The serene velocity of change of the modern media landscape got scary back at the turn of the century, when the cries of filmmakers like George Lucas and James Cameron for digital distribution reached the ears of economy-seeking, profit-coveting movie studios. But a lot happened in these fifteen years, as new means of communication quickly were supplanted by newer ones or faded. (Fotolog? Friendster?) For the purposes of Film 50, the most important aspect is the democratized access to means of production (DSLR digital cameras, iPhones, consumer-level non-linear editing software) and distribution (YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, digital exhibition). There’s action and movement in every form of Chicago media, even if there’s a cost to some. (Apps like Fandango supplant lucrative movie listings that once fattened newspapers, for instance.) But this year’s survey surprised with its hope toward a sustainable culture and economy in what’s rapidly becoming “The City That Collaborates.”
The lovingly pessimistic words from Antonio Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks” that seemed too true in recent years—“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”—now seem pasted to the rearview mirror as opposed to the cautious yet sometimes utopian hope for forms of storytelling we shelter under the umbrella of “film.” Morbid symptoms wane in the face of simple midwestern determination, basic Chicago hope. This is a thrilling, fearsome, fearful moment to be alive in the midst of so many forms of media.
While compiling this year’s Film 50, devoted to behind-the-scenes players who work in a visionary strain necessary to but necessarily apart from storytellers, generational layers surfaced. There are older figures with the institutional memory of what came before, bearing both its wealth and weight; players in mid-career devoted to preserving the legacy of film and video, particularly in how it reflects twentieth-century Chicago; and a younger bunch, let’s say under thirty, who are format-agnostic, aren’t burdened by the minutiae of Chicago’s film history and are open to storytelling in just-emerging and not-yet-born multimedia approaches. The story of any given movie’s production will be more interesting than the movie itself, it’s often said, and this survey offers ample fascination. Whether a Wachowski mega-production, an episode of a Dick Wolf series, a $30,000 post-Joe Swanberg intimate drama, the crew of a hundred or twenty-five or seven required to manifest that movie is stocked with one dreamer after another. (We could drown in the tears from the making and unmaking of the cinematic hopes and fears of just a single fully-staffed crew shooting a couple of days of “Chicago Fire” or “Empire” just down your nearest Boulevard.) The figures who follow are the creative thinkers, and more importantly, doers, who can brush away those tears and hold the hands and support and nourish the imaginations of all of Chicago.
Note: Since editor Brian Hieggelke has launched a Newcity-related film production enterprise (see related story), he recused himself from the selection and ranking of the individuals on this list.
The Film 50 was written by Ray Pride
Cover and interior photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
President, Music Box Theatre and Music Box Films
It’s been yet another year of successes for Wrigleyville’s Music Box Theatre, as well as the Music Box Films distribution company, not limited to the foreign language Academy Award for “Ida,” its austere yet lustrous $3.8-million-grossing release from Poland. The Music Box introduced a new lounge (serving beer, wine, liquor and occasional movie-themed beverages), a garden, a completely revamped smaller auditorium and a new concession stand, swooping down one side of the lobby like a battleship, designed for the minimum of lines for the maximum of customers. Then there’s the movies and other attractions, the list of which online or in the bimonthly magazine can overwhelm even a veteran observer. “I share your amazement at the number and variety of the special events and films we have,” Schopf says. “It’s all part of our constant effort to reach new audiences and provide our existing ones with an experience they cannot find at other theaters nor at home in front of the television. We see ourselves as a place where the community can come together and share the energy of quality experiences.” What is Schopf proudest of in the years since taking over theater operations in 2004 and launching Music Box Films in 2007? (He bought the theater in 1986 and the adjoining building for the lounge in 2014.) “I’m most proud of my team’s success in creating a Chicago-based, Music Box brand that is recognized for quality programming, events and experiences in film distribution and exhibition.” Schopf believes that the members of his team are “capable curators with an independent voice,” whose taste anticipates “which films sophisticated American audiences will want to see. Our Academy Award win for ‘Ida’ is, of course, a good example of that. I think another is our 70mm Festival where the Music Box Theatre took a leadership role locally and nationwide in preserving and advancing that extraordinarily fine and unique means of exhibition.” Aside from consolidating these successes, what’s next? “We formed a production company, Morgan Station Films. Along with Bruce Sheridan we’re producing a documentary on the origins of winemaking.” (Schopf himself produces wine from Michigan under the Dablon Vineyards label.)
