Or more appropriately in our age of image making by everyone, what is “film”? YouTube claims 144,000 hours of video are posted every single day. (A woman who reaches the age of eighty has lived 701, 280 hours: hardly even five YouTubeDays.) And how many hours in a life are there to produce, consume, examine, remember film? (One definition, esthetically, could be: looks like life, feels like a dream.)
Chicago’s film profile was elevated from the 1980s forward by movies like “Hoop Dreams,” “Risky Business,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Fugitive,” “The Dark Knight” and decades of great documentaries and experimental work by many important figures whose history is still being written. But the link between Chicago and film is more expansive than that, starting with the movie industry: who shoots them, who finances them, who writes them, who finds locations. Then there is the increasingly large number of students in the city, studying some form of film or television or media. The number of students specializing in some kind of media studies or media production at Chicago’s many universities is enormous, from Columbia College, Northwestern, the School of the Art Institute, the University Of Chicago, DePaul, Tribeca Flashpoint, and so on—a shocking number next to the number of films of any shape or size that even the most devoted of us are about to enjoy in any given year. “Film”? It used to be just something you loved seeing on the big screen with the smell of fresh popcorn in the darkness. Even universities are changing the names of their programs in fast-changing times: DePaul, for instance has its “School of Cinema and Interactive Media.” Then there’s “transmedia” and the selling: What stories do we have to tell about the stories we have to tell?
The work goes on. But what is the “work” in a time of “creative destruction” when all models for financial return have gone out the window? In the lists we compiled, we were looking for people who aren’t isolated or cloistered, but who are working, and putting work out into the world. This list is in no way exhaustive nor is it a list of up-and-comers—a groundbreaking image, narrative, economic model could be hatched tonight and launched tomorrow, gone viral quicker than flu itself—but it’s more of a list of those who have found ways to continue their practice, exert their personalities and offer a few examples, both young and long-lived, for the world in ways that are impeccably Chicagoan: rough and ready, come what may. (Ray Pride)
Film 50 was written by Ray Pride and Brian Hieggelke
1 Gordon Quinn, artistic director, Kartemquin Films
In 1966, Gordon Quinn was one of the three co-founders of Kartemquin Films (with Jerry TEManer and Stan KARter), Chicago’s leading producers of social action documentaries of excellence, and the forty-five-plus years since have seen myriad revolutions, social, esthetic, political, technical. Today, as artistic director for the nonprofit group, he keeps an experienced eye on helping filmmakers figure out what their film is. “I spend a lot of time in the edit rooms on Kartemquin projects, particularly with the younger filmmakers,” Quinn says. “But it is their film. I’m trying to help them realize their vision. When I got into documentary, it was the early days of cinéma vérité, or direct cinema (whatever you prefer) and equipment breakthroughs had a lot to do with making that possible. The Nagra [recorder] was the first piece of equipment I ever bought, and our first camera was something that we highly modified with the help of a physicist friend. But my focus, and Kartemquin’s focus has always been about the storytelling. If someone asks me what camera I used I sometimes say, ‘that is the wrong question.’ The question is not, ‘Did you shoot your movie on an iPhone, but rather, how did you use the iPhone to tell your story?’ When the Sun-Times fired all its photographers, they seemed not to understand what it is that photographers do: it’s not knowing how to use the technology, it’s knowing how to take a picture that means something.” But Kartemquin embraces change. “For my first twenty years, it was film and not a lot changed. Now the technology changes all the time and we change with it, to tape, to digital, to… But I often say we want to be the last in the neighborhood with the new tech. We embrace it, but it is not who we are. We use whatever is available to try and tell stories that affect people, that have drama and a social impact.” And somehow, in spite of general financial uncertainties, Kartemquin is producing fifteen projects today. “It has always been hard. But under Justine Nagan’s leadership, we are more successful than ever, but yes, it is still very hard. Yes, the marketplace is changing and we have to change with it. Not to give the market ‘what it wants,’ but to continually reinvent ourselves to play a role in the dialectical process we call democracy.”
2 Bill Schopf, President, Music Box Films
Attorney Bill Schopf moved to Chicago when he was eleven, and the first movie theater that influenced him was the Teatro del Lago in Wilmette, about the same vintage as the Music Box Theatre, the property he bought in 1986 and then took over as operator in 2004 when no one else was willing to take it on. With only two screens to sustain the business, Schopf took a leap and formed Music Box Films in 2007 (and Music Box Films Home Entertainment in 2009). One of the earliest acquisitions was “Tell No One,” a 2006 French film that no American distributor wanted. It became an unexpected $6.2 million summer hit in 2008. Schopf believed in the success of the Harlan Coben novels, he says, “but more the realization that, in addition to being a thriller, it is a wonderful love story that would appeal to our heavily female-directed theatrical audience.” A similar leap with the original, Swedish “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” trilogy grossed $10.1 million. How much is trusting your gut versus running the numbers? “If we are talking about MBF, my tastes and gut are one factor out of many, including comparables and projections and I rely on the views of my team in that regard. We always make revenue projections before we acquire a film. Digital is always significant and, for some small and/or niche films, sometimes the only viable release strategy.” The company is on course to release thirty-six films a year, so “a talented, disciplined team is essential. My job is to build the team and lead it through a rapidly changing environment.” And for the namesake movie palace? “At the theater my job is to determine strategy, make economic decisions and pay for them. Our general manager, Dave Jennings, and programmer, Brian Andreotti, execute it.” Schopf also owns Michigan’s Moraine Vineyards, so what second-or-third-career satisfaction could the Music Box ventures add? “Telling a story is one of the most important things we do in human culture. I could describe my pride in both the Music Box Theatre and in the distribution company in the same way: they both provide a successful, independent voice and leadership to film audiences in Chicago and North America at a time when that is increasingly difficult to find.”
