Producer and Investor, OddLot Entertainment and STX Entertainment
Billionaire producer and Chicago native Gigi Pritzker’s investments in film have an erratic track record. Movies from her OddLot Entertainment, founded in 2001, have included this year’s Johnny Depp head-scratcher, “Mortdecai”; Nicolas Winding Refn’s languorous “Drive”; and the better-received but low-grossing art-house entries “Rabbit Hole” and “Rosewater.” But her investment in an ambitious new full-service studio, STX Entertainment, collaborating with Asian partners and private equity firm TPG Capital may be more auspicious. Its first release, the low-budget thriller “The Gift,” is still in theaters with a $44 million gross. Pritzker is slated to receive an Industry Tribute at the Chicago International Film Festival’s inaugural “Industry Days” sidebar.
Executive Director, Video Data Bank
The Video Data Bank holds a 6,000-strong collection of video art including seminal works that, seen as a whole, describe the development of video as an art form originating in the late 1960s onto the present. “Video art is a very young art form,” VDB executive director Abina Manning says, “and the VDB collection is really a mirror of the relatively short history of video art in the U.S., with video created by artists from an aesthetic, political or personal point-of-view, made available through a far-reaching and comprehensive international distribution program.” Video from the VDB collection varies from a gallery’s limited edition model, offering unlimited editions of work. “And we always make sure the artist gets a royalty,” she adds. Manning has a twenty-five-year history with artists’ film and video with arts organizations in both Europe and the U.S. before arriving at VDB in 1999. “During my tenure, we’ve launched a media-rich website that highlights the collection, including the ability for curators and researchers to stream video art works,” she says, “And a full streaming website currently in development will allow Netflix-like streaming directly to users.” Earlier this year, VDB launched VDB TV, a free, online programing strand that offers viewers access to rare video art selected by a wide range of curators, “all while ensuring that artists are compensated for their work,” Manning makes sure to add. She looks toward the future of this rich resource: “Media organizations and individual film/video artists should both be thinking long and hard about how to keep their work physically current. In a very short period of time, formats we use are replaced by new ones, and soon you find that you can’t play your past work. At VDB, we are currently working on a vast preservation and digitization program to ensure that the entire collection will remain viable long into the future. It’s not something we can be complacent about.”
Co-Founder, Director and Co-Programmer, Chicago Underground Film Festival
At a recent IFP event, president Nicole Bernardi-Reis singled out Chicago Underground’s Bryan Wendorf, “who’s made this his life’s work.” While the work on show at this year’s twenty-second edition of the world’s longest-running underground film festival demonstrated a forceful focus on atmosphere, mood and elusive narratives, Wendorf finds the situation simple: “This may seem incredibly reductive, but the real secret to keeping a film festival (or anything else) going for twenty-three years is simply to not stop doing it. We’ve managed to put on this event year after year by always staying within our means, scaling back when budgets were tight and expanding in years when sponsorship and submissions allowed. In recent years partnering, and now merging with, IFP/Chicago has given us a support network with the oversight and structure that has made the last few years the best ever. That is of course combined with a great and dedicated staff, including my new co-programmer and festival coordinator Emily Oscarson.” 1990s CUFF attractions were defined by what Wendorf calls “post-Transgression” filmmakers, often defined by the kind of punk influence shock value that came from filmmakers like John Waters, Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. In 1996, the fledgling fest hoped to persuade Roger Ebert to write about their films in their third edition. “Ebert said he would be willing to look at some of the work, and in our youthful enthusiasm, we contacted every filmmaker we had accepted and instructed them to send their VHS screeners to Roger. He was clearly overwhelmed by this avalanche of work, but wrote a lengthy and supportive feature for the Sun-Times. It was an important turning point, the moment I felt like we were actually running a real film festival.” CUFF’s current role in Chicago, Wendorf says, “is to bring aspects of the Chicago film community together in ways they wouldn’t necessarily connect with each other otherwise. Experimental filmmakers and documentary makers and narrative makers end up watching and talking to each other in ways they might not otherwise. And since CUFF has never made a big distinction between amateur, student and professional filmmakers we’ve given a lot of people their entry point to the scene.” Along with 2016’s June edition, CUFF intends to expand screenings in neighborhoods beyond their Logan Square base.
