Executive Director, Chicago Media Angels
Working out of Stage 18, the nonprofit incubator and workspace, Chicago Media Angels is a for-profit investment management company encouraging local production. Executive director Ted Reilly’s career in finance includes investment work at Goldman Sachs and his own firm, SRH Partners. “But today, my focus is on helping artists and entrepreneurs build business around their passion,” Reilly says. “After successfully working with Periscope Post and Audio to raise capital for a new post-production studio at Cinespace Chicago, I saw a need to continue to foster the local ecosystem of filmmaking.” Modeled after two successful midwestern enterprises, Hyde Park Angels and IrishAngels, Chicago Media Angels convenes quarterly meetings for a group of “angel” investors, which include a pitch meeting for three potential projects. “Our members are invited to participate in any project in the amount they choose,” he says. “Chicago Media Angels management bundles and manages the investments in a single vehicle for each project we fund.” The primary goal for CMA is to educate midwestern investors in opportunism to fund content. “We believe that a knowledgeable and active investing community is vital to local talent developing and producing their projects in the midwest to ensure continued growth in the local market. By aggregating resources, our members are able to leverage the group for professional sourcing, diligence and execution in an effort to improve creative and commercial outcomes of projects funded by our members.” Reilly sees great local potential. “A combination of factors, including a century-old system for developing talent, disruption to traditional distribution and content formats and the advent of new media all work in the favor of the Chicago independent community. I believe with smart and collaborative effort, our community can cultivate a self-sustaining ecosystem of content creators that is truly independent from the coasts.” Okay, how optimistic is he? “I believe we can triple our industry and bring over one billion dollars a year of production spending to our state.”
Founder and Artistic Director, Chicago International Film Festival
Through thick and thin, working internal battles and external criticism, Michael Kutza’s institutional memory of the Chicago International Film Festival is only surpassed by his often off-the-record stories of a half-century of Chicago filmmaking, filmgoing and film critics. (Talking about quotes for this issue, Kutza invoked the name of another local journalist, reassuring me, “Just make them up the way that [so-and-so] does.” The most telling words I’ve heard from Kutza in ages were in a wide-ranging interview last year, about how he (and the festival) have persisted into a fifty-first edition: a capacity for surprise. “Absolutely. That’s the only reason I think I’m enjoying this, these fifty years. People say, ‘Oh it’s fifty years.’ It doesn’t faze me. I don’t understand that… thing. That it’s fifty years. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I mean, look at this team I’ve got. You’ve met all the people, they’re great, they love what they’re doing and if I wasn’t here? They could do it in a second. I’ve taught them to be exactly me! To be as foolish… and love movies. I think they do. If they don’t, they’ll go! There’s a philosophy, right there. I never thought I’d say such a thing, but I did, didn’t I?”
Mimi Plauché, Vivian Teng and Anthony Kaufman
Programming Director, Managing Director and Programmer, Chicago International Film Festival
What movie were you watching fifty-one years ago? An admirable facet of the fifty-one year reign of Michael Kutza’s Chicago International Film Festival is the faith placed in a younger generation, particularly in programming. The gesture isn’t necessarily one to guarantee, or even anticipate a line of succession for the festival’s founder. (That was proven with the 1990s board rumble that led to the departure of ambitious young programmer Marc Evans, who is now president of Paramount’s Motion Picture Group, with accomplishments like transforming “World War Z” from disaster to worldwide success.) It’s just the way the festival has functioned, whether decisions made by the loyal are bad or good. Managing director Vivian Teng has been with the festival almost a decade, first as marketing and membership manager, and as managing director since 2009. Programming Director Mimi Plauché took her position in 2006. Relocated New Yorker Anthony Kaufman began this year, injecting the festival with his knowledge as a film biz journalist with indieWIRE and the Wall Street Journal for the launch of the four-day Industry Days sidebar, bringing Chicago filmmakers closer into the fold. Kaufman is also a keen observer of the documentary scene, and has taken the charge of punching up the fest’s nonfiction attractions. (Kaufman has also programmed the occasional “Docs at the Box” series at the Music Box.) While it’s been a longtime mantra of Kutza’s, the elemental philosophical approach to programing seems to be the one echoed in something Plauché told Gaper’s Block last year: “One of the things that I like about programming the festival that is true to the original ongoing mission is the idea of discovery and bringing not just new films, but new filmmakers and their work to the city and showcasing them.” Other large international festivals have concentrations in national cinemas, intense archival series, densely packed auteur retrospectives. With CIFF’s programming, it’s always a new year: what’s shiny on the scene that we can bring to Chicago? History can tend to itself.