3 James Bond, president, Full Aperture Systems
If you were named James Bond, would you keep a low profile? Chicago James Bond, a preeminent designer of film projection systems, with his Full Aperture Systems providing permanent and temporary installations, is one of the film scene’s most taciturn figures, but highly regarded by all. Saying it as succinctly as anyone could, Marty Rubin of the Film Center volunteered that Bond is “one of the few authentic geniuses I have been privileged to work with. He brings world-class technical knowhow to virtually every leading alternative film venue in the Chicago area.” Among his installations are Northwestern’s Block Cinema and the University of Chicago’s Max Palevsky Cinema, home to Doc Films. Bond recently supervised the exquisite projection at Ebertfest 2013, at Champaign-Urbana’s newly restored silent-era movie palace, the Virginia Theatre. Longtime Chicago film observers are sometimes caught bragging they saw all of the outdoor projections in Lincoln Park that he presented in 1989 under the name “Cinema Borealis.” Outsizing rural drive-ins, Bond’s festival brandished “Ran,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Days Of Heaven” as no one has seen it since. Other legendary screenings took place in his screening loft on Milwaukee near North, also called Cinema Borealis. Before the 1989 Lincoln Park jamboree, a young Bond told the Chicago Tribune, long before the industry’s digital handover, “I don’t want to romanticize it, but there’s a sense of responsibility I have. I see the era of great exhibition as being forgotten, and I want only to revive a sense of respect for something we may not be able to experience in the future.”
4 Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming, Siskel Film Center
Enter the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute, on State Street across from the Chicago Theatre, and in its two story entrance-foyer, you’re greeted with a kindly portrait of late Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, a figure whose renown recedes to newer generations almost fifteen years after his early passing. Named for him, the Siskel began on the Art Institute grounds in January 1973, and Barbara Scharres has worked full-time for it since 1975. In that time, she’s seen programming grow from two screenings per day on two days per week to the present configuration of two screens running seven days a week all year around. It’s an impressive heft, with October 2013’s schedule containing 123 separate slots for programming. “I’m most proud of the way our two largest festival events, the European Union Film Festival and the Black Harvest Film Festival, have grown to large events with a cultural impact in many communities of Chicago,” Scharres says. The Siskel intends to remain a bastion of projected film as well. “Our mission encompasses the past, present and future, which means that we need to be equipped with the technology that will do justice to work from all periods of time. We have a very serious commitment to maintaining the presence of 35mm in our programming and providing visibility for any 35mm prints that become available to us. The greatest part of our international film heritage was created in 35mm, and there is no experience that substitutes for seeing the real thing. But we also recognize that nearly all contemporary work is created in a digital format. As much as we can afford, we aim to stay on the cutting edge technically in order to present this work as it was meant to be seen. It’s the reality of the marketplace that DCP has rapidly become the theatrical standard for projection.” And, she says, “We feel a very strong responsibility to be the hometown venue for Chicago and Illinois filmmakers. To us, it’s an exciting and important thing to be able to give local filmmakers their Chicago premiere. Some go on to great success and others keep struggling, but it fills us with pride that we have done right by them and given them the best opportunity we could provide to have their work seen and possibly reviewed.” Marty Rubin, Associate Director of Programming, joined Siskel in 2000 and collaborates closely with Scharres. “Our programming relationship is quite fluid, with each of us working on certain projects largely solo, but collaborating on others,” Scharres says.
5 Steve James, filmmaker
Documentarian Steve James is one of Chicago’s treasures, with a career that includes the classic “Hoop Dreams” (1994), the under-appreciated “Stevie” (2002) and the all-too-timely take on Chicago’s seemingly unstoppable wave of violence, “The Interrupters” (2011). Astutely framed, edited with quiet assurance, bestowing dignity on his subjects, James’ films focus on his characters first and foremost. A longtime member of nonprofit Kartemquin Films, James is in the final stages of editing “Life Itself,” a documentary drawn from the memoir by Roger Ebert, which was begun while the film critic was still alive and includes footage from the posthumous tribute at the Chicago Theatre. (Kartemquin’s Tim Horsburgh hinted on Twitter at the end of September, regarding Ebert, “He would have really liked this movie.”) Every indication points to a Sundance 2014 premiere, where an early version of “The Interrupters” debuted. James’ forthcoming “Generation Food” will be a book by food expert Raj Patel as well as a film about something that’s an even bigger story than Chicago itself: the “complex and contradictory journeys to find sustainable solutions to feed the world.”
