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Haddad's: From gas station to entertainment rental empire

Joshua Axelrod
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh — You definitely know David Haddad’s name, even if you may not necessarily be able to remember where you saw it.

Here’s a hint: It’s on the side of those giant trucks or trailers you see whenever a movie or TV series is being filmed here. That would be the 66-year-old Pleasant Hills native’s company, Haddad’s Inc., which boasts on its website that it’s “the leading film and television equipment rental company in America.”

Haddad’s equipment has been used on more than 3,400 films nationwide over its 66-year history. And to think it all started with a humble Pittsburgh gas station.

Haddad recently granted the Post-Gazette a rare interview to discuss the rebound of Pennsylvania’s entertainment industry from the havoc wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A gas station

In 1955, Haddad’s father opened an Amoco gas station in Pleasant Hills that quickly morphed into a truck rental and towing company. Haddad, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate, assumed he’d eventually take over the family business, though he never could have imagined the direction it would take.

In 1982, the movie “Flashdance” began filming in the Steel City, which at the time didn’t have a particularly robust entertainment infrastructure. The film crew was having trouble finding the necessary equipment from local vendors, so Haddad’s stepped in and rented them a box truck.

That led to other opportunities with locally filmed movies and shows, including the 1986 comedy “Gung Ho,” which starred Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton. Haddad admitted that he wasn’t a huge movie fan growing up, but once it became clear that would be his business’ best path to success, he educated himself through his wife and daughter, reading Variety and watching “Entertainment Tonight.”

“I learned a lot about the film business accidentally from the inside out,” Haddad said.

Soon, he was renting trucks for productions all over the East Coast, including 1987’s Kevin Costner thriller “No Way Out” filmed in Washington, D.C., and the New England-filmed fantasy romp “Witches of Eastwick.” Three-plus decades later, Haddad’s is a major player in the industry and has hubs in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Georgia and Michigan.

The company has also rented to just about every major movie that’s been shot in Western Pennsylvania in the last 25 years, including “The Last Witch Hunter,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Fences,” “An American Pickle,” “Happiest Season,” “The Next Three Days,” “Abduction,” “Jack Reacher” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

“Southwestern Pennsylvania is exceedingly lucky that Haddad’s calls this place home,” said Pittsburgh Film Office director Dawn Keezer. “They’re well respected in the field and they work all over the East Coast, but it’s always a major selling point that Haddad’s is here.”

‘Bragging rights’

The last year has been rough for Haddad’s, as TV and movie production shut down for the last seven months. Haddad said they survived through instituting furloughs and lost only one employee at the pandemic’s peak.

But business has begun to change for the better as TV shows like the Showtime series “Rust” get going locally and other projects like Amazon’s “A League of Their Own” show and “What If,” Billy Porter’s feature directorial debut, prepare to shoot here this summer.

As Haddad put it, most of the productions happening in Pennsylvania right now are “COVID-sensitive” ones that don’t require lots of extras. He pointed toward “Hustle,” a Netflix basketball comedy starring Adam Sandler that’s shooting in Philadelphia, as an example of a more contained project that resumed filming recently.

“We’re all worried about a new variant, as everyone should be in the United States,” Haddad said, referring to COVID-19 mutations that have begun appearing worldwide. “We urge everyone to get that vaccine and get that immunity. If everything stays on course, we hope we will be very busy into next year. But it’s all about the virus potentially shutting us down, us being the whole economy.”

He said that the resiliency shown by Pittsburgh’s entertainment community is a testament to how much it has grown over the last 40 years.

“I cannot put into words the uniqueness and the greatness of the Pittsburgh culture and work environment,” Haddad said. “The most expensive part of making a movie is labor. Because of our labor workforce, from the painters to the drivers to the camera operators, it’s been bragging rights for decades.”

Bringing Hollywood here

Despite business picking up again, Haddad wants more to come his home state’s way.

“This is an exciting time for filmmaking in Pennsylvania and the United States,” he said. “The streaming services have added another component of content. They’re going to make those movies somewhere, and we have an incentive program ... and we should definitely be taking advantage of it.”

He’s referring to Pennsylvania’s 25% tax credit based on how much money a production spends here. The incentive is currently capped at $70 million. A bill was recently introduced by state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Monongahela, that would increase it to $125 million, allowing the Keystone State to be more competitive with other states.

Haddad chairs the Pennsylvania Film Industry Association, a volunteer organization that’s been working with Bartolotta to explain to legislators why increasing the film incentive program is so vital to providing jobs and fostering economic growth across the state.

“I’m a taxpayer, I’m a business,” he said. “Why would I want that money to go to (Los Angeles) or New York? I want it to stay here.”

Haddad is a huge proponent of increasing the film incentive program, which he believes will result in “jobs, jobs, jobs” statewide and more local artists and artisans receiving the on-set experience they need. That will serve “in perpetuity as marketing for the state” if those folks end up venturing elsewhere in their careers, he said.

Haddad would like state lawmakers and pop culture fans to feel as connected to Pennsylvania’s creative community as he does.

“We’re very proud of the film industry,” he said. “We believe people are copying what we’re doing because we’re doing it right.... It would be a mistake for Hollywood to shoot anywhere else but Pennsylvania.”