Entertainment Lawyer, Holland & Knight
Attorney Robert Labate’s firm, Holland & Knight, has a global presence, with twenty-two offices across the United States, as well as Bogotá and Mexico City, and provides legal services in almost every aspect of intellectual property, business, real estate, governmental law and litigation. As co-chair of the Sports and Entertainment practice, Labate represents entertainment, media and advertising clients that produce, license, acquire, use and invest in film, television, music and digital content for worldwide distribution. “Day to day, I might be in court on a copyright infringement action,” Labate enumerates, “negotiating financing documents for a film or new media project, or acquiring actor or athlete services for a commercial. It can be unpredictable, but always varied and very enjoyable.” Labate has served as financing, distribution and production counsel for television programs and numerous films, include Steve James’ “Life Itself” and “The Interrupters,” as well as the Emmy-winning “The Trials of Muhammad Ali.” The legal doings are highly collaborative, just like filmmaking. “For example during the past year, fifteen professionals (lawyers, paralegals and staff) from our L.A. and Chicago offices have assisted Kartemquin Films with various projects, and that’s just one client.” Labate has also taught film and entertainment law at DePaul Law School for many years, and is planning a four-part seminar on film production, sponsored by Lawyers for the Creative Arts and Columbia. He’s assembling his knowhow in a book on film and media production, “Dangerous Lenses: Surviving the Perils of Film Law.” Labate sees Chicago as a great city for the creative arts. “I’m lucky to be able to work with film, television and media professionals on a daily basis. The Chicago media community is particularly cohesive and supportive. There are tremendous resources in Chicago for music, writers, dancers, crew, actors, technology, theater, improv and media educators. There’s no better place to create a film and to learn from other professionals.” He’s optimistic things can only get better. “ The cost of film, TV and media production has dropped dramatically in the past ten years and all the elements needed for production are within the greater Chicago area. The outlets for media distribution and exhibition expand with each new technological development but the challenges of film, TV and media production remain the same—writing great scripts, creating budgets, finding financing, building a production cast and crew, editing well and finding meaningful distribution.”
Michael W. Phillips, Jr.
Executive Director and Programmer, South Side Projections
“I’m showing things that other people aren’t showing,” Michael W. Phillips says of his five-year-old enterprise. “Most of the programs also have important discussions, with the lawyers who fought for the Attica rioters, with former gang members, with civil rights leaders, with Black Panthers. We’re doing valuable, but overlooked, work.” Earlier cinephilic accomplishments include programming CIMMfest for five of its first six years and Bank of America Cinema for its final three years. When that ended in 2010, co-programmers Kyle Westphal, Becca Hall and Julian Antos started the Northwest Chicago Film Society, but Phillips decided “I wanted to do something closer to home and closer to my interest in social justice. We don’t have a headquarters—the goal was to get out into underserved neighborhoods and show films of interest to people living there. We’re successful sometimes, but end up doing a lot of programs in Hyde Park because it’s easier.” Phillips has a key factor in programming. “My philosophy is to show movies that aren’t readily available,” he relates. “About two-thirds of our programs are projected from film, not video. When I can get a print, that bumps it way up the priority list. It’s more of a 1970s classroom vibe than a movie theater vibe, since it’s usually me and my tabletop 16mm projector showing a print from a current or former public library archive. A lot of the time I can’t even preview them when I program them.” Then there’s the social factor. “I use them as a prompt to get people talking about what’s going on in the world, to make connections between the past and the present, to make connections with people who they wouldn’t ordinarily encounter in their everyday lives. Our events attract people from all races and backgrounds, and I think they learn from each other. That’s three-quarters what we do. The rest is experimental films about cats or other fun stuff.” In 2012, Phillips was the founding director of the Black Cinema House, part of Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation. “I got the gig because of my relationship with Theaster—I had made a couple of videos about his work in 2008, and we were friends—and because of my experience doing community film programming. I was the director for a year, then I helped set up the programming advisory board that I’m still on. My philosophy there was that I wasn’t there to set myself up as an expert on African-American cinema, so I curated people—I asked people like Jacqueline Stewart, Romi Crawford, Sergio Mims, Floyd Webb, Ronn Pitts and so on, to come in and tell us what the Black Cinema is or could be.”