Milos Stehlik, Mary Visconti and Charles Coleman
Director, Associate Director and Film Program Director, Facets Multimedia
Facets Multimedia has been a mainstay in Chicago film exhibition since its first screenings in a Lincoln Park church loft in 1975. “The true story is that Facets was started with $40 and a typewriter,” founder Milos Stehlik says, “the forty bucks for the incorporation fee and the typewriter for filling out the application.” He believes Facets has benefitted from this kind of bootstrapping. “Not having the protection of a major institution has meant that we have had to be resilient and innovative, and the one thing that I value about Facets, despite all the difficulties which true independence imparts, is what we’ve been able to do: to step into video in 1983 and create a rental-by-mail video service for VHS and Beta, long before Netflix. It was at a time when people thought renting or distributing video was a sacrilege which would destroy the purity of cinema.” Other endeavors Stehlik notes is a history of introducing filmmakers to the U.S. for the first time, especially Eastern European filmmakers, including Kie?lowski and his “Decalogue” and the films of Béla Tarr. Of the recent largely stellar programming by Charles Coleman, Stehlik says, “I think one aspect of the brilliance of his programming is the consistency of his vision in finding films which have an important cultural, social, political and aesthetic value which are on the margins, overlooked, and in true need of discovery. There’s not much to say about programming a film that’s been vetted by every film festival in the world.” Facets has also been a staunch supporter of film for children, including Facets Kids, a curated streaming platform for children, “who are, and have become even more important to our core mission, for us, creating cinema-loving and understanding audiences of this new generation represents the only hope of survival for independent and art film.”
Josh Chicoine and Ilko Davidov, Dave Moore, Carmine Cervi and Gary Kuzminski
Co-Founders, Executive Director, Director-at-Large and Marketing Director, CIMMfest
The seventh edition of the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival was a sprawling event, with music and movie wings, but also music performances at more than a dozen venues across the city. Even looking at a list of venues before deciphering all the attractions brought up visions of a smaller version of the teeming vastness of Austin’s South By Southwest. Co-founder Josh Chicoine says there are ways the festival differentiates itself from, say, Pitchfork or Lollapalooza. “The events space in the U.S. is crowded with outdoor festivals in parks and open spaces to create a confined experience within their borders, all competing for headlining acts to drive ticket sales and media attention.” By using existing Chicago venues, he says, the event has a uniquely Chicago flavor. “While we will absolutely book major speakers, films and musical acts, the focus for us is on emerging artists, filmmakers, producers, and innovative business practices that provide attendees with something unique in the festival world, and very much about the larger community interests for the industry.” CIMMfest has two current goals. “Year-round community and special events throughout the city which build momentum into CIMMfest, our regional convergence event for filmmakers, musicians, producers, and the media and tech industries,” Chicoine enumerates with no small ambition. “Together with our music-centric film programming and unique film with live musical accompaniment events, we are looking to curate live music showcases at venues along Milwaukee Avenue and the best venues across the city alongside a major industry conference for the music, film and tech sectors. We are more than a film festival and a music festival, we have a real opportunity to create something unlike anything anywhere: a multifaceted, big-tent organization. We see CIMMfest as a resource and multimedia arts service organization that supports emerging filmmakers, musicians and tech innovators, bringing artists and producers together with business and civic interests to continue Chicago’s great tradition as a city that, well, works.”
Co-Founder and Executive Director, Midwest Independent Film Festival
“We’re here to strengthen and celebrate the Chicago and Midwest filmmaking community, plain and simple,” Mike McNamara enthuses of the first Tuesday screening and film community meet-and-greet series, the Midwest Independent Film Festival. In its eleventh year, “We bring together directors, writers, producers, actors, editors that are building their career here in Chicago, we want to keep everyone busy working on each other’s projects here in town, making a living here rather than bouncing out to this coast or that. We shine a big fat spotlight on the great films being made here in Chicago and the Midwest.” McNamara also brings his energy to acting and the board of IFP/Chicago.
Chair, Film, Video, New Media And Animation, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
In 2004, Jon Cates was the first (and still only) full-time New Media faculty hire in SAIC’s FVNMA department, and after moving through the tenure process, became chair, with the expected responsibilities of leading faculty, staff and students, developing curriculum, as well as the general direction of the department on day-to-day and long-term planning levels. “Media Art is the contemporary art of our time,” Cates says, by way of indicating the changes he’s seen. “This has become more well-known across disciplines. There are three major forms of distribution of Media Art: the festival, the gallery or museum and the Internet. These share commonalities but also speak different languages and constitute different art worlds.” Under the media-art umbrella, Cates says artists are “working across these boundaries with increasing fluidity and flexibility.” His own work mirrors that, he says, crossing boundaries but also moving from the internet into a gallery/museum context. “We have a strong and supportive community in Chicago, and it’s wonderful to work with students. They can show us new directions and the best situation is when the teachers inspire the students and vice versa. My most optimistic hope or dream is in many ways already unfolding in the intersections of those three major forms. One way in which that can be understood is also the way in which productions become scalable or translatable via new technologies, including the increasing ubiquity of the digital, including via lower-cost HD cameras, web-based distribution platforms and galleries and museums that have become more receptive to Media Art.”
