No city in America has preserved its history like Philadelphia. No city has more to tell America about history than Philadelphia.
--David McCullough, Author and Historian
PHILADELPHIA: THE GREAT EXPERIMENT is a feature-length documentary on the history of Philadelphia from 1944 –1994, a period that saw dramatic social changes, political corruption, and violence. But it also saw inspiring moments in sports, music, social reform, and the arts that epitomized the innovation and diversity that made Philadelphia the trail-blazing and resilient city it is today.
Philadelphia is the only major American city yet to be featured in documentary film, and we’re going to change that. By departing from a 1776-centric historical focus, we explore stories of Philadelphia’s more recent past –a past that’s still affecting the city today.
Benjamin Franklin. Betsy Ross. The Liberty Bell.
These are all things that initially spring to mind when one thinks of Philadelphia –and rightfully so—but there’s more to it. Much more.
For instance: Did you know the first anti-slavery rally was held in Philadelphia? Or that the first medical degrees granted to women happened in the City of Brotherly Love? Philadelphia was also the site of technological advances beyond Ben Franklin’s famous kite-flying experiment: the first public demonstrations of telephones, motion pictures, and television happened here. Oh, and Joe Frazier, the boxer to defeat Muhammad Ali in his prime? A native Philadelphian.
But these are only a few of the stories that make Philadelphia a fascinating place, and one crucial to the development of the nation. It’s a place ripe with stories that need to be told. History Making Productions, in collaboration with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, has been exploring stories like these, and many others, through Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a multi-format historical documentary television film series that presents the story of Philadelphia from its indigenous roots through the present day.
Yet despite Philadelphia’s indelible contribution to the establishment of the nation, it’s the only major American city for which a documentary film on its epic history has never been produced. Sam Katz, longtime civic leader and Executive Producer and Director of Philadelphia: The Great Experiment recognized that the absence of such a film created a gap in city residents’ knowledge of the past, and sought to correct it.
We’ve focused on telling a narrative that’s equal parts education and entertainment, and in this case, the truth is stranger –and more interesting—than fiction. And we hope to expose that truth to a larger audience with a feature-length documentary on the history of Philadelphia from 1944 – 1994.
What have we done so far?
Here at History Making Productions, our long-term goal is to produce 12 half-hour long episodes for Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, spanning indigenous history, through the present day. We have already produced four of these episodes for Channel 6-ABC, which you can view here.
For this project, we will be re-cutting and expanding three episodes into one 90-minute, feature-length film covering Philadelphia history from 1944 – 1994. We will be using footage from our episode “Promise for a Better City,” which covers 1944 – 1964; our latest episode, “The Fight,” which explores Philadelphia from 1965-1978; and “Breakdown,” our episode currently in production that will take on the city from 1978 – 1994.
This period saw major deindustrialization, racial tension, violence, poverty, and political corruption that placed the city on the brink of collapse. But there was also innovation, and inspiring stories to be told in civil rights, neighborhood beautification, environmentalism, sports, arts, and culture. Philadelphia’s toughness and resilience is multi-faceted, and we seek to capture that on film.
Why help, and why now?
The story of Philadelphia deserves to be told.
While Philadelphia’s influence on the founding of our nation is undeniably important, there’s more –much more –to the city’s history that tends to get overlooked, especially when it comes to portrayal in documentary film. Philadelphia has been on the forefront of progressive social movements, technological innovation, and the arts since the city’s founding. Philadelphia has produced remarkable artists, musicians, activists, and athletes, and we seek to tell those stories in a way that appeals not just to Philadelphians and history buffs, but to a curious general public.
With Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, we have striven to capture the drama that has encapsulated Philadelphia from its pre-history across nearly four centuries, as the nation’s laboratory of ideas. We explore what arose from the seeds of revolution, the destruction of wars, industrial revolution and its eventual decline, urban decay, and racial tensions that still affect our city today.
Much of the footage we show has long been hidden from public view.
By producing three episodes on the post World War II period, History Making Productions is publicly sharing a wide range of archival television, municipal footage, and private film and video collections that have long been hidden from public view. With Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, viewers will be exposed to speeches, film clips, photos, and news footage that will further their understanding of the city and its rich, largely-unexplored history.
This is more than just a film: it’s a public service.