Executive Director, Community Film Workshop
Margaret Caples-Taylor, co-founder of the Community Film Workshop and the groundbreaking Diverse Voices in Docs, has been a longtime outspoken champion for filmmakers of color for decades, offering support and opening doors for emerging talent in Chicago. She is a founding member and advisor to Reel Black Filmmakers, a collaborative that provides screenings, workshops, resources and assistance to filmmakers of African descent and also a partner with Kartemquin Films in “Diverse Voices In Docs,” a professional development and mentoring workshop for documentary filmmakers of color. “Integral to Community Film Workshop’s teaching philosophy,” their mission statement says, “is the artist-mentor relationship. It involves listening, questioning, molding, affirming and charging artists to be their best. It is the artists’ changed view that creates a changed community. CFWC’s core values of respect for the culture, the people and the art are then passed to the next generation.”
Mickie Paskal and Jennifer S. Rudnicke
Founders and Casting Directors, Paskal Rudnicke Casting
Mickie Paskal and Jennifer S. Rudnicke founded their agency in 2002 and have more than two decades experience in casting for studio and independent features, television, commercials and voiceover, with clients including Ron Howard, Michael Mann, Michael Bay, Sam Mendes and Robert Altman, on films including “Stranger Than Fiction,” “Fargo,” “Transformers” 3 and 4 and Stephen Cone’s “The Wise Kids” and “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” “They are the heroes of my life,” filmmaker Stephen Cone attests. “PR Casting is so much more than one of Chicago’s top casting agencies, their humanity sets them apart. They thrive on positive interactions with actors, genuinely celebrate their successes, and strive to create a deeply human, empathetic and joyful environment of encouragement and support. Actors in a PR audition feel like a million dollars. This is a common trait amongst the best casting agencies in the country. They care deeply about people first, everything else after.” Paskal trained as an actor, but discovered she was a “terrible” one, with casting a way to make a place in the Chicago theater scene, opening an agency in 1993, to be joined by Rudnicke in 2002 after working as an Equity stage manager. “We love this community,” Paskal says, emphasizing she speaks for her partner. “We love that the primary task of our work is to foster a relationship between actor and director, to make an artistic match. We believe deeply in casting human beings, not types. We’re fortunate to work in a community densely populated with rich talent, actors steeped in their craft, with a solid work ethic. Our job is to find the person who can bring their humanity and talent to embody a role that exists only on paper or in the mind of our director. So we go shopping for human beings. Working with a filmmaker like Stephen Cone exemplifies the ideal of this artistic process. His work is so achingly human and open to interpretation. Stephen trusts our instincts and our ability to find the core of his characters and the actors who best embody them. We are aware that what we do often requires our actors to be truly vulnerable and we know they trust us to support and honor the difficult work they do. We never take what we ask of our actors for granted. We want to offer them work that allows them to explore a full range of artistic expression.” They try to see their actors in at least one or two plays a week. “We love seeing the work our actors are doing and it allows us to become more insightful about an actor’s range. It also allows us to find new and exciting talent for our clients. When the right actor comes in for a role, the choice suddenly becomes so obvious and effortless. Those moments are magical.” Longterm relationships are important, both in front of and behind the camera. “We do a ton of independent film and have worked with folks like Steve Conrad on independents and studio features. Those are our favorite relationships. When we are able to nurture and support low-budget films, our hope is that we contribute to creating a vibrant and vital creative community in Chicago that will bring more work to the city. It’s been a successful template for us so far.”
Founder and Director, The Nightingale
“As soon as the doors opened back in 2008, The Nightingale was swamped with requests by artists and curators to use the space,” director Christy LeMaster says of the “rough and ready microcinema” in Noble Square. “In response, I decided quite early on that speed would be our logic. We would strive to keep our little space easy to access, fast to program and as busy as we could manage as a group of volunteers. There have always been programmers at The Nightingale other than me, Patrick Friel chief among them in early years. Since 2013, when I decided to create a formal programming board, I have been really lucky to work with a revolving group of amazing co-programmers, currently including the smart and funny Jesse Malmed, Beckie Stocchetti from Kartemquin, Jillian Hansen Lewis, Jenny Miller and Emily Eddy.” The Nightingale has settled into several productive creative partnerships, including Chicago Film Archives, ESS and Tracers, as well as co-presenting Run of Life, a regular experimental documentary series at Constellation. “To expand our mission of paying and supporting artists, I created a new series called Follow Focus, a process-oriented screening series that rallies audiences and resources behind a moving image maker as they complete a feature project.” The series brings viewers into the production stages. “Follow Focus invites audiences to observe a director’s process, collaborations and inspiration.” As the quantity of moving image work in Chicago grows, “Microcinemas are essential,” LeMaster says. “There is so much good non-commercial work being made, regionally and globally, that we need lots of accessible screens for independent and experimental work and we need them in all neighborhoods. We are spoiled to have so many artist-run, non-institutional options here in Chicago and lots of organizations are expanding and developing programs to provide even more.” LeMaster cites Sector 2337, Acre and two recent arrivals in Pilsen, Film Front and Little House. “And Black Cinema House has been doing amazing screenings for the past half decade. All of these projects have their own curatorial voice and style. I think all of these spaces deserve more press and recognition.”