President, Cinespace Chicago
Ask Alex Pissios, president of Cinespace Chicago for a few stats, and he’s got them right on the tip of his tongue: The film production campus in the North Lawndale neighborhood is at capacity, with 1.5 million square feet of buildings across fifty-two acres, with expansion plans for six more stages within the next year. Also in the works: a back lot that will include tours, nailing down that “Hollywood of the Midwest” moniker that’s floating around. Aside from the Lagunitas microbrewery, post-production is located on the site, along with facilities for casting, camera, lights, as well as caterers.
Jean de St. Aubin, Barbara Scharres and Martin Rubin
Executive Director, Director of Programming and Associate Director of Programming, Gene Siskel Film Center
As microcinemas flourish, foreign-language fare opens in the recesses of River East the same day as in their home country and established cinematheques like the Music Box, Facets and Siskel increase the number of attractions each week, the disappearance of the “dollar house” is one of the saddest for longtime cinephiles. But among its many programs each week, the Siskel has added weeklong second runs of art-house movies, sometimes in 35mm prints that weren’t shown when first released in Chicago. “ Second runs are just one part of our overall programming strategy,” director of programming Barbara Scharres says. “Like all the films we play, some are highly successful, and others do only modest business. Attendance has increased in the past year. It’s a welcome development, but as you know, this is showbiz, and, as Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence says in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ‘Nothing is written.’ We hope and trust that periodic upswings are owing to our fine efforts, but we don’t let our guard down and take anything for granted. Every week, month and year requires full effort.” Working with Marty Rubin, she says, “We are always aware that what we do must appeal to a wide audience. There’s an aspect to the behind-the-scenes work that is serious and scholarly, but we’re by no means an academic ivory tower. Far from it–the goal is to communicate the excitement, the pleasure, and the appreciation for the work we show to as many people as possible. Some work is pure fun, but some films or bodies of work are demanding. While more difficult work may attract experienced cinephile audiences, we never start out with the idea that anything we present is for the narrowly defined few. That’s why we also present lectures, filmmaker appearances and audience discussions. The pleasure and satisfaction to be found in truly enjoying the art of the moving image is for everyone. It’s hard to say ‘film’ anymore, since it’s not entirely accurate! The more the audiences understand, the bigger and wider the world of this art form is.” And in terms of a Chicago film community? “Chicago hosts an astonishing wealth of film programs and we co-exist as colleagues. We endeavor to maintain our identity as a full-time year-around program that considers the past, present and future of the moving image to be within the scope of our mission, while recognizing that other organizations and venues may pursue missions that are similar or specialized. In relation to filmmakers, we work to be highly accessible to both the established filmmaker and the emerging filmmaker. I think word is rather widespread by now that we welcome filmmaker inquiries and consider presenting local work a significant component of our programming.”
Director, Chicago Film Office
Rich Moskal is one of the Chicago film scene’s great, eternal optimists. “I’m closing in on twenty years as director of the office,” he says, through richer and poorer, making sure that filmmakers get the necessary support to get work done. “Seeing the industry thrive is inspiring. It has backbone, feels assured, and is swelling with new talent and influences. It feels like a healthy coming-of-age.” Moskal notes a record level of local production, including “Empire,” “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD,” the latest spinoff, “Chicago Med,” portions of “Shameless” and, starting in October, Showtime’s Common-produced “Chicago Project.” Multiple new initiatives and programming fall under his watch, including the Lake FX Summit & Expo, the 2015 creative industries conference event drawing over 10,000 participants in its inaugural year. He also notes The Chicago Track, a professional development diversity program for young adults pursuing careers in film and music in partnership with the Chicago Community Trust, Free Spirit Media and Young Chicago Authors. Moskal is also program and project director for the ever-popular Millennium Park Summer Film Series, with pre-screening performances and presentations to showcase citywide cultural partners, events and milestones. The capacity audiences can reach more than 12,000 on any given night.
Peter Gilbert, Eddie Linker and Joe Swanberg
Producers, Forager Film
Three local talents combine in one of the most promising of Chicago production models: financier Eddie Linker, documentary veteran Peter Gilbert and prolific microbudget filmmaker Joe Swanberg. The model for Forager Film is to move from micro- to low-budget with 2015 releases including Alex Ross Perry’s Elisabeth Moss-starring psychodrama, “Queen of Earth,” Kris Swanberg’s breakthrough feature, “Unexpected,” emerging local auteur Frank V. Ross’ “Bloomin’ Mud Shuffle,” as well as “Lace Crater,” a Toronto-preemed tale of a woman whose body changes after a one-night stand with a ghost. Linker and his wife Susie are also behind Elevated Films, a new independent film screening series, inspired by Brooklyn’s venerable Rooftop Films. (See related story.)
