Fifty-fifth Mayor, City of Chicago “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD,” “Chicago Med,” there’s even been a “Chicago Mayor” in the form of “Chicagoland,” a documentary series about a selected slice of city politics, not to mention “Empire.” In the Rahm Emanuel empire, some of his most visible successes of late include landing of the controversial Lucas Museum of Narrative Art after first-choice San Francisco’s demurral, which may or may not land on the lakefront museum campus, depending on how legal challenges progress. A hands-off attitude toward burgeoning film production is also a plus, undoubtedly aided by ties to Emanuel’s brother Ari, co-CEO of mega-talent agency William Morris Endeavor.
Executive Director, Chicago Access Network Television
The City of Chicago established CAN TV in the early 1980s to maximize the access of Chicago residents and groups to cable television production. Executive director Barbara Popovic says thousands of Chicagoans have availed themselves of the facilities, providing a “digital lifeline to people lacking the means to access the latest digital tools, training people to adapt to a changing multimedia environment, teaching skills toward independent use of media, and building technological literacy in the community.” Activists are particularly avid users among the creators of 140-plus hours of local programming each week, she relates. “Every day, we work to protect and extend people’s right to speak and be heard, providing video training, equipment, facilities, and channel time for Chicago residents and nonprofit groups. CAN TV’s five local, non-commercial channels reach over one million viewers in the city of Chicago. CAN TV operates as an independent nonprofit community television station. CAN TV was founded on the principal of freedom of speech, a fundamental tenet of democracy. CAN TV channels reach beyond the commercial and conventional mandates of broadcast television to include engaging local discussions and debates with a diversity of people and ideas, innovative performances, and works that are not available on other television stations.” CAN TV is in the midst of moving to its first permanent home, providing “the latest digital tools in a modern, multi-use space,” Popovic says. “We train people to adapt to a changing multimedia environment, teach skills toward independent use of the media, help residents and groups get their programming on multiple media platforms, and build technological literacy in the community.”
President and Founder, Media Burn Archive
Tom Weinberg, whose credits include creating WTTW’s “Image Union,” founded one of Chicago’s least noted yet most valuable archives, Media Burn, in 2003 after a four-decade career as a documentary producer. “We wanted to preserve independent video documentaries produced in the prior thirty or so years. We had collected more than 5,000 tapes, many of which were from programs I produced or worked on and saved over the years. Our goal is to make videos available worldwide for educational uses and general audiences. We began the archiving process before YouTube, using funky technology to make our videos accessible online at mediaburn.org. Nobody had ever done that with this kind of content.” But Media Burn stays on top of technology and constantly expands the amount of material on the website. “Our videos have now been viewed by more than thirteen million people in every country in the world.” YouTube, Facebook and other online sites are the primary mode of distribution, but there are also screenings throughout the year. “We now have more than 6,500 videos in the archive,” Weinberg says, with “The Chicago Collection” alone at 2,000 videos. “We have the largest trove of works by and about Studs Terkel and Bill Veeck. Our raw, camera-original videos are a vital part of the archive because they are absolutely unique historical documents that provide the context that no other kind of archive can match.” There’s also a wealth of political material, and the entire fifty-two-hour run of PBS-broadcast “The 90s.” “Our videos were not produced for commercial TV. Most of them have an independent attitude about media, culture, and history. If we hadn’t preserved them, they’d have deteriorated and been lost forever.” Hundreds of individual contributors add to funds from foundations including Donnelley, MacArthur and Driehaus, as well as the National Endowment for Humanities and National Archives.