Director, Illinois Film Office
Among the changes with the election of Illinois governor Bruce Rauner was the replacement of Betsy Steinberg, the popular head of the Illinois Film Office since 2007, with longtime Republican political, public and government affairs consultant Christine Dudley. What Dudley lacks in film background, she has in faith with film production in the state. “The role of the creative arts is often overlooked as an economic engine. But film and TV continue to be a fast-growing sector of the economy,” she says, “and the need for content provides more and more opportunity for the film production industry.” While figures have not been released, Dudley says, “The Film office is uniquely positioned to recruit new productions (large and small) through the promotion of our film tax incentive, experienced crews, diverse locations, landscape, and world-class acting talent.” She believes in the “multiplier effect” of money spent locally. “Yes, the multiplier positively impacts tourism and production-related commerce. That means new jobs and revenue. The more the industry grows, the more we can reach the long-term goal of a fully sustainable eco-system. The growth and success that we have witnessed in the last four years speaks to a vibrant future.” As someone whose example she looks to, Dudley cites Lois Weisberg, the late Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, held up as someone who knew how to connect people. “Lois Weisberg understood that public service was about providing leadership; accessibility so government works for the creative arts,” Dudley say. “Her most important lesson was connectivity to, and within the community. Those are important lessons to live by when in the public trust. I hope to continue that mission.”
Chicago Local Executive Director, SAG-AFTRA
With over 4,000 members in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin. Chicago SAG-AFTRA executive director Eric Chaudron has been an important advocate for the freelance actor since 2010. Coming from a background in employment and labor law, as well as other entertainment unions, Chaudron has ben present for the most expansive growth in employment opportunities for Chicago actors since the heyday of film and television production in the golden nineties. “The last five years in our industry, and certainly in Chicago, has been a whipsaw” of change. “We have seen work opportunities increase in our television production and in broadcast. But commercial work has been flat and industrials work has been on a slow decline,” Chaudron says. “We’ve seen shows like ‘Chicago Fire’ and ‘Chicago PD’ hit big. ‘Empire’ is a mega-hit. This is great news, but it comes with caution. Our members typically get cast in day play or weekly roles on these shows. They can’t work on them again for several seasons if ever again. So the challenge becomes finding union work for these members when they can’t land a regular role in a TV series.” Campaigns for commercial work have moved from Chicago to a national level and Chaudron says, “We’re also pushing to put new media projects under contract at a rapid pace. We are also focused on gaming and interactive and have seen a steady increase in this work since 2010. Moreover we have an impressive list of low-budget, ultra-low-budget and student films in Chicago now, too.” The next five years, he adds, “Chicago will see expanded work opportunities and become an even more vibrant film, TV, broadcast and new technology hub.”
Eugene Sun Park
Producer, Full Spectrum Features
While working as a producer on multiple projects (including the Newcity-affiliated Chicago Film Project’s recently announced undertaking), Eugene Sun Park has admirably broadened his activities, putting his activist sentiments into action. “Chicagoland Shorts,” a selection of experimental and eccentric work by local filmmakers continues to screen around Chicago, included in a featured slot in Chicago Artists Month for an “expanded cinema” event. (It’s also available on disk from the Full Spectrum website.) His production entity, Full Spectrum Features became a 501(c)(3), moving forward with a growing development slate of projects that are, for one reason or other, “not super-viable” under a more mainstream/commercial structure; as well as helping other filmmakers via fiscal sponsorship as well as launching a producing internship program, offering academic credit at Northwestern and Columbia College. Plus, Full Spectrum is laying the groundwork for a grant program for filmmakers, providing funds and mentorship specifically to help them with film festivals, marketing, and other professional activities, akin to the sixteen years of grant-making from New York’s Creative Capital. Park also received a $160,000 grant from the National Park Service for a twenty-minute project on Japanese-American internment in World War II.
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.