production company and a client, they’re excited about it, which shows in the service you receive. Go to LA, if you’re not an agency or a crew, you probably shouldn’t be in the restaurant. 

Steve> In the production world, what Baltimore’s best at is exceeding people’s expectations with our professionalism, accomplishments, and can-do attitude. It’s the ‘who knew?’ sentiment I think many feel after having a wonderful experience here.

Q> It’s referred to as ‘Smalltimore’. Why and what’s your take on it being a good or bad thing? 

Matt> It’s because everybody knows everybody, or at least knows somebody that knows that body… not so great if you're trying to have an affair, but it’s great if you need a favour. I look at it as an advantage, because you can get a lot for your money here. And when someone says they ‘know a guy’ they mean it. 

Q> How would you describe the production community here?

Matt> A travelling circus full of so many unique characters that compares to nothing. When you work in LA, it is not rare to work with a fourth generation grip. I think people here tend to be in the biz because they’re filmmakers first and secondarily found a department on the call sheet that suits them best and carved their paths accordingly. What’s never left them is the love of filmmaking and its craft, not just the craft of set dressing or gripping. I’ve found that to be unique to our production family. We’re a bunch of people that nobody else wanted and because of it, we are strong like a bull. I can’t think of a crew person here that could work in any other occupation - we are highly qualified to do our jobs and completely unqualified to do anything else. 

Steve> Friendly, experienced and hard-working.

Q> What’s the biggest misconception about the city?

Matt> Maybe the danger aspect? I won’t minimise the crime and violence you may hear about. It is real. And relatively isolated/not something encountered on any regular basis on our productions. While I love the street cred that a show like The Wire gives me when I travel - I mean when you tell someone you’re from Baltimore, you might as well tell them you’ve done three life sentences for murder - I don’t find working here to be any more dangerous than other cities. 

Steve>The notion that you’ll get shot just by crossing the street downtown… truth is, you can get shot anywhere you’d like, really.

Q> If you had a time machine, would you still choose Baltimore?  

Matt> Yes. I made a short film aeons ago. It got some traction, won a few festivals and oddly became part of the curriculum at our college. A reporter once asked: “What’s next for you...will you move to LA?” I said: “Well, no. I’m gonna stay here. I mean, if I wanted to be a potato farmer, I wouldn’t move to Idaho, that’s where all the potato farmers are.” To me, LA has always felt a little slick and NY a little harsh. Baltimore is juuuust right. And by the way, I do have a time machine. 

Steve> Absolutely. But if he’d let me, I’d actually use Matt’s time machine to go back to the 14th century, find the inventor of the recorder, and hit him over the head with it repeatedly. I can’t stand that instrument.

Q> What are a few things about Baltimore and filming here that you can only understand after having been around town for two decades? 

Matt> When you’ve worked anywhere for two decades, you know the strengths and weaknesses and you can play to the strengths. And that helps me decide what project may be the right fit for the city and community. You also know the drill, allowing you to be efficient logistically and creatively; efficiency=  cost effective. When you’re unsure and trying to leave room for variables, pivots, mistakes, and that comes with a price tag. But we are pretty sure in this market, we know exactly where the line is and it allows us to be super competitive. The more you can quantify, the less you leave up to chance. Baltimore is very quantifiable to us. 

Steve> That you can find most, if not every, tool you would need. Techno-cranes, helicopters, rain towers, you name it, we’ve got a guy or gal.

Q> How much work comes from local partners versus bringing work to the city? What do you enjoy most about working with the agencies here?  

Matt> I’d say it’s 50/50. But also, we have local agency partners we shoot in LA with, it just really depends on the project. We see it as an extension of our role to assure we’re in a production centre that best serves the creative for the money. It bothers me deep inside when dollars don’t go on screen. If it were just about the money, I would be working far fewer hours and making way more elsewhere. When you love the work you do, it’s hard to find the balance between the ‘craft’ and the ‘cash’. And because we have our own shop, we control the pendulum. It always leans to the left. We love our local partners. They have become friends. And when you have that history, it really helps you anticipate how the project and process might go down. And not to sound like a broken record, but the more you can anticipate or quantify, the less waste you have. More of your energy and money goes on screen. 

Q> Who are the city’s production MVP and unsung hero?

Matt> I genuinely think everyone is doing it because they enjoy the work and really enjoy the people they’re working with. So they’re all unsung heroes, like special teams on a football roster. They work hard without any of the glory. In general, there seems to be appreciation that working in this biz is 100% a privilege. If I had to pick one, it would be Steve Blair. I am biased, but this guy works tirelessly every day, never asks for anything, rarely complains and is loved by all. He embodies Baltimore’s charm and work ethic with his unexpected, poorly timed humour and relentless pursuit of happy hour. 

Steve> For MVP, my vote is Fran Carmen with the Baltimore City Office of Promotion and the Arts for permitting. The unsung heroes in our industry are our PAs.

Q> If you were asked to liken Baltimore to something on set, what would it be and why?