Executive Director, Chicago Film Archives
“At a film shoot in 2001,” Nancy Watrous recalls, “I heard that the Chicago Public Library was getting rid of their 16mm collection of films and I was intrigued where they would go. The library was trying to find an institution, or person, that could take the entire 5,000 16mm films, but was obviously having a hard time of it. The films took up a lot of space and there were a limited number of institutions that had people trained and knowledgeable in handling film.” Watrous, who began in film production as a producer and A.D., was tantalized. “Because I love the medium, after research on archiving and preserving film, I started a nonprofit to take the collection, and with volunteers who had knowledge of film preservation, we put a focus on regional films.” CFA was formed in 2003, and in the past eleven years, has created a climate-controlled home for its increasingly vast collection, including 25,000 further items from more than 100 film collections. (Much of the material is searchable in an online collection.) Historically, Chicago has been left out of the history of film production, even though, as Watrous points out, “it was a twentieth-century hub for industrial and educational filmmaking and distribution.” History continues to reveal itself. “We’ve uncovered not only works of documentary filmmakers, but of little-known, truly talented, experimental, amateur, educational, industrial, feminist and travelogue filmmakers from the Midwest, as well as bringing home movies into the arena of esteemed filmmaking.” Preservation is the CFA’s first goal. But, Watrous says it’s important to “engage current artists with the materials we are saving. By ‘engage’ I mean: to interpret and talk about our films; to reuse them; and to appreciate the filmmaking and its mode of production in the last century. Our films can give other artists a stepping-off point to express themselves, such as audio artists or musicians who score our many silent films.” But there’s more to witness than silents. “These time-based media works include neglected or orphaned films and cross all genres including documentaries, travelogues, home movies, experimental, fiction, dance, amateur, student and educational films. These works constitute an invaluable record of our region’s history, culture and artistic expression.” Beyond its mission as an invaluable source archive for filmmakers and historians alike, CFA works to engage the public in events which include “Home Movie Day,” the annual Media Mixer, a benefit held at the Hideout that creates new art by mixing CFA footage with new sound creations. “CFA invites guest curators from all walks of life to design programs from CFA’s holdings. Some of our ‘CFA Crashers’ have been actors, DJs, architectural critics, musicians, writers and even button collectors.”
CEO, The Ebert Companies
Chaz Ebert maintains a whirlwind pace in keeping the heritage of her late husband’s career alive, not limited to attending and participating in film festivals around the world and supervising the Roger & Chaz Ebert Foundation and the annual Ebertfest convocation in Urbana-Champaign. Most recently, the Black Ensemble Theater premiered Jackie Taylor’s musical production of “The Black White Love Play (The Story of Chaz and Roger Ebert).” Additionally, Ebert Productions, LLC produced the short-lived “Ebert Presents At The Movies.” And Ebert Digital LLC, publishes the rogerebert.com website, which, while providing a repository for Roger’s written legacy, also publishes material by established and upcoming voices, including editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz and Glenn Kenny, Simon Abrams, Matt Fagerholm and Scout Tafoya, as well as local writers like managing editor Brian Tallerico, Peter Sobczynski and Nick Allen. Chaz is also working with the UIC-Urbana-Champaign to raise money for the Ebert Center in the College of Media, “its mission to educate and inspire emerging artists and writers and technologists to make art and movies that matter. I am hoping that some of these artists and writers and filmmakers will set their sights on Chicago as well.” A film about the murder of Emmett Till, based on “Death Of Innocence,” is also in the works, as well as a slate of shows in the early stages of development. But she’s also active in the philanthropic side, mostly with grants from the Ebert Foundation for documentaries. “I’m not a MacArthur Foundation, so these grants are small, but necessary, and I don’t have any equity or ownership positions in them. I just firmly believe that some of these films like ‘Homestretch,’ about homeless high school students in Chicago, have to be made and seen. Programs like Good Pitch Chicago and Chicago Media Project are so important in ensuring the growth of a sustainable film community in Chicago. I’m also hoping that a book I am writing will also be a movie, or a mini-series. And if so, I would like to make it in 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.