Projection Guru and President, Full Aperture Systems
Ever-genial, ever-reticent James Bond is one of the most low-key while essential figures on the Chicago film scene, responsible for projection systems in theaters and at film festivals nationwide, including Ebertfest, U of C’s Max Palevsky Cinema, Northwestern’s Block Cinema and the Siskel Film Center. Testimonials abound, such as this one from Siskel’s Barbara Scharres: “We maintain that James Bond is the best projection booth designer in North America, which is why we have relied on his inspired solutions to our technical needs for close to twenty years. There’s no doubt about the fact that he is a superb technician and designer, but the key ingredient as far as we’re concerned is that James thinks like an artist. He brings enormous imagination to the problem-solving process, which is an incredibly valuable factor, especially in this time of rapidly evolving projection technology.” In 1989, young James Bond told the Trib, “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.”
Chair, Cinema Art + Science, Columbia College Chicago
The Hollywood Reporter’s admittedly skewed-to-traditional-production survey of the country’s Top 25 Film Schools moved Columbia College’s position from twentieth to sixteenth. “We’re careful to serve the traditional [role],” Cinema Art + Science chair Bruce Sheridan says, citing work at Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles, “but we’re also strategically focused on new and future creative and production modes.” With its Raleigh investment, Columbia is “the only film school with a permanent teaching unit on a Hollywood lot.” Columbia emphasizes the cultivation of creative teams. “Traditionally film schools have graduated aspiring heads of department, such as producers, directors, cinematographers, editors and so on, who go off as individuals to move in and out of ad hoc professional teams,” he explains. “Eventually some like Janusz Kaminski and Mauro Fiore win Academy Awards. But about eight years ago, I shifted our focus because it doesn’t handicap individuals, and the rise of digital technology and social media are rapidly moving the field away from the rigid hierarchical and linear model.” Successes he cites from graduates include John Bosher and Chris Charles’ Beverly Ridge Pictures, whose “Chicago Overcoat” found much of its crew from Columbia and opened the Chicago International Film Festival and sold to Showtime. Alums Collin Schiffli and Mary Pat Bentel put together “Animals,” which was shot in Chicago with a crew full of Columbia College graduates. Among Sheridan’s other responsibilities: chairing CNA, the North American wing of CILECT, the organization of more than 160 film, television and media schools around the world.
David Tolchinsky and Debra Tolchinsky
Chair, Radio-TV-Film and Director of MFA in Documentary Media, Northwestern University
NU dynamic duo David and Debra Tolchinsky are pursuing parallel paths in further expanding the sizable ambitions of Northwestern’s department of Radio-TV-Film. One of many examples of departmental growth is an MA program in Sound Arts & Industries, which will combine sound design with sound studies with sound science. Dave says the question “Why do things sound the way they do and have the effect they do?” will be fully answered, alongside a “SoundTank” to incubate new ideas in sound (aesthetic, scientific and technological) in new facilities. Also new is an undergraduate acting curriculum, one of the few in the nation in a film department. The department’s adding a raft of new hires across multiple disciplines, augmenting a faculty that includes filmmakers Stephen Cone, Spencer Parsons, Ines Sommer, Kyle Henry and Thomas Bradshaw. “A really dynamic bunch!” Dave enthuses. Debra’s established a unique MFA in Documentary Media, based on an interdisciplinary model set by Dave’s MFA in Writing for Screen+Stage program. “It draws together fiction and nonfiction,” he says, “how documentaries use narrative techniques and narratives use doc techniques, from ‘The Hurt Locker’ to ‘The Gatekeepers’ to ‘Stories We Tell.’ It’s attracting students from everywhere, hiring in all directions, sending students out in all directions.”