In our partnership with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, we have been able to combine film, education, and entertainment, with the resources of one of the oldest and best-endowed historical societies in the United States. We believe that exposure of our film to a wider audience will not only educate the public through film and entertainment, but will broaden the scope of influence of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The way we access information is changing, and with our additional online model –which includes Webisodes (short, hyper-specific films based on broader content within the feature film itself) and “Short Cuts,” –oral short stories that capture special interview vignettes –we’re making our viewing and learning experience more comprehensive and interactive. History Making Productions is the first documentary film company to create its own broadband channel (the “Philadelphia History Channel”), and making it available at no cost to any heritage or community group that would like to embed it on their website, or for use in classrooms or special programs.
What you can look forward to
Though we have a large part of our project underway, we’ve got some big plans to make the film even better. Here are a few things you can expect to learn about through Philadelphia: The Great Experiment:
1. Mill, plant, and factory closings in response to global competition, outdated machinery, and shifting markets in conjunction with the winding down of the wartime economy, collectively understood as “deindustrialization,” and its impact on the life of neighborhoods, municipal tax revenue, and services, racialized poverty, and civil rights.
2. The rise of Modernist urban planning and design ideas coupled with a growing “culture of the expert” and federal programs to fund the redevelopment and remaking of the city.
3.The vestiges of early 20th century corrupt machine politics and political reform movements that arise to confront them.
4. The limits of fellowship and liberalism in addressing racial inequality and the rise of urban black political power.
5. The devolution of power from urban elites to neighborhood, identity, and issue-based centers of political control.
You can of course expect profiles of dramatic, characters in the film –Mayor Frank Rizzo, Joe Frazier, the Broad Street Bullies, the 1983 76ers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, journalist Andrea Mitchell, and activists like Ernesta Ballard.
Who We Are
The team behind Philadelphia: The Great Experiment is comprised of a diverse group of civic leaders, journalists, filmmakers, artists, students, researchers, and activists –all are lovers of history, and Philadelphia. These are a few of the people who have helped make the project possible so far:
Sam Katz serves as Executive Producer and Director, and is responsible for recruiting the media and historical advisory team, fundraising, business operations, and implementing civic engagement projects.
Michael Boatman, a television and stage actor is our narrator.
Andrew Ferrett is our principal producer and director.
Nathaniel Popkin is a co-producer and senior script editor who wrote Episiodes 1, 2 and 3.
David Bauer is our senior editor, and is responsible for making our visuals, soundbites, and footage come together.
Colleen Davis is a senior script writer with a background in education and history.
Paul Van Haute is our Director of Photography, and a filmmaking professional in lighting and cinematography.
Ginny Lasco is the Creative Director, who works on graphics and animations.
Jon Kohl is our Associate Producer and is in charge of accruing our archival imagery.
Alaina Logan is the Associate Producer of our Webisodes.
Patrick De Caumette is an accomplished musician and composer, and wrote the score for the film.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a professor history at the University of Delaware and historical advisor to the project.
What people have been saying about us
“[The film] boasts lively production values, blending re-created scenes and art and maps of the period with documentary-style talking heads to tell a compelling story.”
-Ellen Gray, Philadelphia Inquirer
“An amazing series…Philadelphia: The Great Experiment is promising one of the most illuminating, and perhaps controversial, installments yet.”
-Stephen Rea, Inquirer Movie Columnist and Critic
Where’s my money going?
Our project is an ambitious one that requires a wide berth of resources necessary to produce a film on the scale we have in mind. We want the message of the film –and of course, the film itself –to reach as wide an audience as possible. Your generous donation will help support the following:
1. Post-production work
2. Festival entry fees
3. Locating, restoring, and transferring archival film footage
4. Licensing rights to music and film footage
We realize this is an ambitious undertaking, but we’re so excited to further the great progress we’ve already made. Thanks for reading, and watching, and we hope you spread the word about Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. We look forward to making our project bigger, and better, than ever before.
For more information, or to watch existing full-length episodes, webisodes, and short cuts, please visit our website at www.historyofphilly.com.
Risks and challenges
Having already produced four episodes of the 12 episode series, our only significant challenge is the one that faces every independent film production company--MONEY. This modest campaign through Kickstarter is designed to generate funds to re-cut and produce from our three contemporary episodes a feature length documentary that covers post World War II Philadelphia history. Pre-production, production and post-production challenges are ones we have successfully faced, for which we have found solutions and have expanded our problem solving capabilities. But it is funding that remains our daily challenge.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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