“Hog Butcher for the World, Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads… Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.” Carl Sandburg’s words resounded mightily, rising from Chicago’s industrial fug of smoke and soot and steam of 1914. While large industries center and shelter here still, is it similarly impressive in this pre-post-capitalist moment to think of ourselves living and working within the “First-responder procedural producer for the world, experimental filmmaker, archivist of celluloid, player with pixels… Comic, caustic, self-effacing City of the Big Pictures”? Those who helped us arrive at these fifty entries on Chicago’s behind-the-scenes film community think so. There’s always press for visionary artists, but art gets into the world and onto screens large and small and into archives and onto screens again through intricate networks of economies and affinities. The work of visionary educators, visionary producers, visionary mentors, visionary exhibitors, visionary archivists are just as essential. While forces of consolidation and contraction are always at work, the Chicago film community is in a warm, fuzzy place for now. The loosely defined phrase “Peak TV” is due for a smackdown, even in relation to the flurry of series that continue to be shot locally, but in surveying the figures behind the camera and behind the scenes for this year’s edition of Film 50, we discovered an impressive portrait of Peak Chicago. (Ray Pride)
Written by Ray Pride with photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
President and CEO, Cinespace Chicago Film Studios
Since opening in October 2011, says Alex Pissios, over $3 billion in spending has been generated in the state, creating 7,500 film-related jobs in its wake. DePaul University has a major footprint on the campus. With thirty stages on nearly sixty acres, Cinespace is the largest film studio outside of Los Angeles, and will become an enclosed lot in 2018. “We’re close to getting permission to fence in the entire property, which is something I’ve been working with the city on for a couple of years, to actually fence it and make it a backlot. It’s gonna be an actual closed campus, which will be great,” Pissios says. “ You’re gonna need access to get onto the lot, and a big part of that is a lot of cars in there are flying back and forth, safety issues are a concern. The shows told me, ‘Hey, is there anything we can do?’” Other opportunities immediately present themselves. “We can give tours, even! Lagunitas, the brewery on our campus, gave 400,000 tours in 2016. Right next to us in North Lawndale! We’d love to tap into that. People who come to visit Chicago now can come to North Lawndale, an area that needs that type of support. And there are so many people working within our sixty acres, we slowly could see a little more commercial, a little more retail come around.” Cinespace, NBC and Wolf Films started CineCares, an apprenticeship program for the local community this summer. “We took ten local kids, high-school graduates from the neighborhood, and NBC hired them to work on the shows,” Pissios says. “We’re doing two twelve-week sessions of paid apprenticeships. We have these students who weren’t going to college getting to work close with a gaffer, hair and makeup, all the little bits of the business, directors, producers. The union, IATSE, they’ve been great. Once [the apprentices] see if they like the business, IATSE is willing to give them an opportunity to get into the union. That apprenticeship program is a start to solving a real problem. From what we understand, there is nowhere in the country doing anything like this.” So it insures all these productions are genuinely “Chicago made”? “Now you’re talking!” Pissios says, smiling. “Stage 18, an incubator [for future projects] I thought we had given enough space, is completely full. It’s got a waitlist. It’s been our goal from the beginning, it’s not about sitting back and waiting for Los Angeles to give us productions. It’s about creating opportunities. Who’s the next John Hughes? Who’s the next Harold Ramis? Let them have offices at Cinespace, produce their work here in Chicago. Then it’s really going to truly be a recipe for success. All I’m trying to do now is be a farmer. You take these seeds, keep giving them water. I believe that in anywhere from five to ten years, we’re going to have a really strong film industry in Chicago. Not just film, now with stuff like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon and Apple, we’re also coming into another golden age of television. We’re going to be nothing but busy, with L.A. stuff, with local productions, I don’t see this train slowing down at all.”
President and Owner, Music Box Theatre and Music Box Films
Music Box is an anomalous juggernaut, Chicago’s bright model of integrated programming, curation, theatrical showmanship, drink-slinging and distribution. “I’ve been focusing a lot on the rapidly changing nature of the theatrical exhibition and film-distribution businesses and their relationship,” Bill Schopf says. “I’ve been trying to find ways to better leverage our competitive advantage of Music Box being a vertically integrated company, intimately involved in film distribution as well as theatrical exhibition and, more recently, film production. Examples include using the theater’s deep experience with ‘event-izing’ movies, providing theatrical audiences with a film plus a related event, which can enable Music Box Films to help exhibitors across the country to create their own events relating to our films. Another is the ability of the two arms of Music Box to work together to build our ability to market films and reach audiences, nationally as well as locally.” Music Box continues to innovate in its awareness efforts, including traditional PR and ads, as well as social media and grassroots outreach. Schopf sees a continuum across the long span of his professions. “A theme central to my career has been the story and the audience,” he observes. “As a lawyer presenting lawsuits to juries, I learned the best way to succeed is to find the truth and present it in an interesting, persuasive, understandable and truthful story to the jury, both factually and emotionally. With films, we acquire and present films where we can find audiences who will find the film interesting, understandable, entertaining and true to the human experience.” Schopf also sees that reflected in his wines, served at the theater lounge. “Even with my winery, Dablon Vineyards, I have found for the best audience, wine is much more than the taste and smell, it is the story of where and how the grapes are grown and by whom, who makes the wine, what foods pair best with the wine. They’re just as hungry for the story as they are thirsty for the wine! Plus, there is a significant overlap between the audiences for foreign and independent film and fine wine.” Music Box Films recently marked its tenth anniversary of being in both theatrical exhibition and releasing movies nationwide, as well as maintaining the lasting charm of the 1929 movie palace on Southport Avenue. All that, plus new forays into film production, Schopf notes, are capital-intensive activities. “Our ongoing success continues to enable us to take advantage of opportunities—with accompanying risks—and continue to dive deeper into this fascinating business of entertaining the public.”