Matt> I’m gonna go with the art truck. It’s a treasure trove, packed to the gills with random pieces, bits and bobs that all come together to support a cohesive (and quirky) vision. Just when you think it’s empty, another bit of magic appears. There is a great poem called ‘Beneath The Shell’ by Kondwani Fide that this question made me think of. It captures the essence of the town. The poem draws a parallel between a steamed crab and the city for which the delicacy is known. A crab is a peculiar creature that on the surface any sane person might assume to avoid, but beneath the shell is a delicious treat that brings people together. So, you’ll likely have crabs at your wrap party… an extension of set if you will. “All that goodness can happen under one condition, you have to crack the crab open.”

Steve> The donuts next to the fruit on the craft service table: enticing, delicious, and satisfying.

Q> What would you say have been the biggest changes / areas of growth in the Baltimore production industry over the past decade? 

Matt> Baltimore has done a great job keeping up with the tech changes in the industry. From a gear standpoint, you can find pretty much anything you need, and Atlanta and NY are close enough if you need to bring something super niche. In my tenure, the biggest change has been a turn over of the crew, a changing of the garb. There are still a few folks that remember the glory days of film, but most of the crew has come up in the digital age, less lamenting how it ‘used to be’, more looking forward to what's next. They have an entrepreneurial spirit, which again, is a catalyst for hard work. 

Steve> Probably in how the state of Maryland’s film incentives have helped bring large-scale movies and TV shows here.

Q> Do you see yourselves in Baltimore for the foreseeable future? 

Matt> For as long as I'm working, yes. And I'll always have some kind of personal basecamp here. I don't think you can beat the quality of life for the money. I would be living in a shoebox if I lived in LA. Baltimore begets many a lifer, and that says something for the heart of the city.  

Steve> For sure. I see no reason to move to New York or LA to do what I do.

Q> What is the film community like in Baltimore?  

Matt> When I started in this market, there were a couple of commercial directors with high production value work. Old school, real-deal film shooters, not run-and-gunners. And as a young buck, I likely undercut these guys, and they probably should have hated me, but they ended up being great mentors and made me feel like part of a community. Does that happen in big cities? That sense of community has stuck with me as new people are getting into the biz (and there are many)! 

Steve> Our shared sense of community in our industry here, I think, is driven by our humble sense of pride in our industry experience. Our crews have handled such large productions and well-known movies and TV shows that we ‘get it’. And this used to be a surprise to out-of-town producers who would call me and ask things like, “do we need to bring a camera down from New York?” In the world of advertising and commercial production, our collective know-how and can-do attitude always leave out-of-town production companies pleasantly surprised.

Q> How many of your 500+ commercials were shot in Baltimore? 

Matt> 211.5

Q> What is the Workingstiff origin story? 

Matt> I thought I was going to be an oil painter, but once I got to college I quickly realised that I was not going to be an oil painter. By happenstance I transferred to the film program and quickly fell in love with it. After graduating, I partnered up with a few like-minded buddies and started a subversive film company called Guerilla Films, with every intention of taking over the cinematic universe. That didn’t get us very far, but we did manage to get a cease and desist order for the name, and so began my journey within the all-too-long-a-name production companies. 

The Truckstop Motion Picture Company was born with an ad based sales model going client direct. We really had no choice - because we had no reel. As a barback at a place in Fells Point, I went to the owner and said, “if you cut back your city paper ads, we can make you a TV commercial and you can run it on cable.” He gave us $2,500 and we wrote, shot, edited, and placed the ad. A local at the bar saw the ad and said, “I want a TV commercial for my deck company.” So we made another spot for $5,000. Referrals started coming in, budgets began to grow and we got an amazing opportunity with The Red Cross, which began our ad reel. A local stills rep helped us into a few agencies and we were off to the races. 

In 2004 we hit a bit of a crossroads as my partners wanted to venture into TV and film and I had come to love short form storytelling with a beginning, middle and end and working with new and different people on each project. So I broke off and started Workingstiff. And I think the name kinda speaks for itself. It reflects that proletariat working class attitude that was instilled in me by Baltimore’s city feel. I take pride in working hard. What I may lack in other areas (actual talent), I make up for with effort. No innuendo was intended with the name or the mantra ‘WORK HARD’, but Workingstiff FIlms does make for a good conversation starter.

Q> What is the Workingstiff differentiator?

Matt> We bring a lot to the table as it relates to comedy, production value, solutioning and in our approach to service for less than the people we compete with. I compete against comedy directors that are fueled by much larger engines and their price point is naturally higher. We are the little engine that could/can/keeps, kinda like the city from which we hail. We don’t have a ton of overhead and because of that we’re able to be nimble, compared to other people producing the level of work we are. I don’t really know how else to put it; we are very competitive and we run a super fucking tight ship and I would put Steve and Brenna [Mathers, business development] in the ring with any production team in the universe!

The relationships we’ve fostered have stood the test of time because we’re relentless in our pursuit of making sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. And as far as I know I am the only director in town that does high production value comedy work for national brands. If this is not the case I’m gonna need to take a hit out.

Q> Clients should come to Baltimore, yes?

Matt> A resounding yes-ish. We've got most anything creative calls for or client hearts desire. But candidly, we don't have a tropical jungle, or a desert fit for shooting a stranded caravan of pirate lamas. But we're happy to talk screens or virtual sets or venture off to the Sahara, or head anywhere for that matter. Baltimore's home base, and I love it, but I will always honour what is best for the gig.

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Workingstiff Films, Mon, 07 Mar 2022 14:33:00 GMT