Founder, Johnsonese Brokerage
A feature film that’s going to be set loose on the world requires a wealth of contributions the average filmgoer remains blissfully unaware of. Such as: insurance. Chris Johnson’s Johnsonese Insurance is an important Chicago player. “I’m a financial analyst by training and was working in the auto industry—Ford to be specific,” Johnson says. “But I realized that I wanted to work with people that I find interesting and that are passionate. Creative people are the most interesting and passionate people. So entertainment insurance would let me put my business skills to work in a creative field. I knew that no one in the entertainment business was going to hire me from Ford, so I had to start my own company. It’s been fun—and challenging—to create the job that I wanted. And Chicago has been good to me—I don’t think I could have started from scratch like this in Los Angeles or New York.” Johnson insures the risks of production. “Making a film is a risky project because each one is by design trying to be unique,” he says. “It’s not a repetitive process like manufacturing that can be fine-tuned. So there’s risk inherent in the process and insurance is one tool to help manage that risk. Things happen on a film shoot—equipment breaks and gets stolen, props get lost, people get hurt or sick. Insurance helps financially recover from these problems. You can even insure against weather delays or your star not showing up for work. We use things like the production budget, number of shoot days, and types of stunts to determine how risky a project may be. For larger projects, the experience of the team, especially the producer and director, is important.” Among the forty or so productions insured to date, Johnson says he’s especially proud of two local productions at the Chicago International Film Festival, Stephen Cone’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” and Valerie Weiss’ “A Light Beneath Their Feet.” “These are all young filmmakers doing great work.” Johnsonese also insures production companies like Pink Hippo, “a group of mostly Columbia College grads who formed a company almost right out of college,” Johnson says. “I think indie film is heading for another renaissance because of the new distribution channels that are coming into their own. Everyone knows about VOD, but there are also new boutique distributors making waves in the industry.” But it comes down to the city for Johnson. “I love the entrepreneurial spirit in the film industry—especially in Chicago. Chicago has all the pieces in place to play a major role in this renaissance. Film is project-oriented, so you need to put together a new team for each film. Having a community that you can easily turn to and find the resources that you need is important. That’s why I volunteer with IFP/Chicago as a board member. On a personal level, I really try to be a resource to young filmmakers and film students. I have guest-lectured on insurance in film classes, and I try to help new filmmakers really understand the insurance that they’re buying. We try to never turn down a project because it’s too small. We insure a lot of thesis films and first-time filmmakers. We don’t make much money on these micro projects, but I always joke that I only need one of these filmmakers to become the next Christopher Nolan! Seriously, we see small projects as an investment in our future, as well as the future of the Chicago film community.”
Jonathan Bross and Mike Nehs
Principals, Periscope Post & Audio
Whenever there’s a boom in production, there’s a need for other services, including editing, sound mixing and color correction. Of up-and-coming Periscope Post and Audio, Jonathan Bross relates, “Mike and I both saw that with the introduction of the Illinois Tax Incentive and the arrival of Cinespace, production in Chicago was booming. We saw that Chicago needed a full-service, high-quality postproduction company that focused on the film and television industries. Most of the post here was oriented around advertising, and the market was pretty fragmented. We’re very pleased that we have been able to step in and be part of making great film and TV content here in Chicago.” Partnerships are important to Periscope. “Our most important partnerships are with our clients. We take great pride in our work, and are excited about building long-term friendships with people who are making content. We have a great relationship with Cinespace and are honored to be part of the family. We’re located on the lot and are expanding our footprint here. We are always looking to build more friendships and to be part of creating more great content.”
Owner and President, Olive Films
There’s hearsay about the death of “physical media” in favor of streaming and digital downloads, but Chicago’s own Olive Films, founded in 2002 by Farhad Arshad, a political exile from Iran (and U.S. citizen since 1993), makes a compelling contrary case. “Contrary to popular belief, physical home media is sought after by everyone from the casual film enthusiasts to cinephile collectors,” vice president Andrew Sobol says. “Olive Films is fortunate to have a diverse and extremely dedicated audience that craves and often times requests very specific films and projects to be released on DVD and BluRay media. Our goal is to cater to our audience by offering a wide range of remastered Hollywood classics, seventies through nineties cult comedy, action, horror, sci-fi and TV nostalgia as well as contemporary arthouse and foreign cinema. Olive Films continues to attract new fans as well as satisfy our existing audience by continually expanding our diverse catalog.” Recent releases include Wim Wenders’ “Million Dollar Hotel,” Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo,” Saul Bass’ “Phase IV” and exploitation titles like “Deadliest Prey.” While not on the rarefied curatorial level of the Criterion Collection, Olive has important supporters. “Over the years, we’ve received handwritten letters from legendary producers and directors, not just from our fans thanking us for our efforts in preserving cinema.” Olive Films is a fully equipped distribution company working in all areas of distribution, including theatrical, VOD, SVOD and physical media, with a catalog of over 500 titles. “Olive Films became what it is today by releasing films that matter,” Sobol says, “focusing our efforts to maintaining the artistic integrity of the creators as well as dedicating to quality restoration.” A notable plan for expansion: “We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of synergy with the Chicago film scene and we are very excited at the many possibilities on the horizon.”