6 Anne Saunders, President, Redbox
If Netflix killed the video chain, Redbox threw the dirt into the grave. Founded in 2002 in Oakbrook Terrace (not far from its initial investor McDonald’s Corporation’s headquarters), the company has since rolled out more than 42,000 of its signature red kiosks (renting DVDs for $1.20 each) to more than 36,000 locations across the US and Canada. Like Netflix, Redbox was an industry disruptor, and went through a period of contentious relationships with the movie studios about availability and release dates. Today, the company carries on as a subsidiary of publicly traded Outerwall, holding 47.8 percent of the physical rental market, and is testing a new challenger to Netflix’s streaming service via its Redbox Instant joint venture with Verizon. Last year, veteran education executive Anne Saunders was brought in to take over the operation from Redbox co-founder Gregg Kaplan.
7 Richard Moskal, Director, Chicago Film Office
Coming from working as a location manager in the early 1990s on movies like Andy Davis’ “The Fugitive” and John McNaughton’s “Normal Life,” Richard Moskal started work at the Chicago Film Office in 1996, during which time more than 800 feature productions generated $1.3 billion in local revenues. Impressive, until recent years, as production moved elsewhere after the 2008 economic crash and other states and localities offered enhanced incentives. But, as the buzz about television and film productions crowding the streets of the city throughout 2013 would indicate, things are on the upswing again. Film and TV production was at a height in 2012, with $184 million in local spending. A record six full-time television series are shooting in Chicago, with three big-budget features as well. Moskal credits the city’s “unique, versatile cityscape that is undeniably cinematic,” but also the current State of Illinois tax credit, city cooperation, expert crew and talent in front of and behind the camera, and the recent addition of Cinespace, the fifty-acre Near West Side production center that currently houses “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD,” “Crisis,” “Mind Games” and “Transformers 4.” “Put simply, the film industry means jobs and economic development,” Moskal says, “just like the other industries that contribute to the city’s health and vitality. But by its nature, the film industry directly fuels our creative communities and grows the city’s cultural identity. It breathes life into the city’s professional profile as only a creative industry can. And it shares this identity with audiences around the world. That’s our future. That’s our greatest strength.”
8 Alex Pissios, President, Cinespace Chicago Film Studio
The opening of this vast studio production facility, a subsidiary of a similar operation in Toronto, on the Near Southwest Side in 2011 was, simply put, a game changer that’s led to an explosion in the local film and television economy, with five TV series currently headquartered and filmed on their lot, as well as two feature films. Though Chicago has long been an important location for film and television scenes, the city’s ability to do soup-to-nuts productions, with vast indoor studio spaces, has been limited. Not so now, as this rapidly expanding complex has brought a whole new life to the defunct Ryerson Steel campus it has occupied with what Variety described as “one of the largest state-of-the-art film and TV production studios outside of Hollywood.”
9 Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago
The first Mayor Daley didn’t like movies in Chicago, but his son did, and under his rule, Richard the Second encouraged moviemakers to fill his fine city with film productions in economic boom times. As more television series seep into the city’s neighborhoods, Mayor Emanuel appears poised to rebuild Chicago’s production position, which waned with the closing of several studios and tax incentives provided by other states to cash-strapped producers. In September, the mayor also stood behind a property-tax cut of $3.5 million over twelve years for the burgeoning fifty-acre-plus Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, which announced plans in September to build up to twenty-five stages, making room for the largest of studio productions. Lighting up the night with explosions from the Wachowskis’ “Jupiter Ascending” and getting Michael Bay to return for a second installment of the “Transformers” series is only topped in public relations value by Emanuel’s ongoing public love-fest with “Transformers” star Mark Wahlberg. Not so coincidentally, Emanuel’s brother Ari, is co-CEO of Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor and also represents Wahlberg.
10 The Wachowskis, filmmakers and producers
Even though they couldn’t afford to shoot in Chicago, the Wachowskis dropped the names of Chicago streets and locations in “Bound” and “The Matrix.” The low-budget “Bound” looks like L.A., and “The Matrix,” shot in Australia, holds a few hints of a fantasy Chicago. But in the real world, Lana and Andy, the still-secretive sibling duo invested in a 20,000-square foot Ravenswood effects and post-production house in a “green” facility called Kinowerks. Even more to Chicago’s favor, they’ve been blowing shit up all across the city as their first Chicago-shot feature, the futuristic “Jupiter Ascending,” spends its cash locally and brightens the random night. Before the release of “Cloud Atlas,” Lana said, “I think all art is first the work of an optimist, and I think ultimately, this optimistic project is ‘I am going to show you another way to see the world.’” And in the case of their latest, another way to see Chicago.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.