Global Conversation with Sam Katz, Founder, History Making Productions

Sam Katz has been producing, directing, and developing historical documentaries for ten years. Prior to launching his production company, History Making Productions (HMP), Sam spent much of his career in municipal and project finance, private equity, civic leadership, and politics, including running for Mayor of Philadelphia in 1991, 1999, and 2003.

HMP produces engaging, informative, and dynamic films, focused on subjects that are central to Philadelphia and that become part of our city’s unique cultural fabric. Sam has produced multiple EMMY award-winning films on the history of Philadelphia, including the 13-part series, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.  

Can you describe the type of films you produce at History Making Productions and your role with the company?

History Making Productions is a documentary film production company. I am one of the co-founders, along with [my son] Philip Katz.  We have been telling Philadelphians Philadelphia’s story. Interestingly enough, Philadelphians are very prideful of their history, but knew little about it or conflated it with American history.

Our first project was a multi-part series, called Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. The idea was to create 13 half-hour episodes for broadcast on 6abc/WPVI-TV. We are finishing the last two episodes and we will have, upon completion, a chronological treatment of Philadelphia’s history from 1600 – 1995.

How did you make the career change from politics to documentarian?

I spent 25 years in public finance, project and sports facility financing. I was never successful in my runs for public office so there wasn’t much of a transition. In 2008, we started HMP. We discovered we had a passion for telling historical stories. Since I spent a lot of time developing financing documents for projects, to me it was just another project. I had to go out and find the money and eventually submitted an application to the Barra Foundation.  Their support enabled us to produce a pilot episode of Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.

How does Philadelphia’s designation as a “World Heritage City” by UNESCO affect the efforts of History Making Productions? In simpler words, what does this mean to you and your team?

Getting a designation or award or anything is always a matter of what you do with it. I think it was a very important step for the Global Philadelphia Association to succeed at getting the designation. Being designated a World Heritage City, based on having a World Heritage site, is something that needs to be elevated in the consciousness of Philadelphians. It says something very powerful about the prominence of the city on the international scene. I think with the advent in 2026--he 250th anniversary of the nation -- a celebration of Philadelphia ought to be central.

When it comes to choosing a topic for a film, what are key aspects or factors that the HMP team looks for? For example, what is it about the “Before Hollywood” or “Sisters in Freedom” films that were compelling to document those stories?

I think the common denominator in both Before Hollywood and Sisters in Freedom is that we were telling stories that no one knew, that were revealing on what Philadelphians are and were, and what Philadelphia is and was. Philadelphia’s position as a border city and the fact that there were impactful and courageous people who provided leadership in combating slavery is a lost story. We excavated the important and groundbreaking role that Philadelphia women played in that struggle.

These are stories that people don’t know which I hope someday gives Philadelphians some clarity and where we ought to be going.

What is an upcoming film project that you are excited about?

We have two more episodes of Philadelphia: The Great Experiment that will finish the series, the first will be done for broadcast, hopefully in January or February. Coverage will be the years 1896-1922 and the final episode of the series, 1922-1944.

We’re working on a film called Beethoven in Beijing. It tells the story of China’s rise as a major center of western classical music and of the role played by the Philadelphia Orchestra in helping to excite Chinese musicians and music students.

Two other projects that are in the works include the bankruptcy of Detroit, so it’s sort of a “homecoming” for me with municipal finance in some ways. Believe me when I say this, this one is going to be full of interesting characters.

The other story, Transformed: Pittsburgh 5.0, the story of a city that was once the center of steelmaking and that went into depression.  Pittsburgh has come out the other side with basically a medical and industrial high tech economy that was made possible by a fully engaged civic, business and philanthropic community partnering with government. We’re also working on a film called Journey, which documents the Jewish Philadelphia story, similar to the Catholic Philadelphia story, Urban Trinity. I hope to have that done by the end of 2019.

What advice would you give to someone who wishes to be a documentary filmmaker?

I would say that it is a passion business; it’s not a great business in the sense that while documentaries are very popular like the 30:30 on ESPN, RBG on CNN, Netflix, Amazon, etc., there is a lot of demand. I would also add that documentary filmmaking should be about what documentary filmmakers care deeply about or has a great curiosity in or interest in.

What are some things about filmmaking you are proud of?

In addition to making documentaries, we are very active in producing videos for non-profits, mentioning GPA, but also for Performance Garage, the Curtis Institute of Music, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many others. I think we have become a civic asset, having made a dent on the cultural fabric of the city. I feel very confident what History Making Productions is doing and will continue to do will be of significant value and will create a great legacy for the city. 


This interview was conducted by Kyle Purchase on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association