Steve Cohen and Paula Froehle
Chairman of the Board and Executive Director, Chicago Media Project
“Community is definitely the defining word of our organization,” Chicago Media Project executive director Paula Froehle says. “Steve and I co-founded CMP in 2014 to forge a new community of film advocates in Chicago who love nonfiction film and understand its power to enlighten, to inspire and to change lives. We also wanted to try out a new kind of philanthropy in our community; we call it ‘engaged philanthropy.’ We wanted our philanthropy to not just be about writing a check. Instead we wanted our members to feel an intimate connection to the projects and causes CMP supports and to be inspired to bring impact media into their own advocacy. Plus, we asked ourselves ‘why shouldn’t philanthropy be fun?’ We wanted CMP members to enjoy themselves and to meet like-minded people in the process of helping really great films get made.” Cohen is a longtime Chicago lawyer and political activist, who joined Impact Partners in 2009, a film group that provides private equity financing for social impact documentaries. Froehle brought over thirty years of experience as a director, producer and supporter of films, and prior to CMP was the founding Academic Dean of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. (She also says, “Launching start-ups is in my blood.”) CMP also harks back to the first “Good Pitch” event in Chicago in 2013. CMP was the producer and lead funder of the 2015 Good Pitch, where over $350,000 was raised for six documentaries. At the event, CMP also launched an interactive website that enabled individuals in the room to give directly to the project, “like a live Kickstarter.” “One-third of the money raised was through this innovative use of technology,” Froehle says. “We’re most proud of the variety of individuals we have, the now 50 members of CMP. We have created a Community Philanthropy model of film support where we pool member donations and resources to increase our impact while providing our members access to dynamic philanthropic investment opportunities they could not do on their own. CMP has already invested in over fourteen documentary projects through our members’ donations. We also have built out a subset of CMP members who make equity investments in impact documentaries. While we planned to launch our equity investment arm in year two, the interest from our members in this type of philanthropic support was so strong we launched it mid-year one.”
Professor, Department of Cinema and Media Studies and the College, University of Chicago
“I am a film historian,” Jacqueline Stewart declares. “My research and teaching at the University of Chicago focus on African-American cinema from the silent era to the present. Tracing this history has made me curious, and concerned, about neglected areas of film history, leading me to explore the traditions and politics of film preservation, what gets archived, by whom, and how.” Two of her recent research projects focus on these issues of preservation. “Since 2009, I have been collaborating with colleagues at the UCLA Film & Television on the ‘L.A. Rebellion Preservation Project,’ an effort to document the work of the pioneering group of Black filmmakers who attended UCLA’s film school between the late 1960s and early 1980s. With the generous participation of these filmmakers (including Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Larry Clark, Ben Caldwell, Barbara McCullough, O.Funmilayo Makarah and dozens of others), we collected and preserved their work, curated a major retrospective and a nationally and internationally touring program, launched a research-based website, and produced the first book dedicated to this group, which will be published by University of California Press next month.” In 2005, Stewart founded the South Side Home Movie Project, which she describes as “an effort to preserve, study and exhibit amateur footage documenting everyday life from the perspective of South Side residents. Our research on these small-gauge films (mostly 8mm and Super 8mm), dating back to the 1930s, reveals an alternative, comparative visual record of the South Side’s historically segregated communities.” Additionally, she’s almost done with a study of black filmmaker and actor Spencer Williams. “Another effort of recovery,” she says. “Williams tends to be overlooked by historians of early black cinema who have focused much attention on the pioneering director Oscar Micheaux. My book considers how Williams deployed humor across his body of work—from early sound-era comedies to a dozen black-cast features he helmed to his appearance on the ‘Amos & Andy’ television program in the early 1950s—to speak to black audiences as they negotiated the waters between segregation and integration.” She sees good things ahead for the South Side’s film community. “There are plenty of folks in Woodlawn, Grand Crossing and Washington Park who are into the French New Wave, who are regulars at the Black Harvest Film Festival at the Siskel, and who know the classical Hollywood cinema like the backs of their hands. What the South Side needs is more venues for displaying, cultivating and celebrating this expertise. I’m honored to curate Black Cinema House, a community-based screening space run by Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, where we strive to bring unique, excellent programming to our neighbors in a welcoming environment, and to offer a place for filmmakers—particularly filmmakers of color—to screen their work. We also pride ourselves on facilitating constructive dialogue in the many directions it may take–from debates about film style to discussions of issues that shape the lives of South Siders, such as racism, housing, gender equality, gun violence.” Stewart sees the increasing number of venues as valuable. “These sites serve as examples of what other organizations, businesses, and individuals on the South Side can do in their own spaces, in fancy or simple ways–invite folks over, put out some chairs, put on a movie, converse.” Of the city, she says, “I would like to see deeper connections between the many film communities that are thriving in Chicago, but rarely collaborate in sustained ways. Chicago possesses a cinematic brain trust that should serve as resources for each other, and for media makers in town. This group also has so much to teach young people about the history, materiality, and critical possibilities of the moving image beyond its contemporary, commercial uses. We should develop more opportunities to connect and cultivate the many strands that make up the city’s rich film culture.”
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.