Jose “Pepe” Vargas
Director, Chicago Latino Film Festival
Among Chicago’s fistful of long-lived film festivals, the Chicago Latino Film Fest reaches its thirty-second year this coming spring. Festival director Pepe Vargas remains enthused: “Its vitality is a story in itself!” Vargas credits a supportive audience, which grew to over 35,000 admissions in 2015. “The Festival offers a unique opportunity for all Chicagoans to connect with the Latino community in a deeper and more effective way,” he says. Additional endeavors include the Latino Music Festival and Film in the Parks, both passing their tenth season, and the six-year-old monthly Reel Film Club series. Vargas says the fest is “the most comprehensive and best Latino film festival in the United States and most diverse international Latino cultural event. The Festival brings in films of rich cultural expressions from throughout Latin America, Portugal, Spain and the United States to Chicago.”
Ordinarily, we don’t publish the recommendations prior Film 50 figures offer for potential candidates, but we’re taken with Amir George’s words for Rebecca Lavoie, who’s come to Chicago from Montreal. “I would like to suggest Rebecca Lavoie, a new independent film curator in the city who has collaborated with CIMMfest [currently a programmer], [guest programming] Chicago Filmmakers, as a programmer and a juror for their Digital Media Fund, also Reeling Film Festival [as shorts co-programmer]. She has championed queer and feminist programming more than any other programmer in the city. Her presence has been influential in my own curatorial practice as well.” Ph.D. researcher Lavoie also describes herself as involved in film and video art practices, queer and feminist politics and community building.
Raul Benitez and Nando Espinosa
Programmers, Comfort Station Film
Smack in the middle of Logan Square, “Comfort Station started when The Logan Square Preservation Society went to the city to allow them to preserve the building as a historic place,” programmer Raul Benitez says. Of “comfort stations” that had been built to shelter commuters, only two are left and this one, built in 1926-27, is the last functional one. Events began in 2010, including a movie series that Asa Kaplan moved from his apartment. In 2013, Benitez and Nando Espinosa took over the series, with an emphasis of offering support to filmmakers and their collaborators. “We’re given a lot of freedom of what we can program. We also do all the social media marketing, website updates and promotion of the film events along with reaching out and advocating community groups in Logan Square.” Key programs are shown on Wednesdays, except during holiday weeks and the frigid months of January-March. “Our attendance really depends on the event. Our screening of Scopitone films [an early form of music videos], we had forty-five people in the space. For our outdoor screenings, we get up to seventy. Because all our screenings are free it’s hard to gauge how many people will come out.” Programming can be planned as much as six months ahead, but “if something falls in our lap that we feel is a good fit, we work to squeeze them in on an off day.” In terms of keeping a consistent schedule, Comfort Station is an important example for other potential microcinemas. “Yes, but we are unique in that we can offer the space for free for filmmakers and partner programmers and community groups,” Benitez says. “We understand that we live in a diverse community and want to offer diverse programming. Plus, all our film events are free and open to the community. Because of this, we also get a lot of local filmmakers just looking for a space to show their film. Obviously, we look up to the Nightingale and Christy is somebody who I worked with when I was a volunteer with Chicago Underground Film Festival, where I’m still a screener.” Benitez, however, is excited to see more sites across the city. “There’s Little House and Film Front in Pilsen. We’ve already partnered with Little House this year and look forward to partner with Film Front and others. The past two years, we have made amazing partnerships with many film programmers across the city.”
Producer, The 48 Hour Film Project
Independent producer Jerry Vasilatos was Chicago City Producer for this year’s “48 Hour Film Project,” after participating in the event earlier as a filmmaker. “I wanted to see the event function more to serve independent filmmakers by providing them with resources that had not been in place, as well as local media exposure to recruit more participants and broaden our audience base at the screenings. From that leadership role, I’m getting involved again in the independent film scene, using Chicago’s landscape, history and character as a location backdrop, and participating in a mentorship role from my experiences in both L.A. and Chicago with filmmakers I met through the ’48’ and at other networking functions.”
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.