Jean de St. Aubin, Barbara Scharres and Marty Rubin
Executive Director, Director of Programming and Associate Director of Programming, The Siskel Film Center
“Our programming mission is inherently optimistic in the way that Marty [Rubin] and I interpret and carry it out,” Siskel director of programming Barbara Scharres says. “Looking at the idealism behind our mission rather than the daily grind of the logistics, each film comes alive when it is projected. The art of film, any film, no matter its year of origin, has no past, only a future, and the future happens here daily. In a real way, we rethink and reformulate the mission with every month’s schedule. That idea expands our concept of the audience—developed and faithful audiences for all kinds of films, but also new audiences we haven’t developed.” Scharres believes that ongoing large-scale endeavors, like the Black Harvest Film Festival, the European Union Film Festival and Panorama Latinx still have not reached their full potential. “They may never reach their full potential, and that’s a good thing. It’s not like we have a target end point in mind, a George W.-like ‘mission accomplished.’ Growth is ongoing and continuous. Our programming and audience potential is an ongoing and happening thing. Our mission is designed to cover everything, all time periods, nations, forms of production, so we are not intimidated by technical evolution, just as we haven’t abandoned all the forms the moving image has taken in the past.” The future is yet to be projected? “Who knows, anything could happen over what may be a long four years of cultural and political chaos. I’ll just leave that thought aside for now and go with optimism.” Scharres reports receipts are holding well, “but we never let our guard down, because you know an inexplicable slump is always around the corner. The reasons for slumps are almost impossible to pinpoint, just as the good times rarely have a definable cause, although both are sometimes tied to larger national filmgoing trends.” Executive director Jean de St. Aubin adds, “Attendance has steadily increased over the past three years and the last fiscal year attendance was over 85,000, where fiscal year 2014 was just over 70,000. And that is without any real blockbusters like ‘The Interrupters.’” “No matter how you look at it, we’re still an entertainment venue,” Scharres continues. “People come here and buy tickets to enjoy themselves on some level. That’s an optimistic and freeing thing. I think a lot about what entertainment means. Someone of the ’I want to be entertained, I don’t want to think’ mindset criticized the Canadian novelist and playwright Robertson Davies. Davies told them that he was writing for those who wished to be entertained as deeply and profoundly as possible. That’s exactly what I think is the ongoing spirit and hope of our mission: it’s an adventure in thinking, feeling, exploring, meeting the differences of other cultures and the ranges of difference within our own varied U.S. culture, and learning with excitement and the reward of expanded horizons.” Scharres has multiple examples of a younger audience packing shows, including the recently restored “Santa Sangre” by Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” “We showed an incredible, pristine 35mm print of [Chicago-set] ‘Love Jones’ from the Academy Archive as the closing night of the Black Harvest Film Festival, and awed an audience that has loved the film from childhood or teenage years, but mostly grew up with it on home video.” And to see it properly projected? “Film is one art that is designed to be bigger than you are. I believe that someone who has only seen films on a laptop screen, iPad or phone still has not seen into the soul-wrenching heart of the art form, and that is still waiting for them. They can discover it here.”
Director, Illinois Film Office
Beginning her third year as the director of the Illinois Film Office, Christine Dudley has worked her career experience in management and advocacy into the daily project of maintaining a balance of benefits for a burgeoning local industry, locationing film crews and the Illinois taxpayer. The present Illinois Film Tax Credit isn’t up for legislative review until 2021, so Dudley can work to sustain the state’s standing as number one in the Midwest region for film production (among Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin); third in the United States for commercial advertising production, which is increasing while still distant from California and New York; and, depending on whose figures you accept, either fifth or sixth in the country for all production spending. (One ranking places Illinois behind California, New York, Georgia and Louisiana, but ahead of New Mexico.) The Illinois Film Office reports calendar year spending and for the 2017 fiscal year, which closed on June 30, the estimated production spending was over half-a-billion dollars: $552,000,000, with $330,400,000 estimated in the form of wages.
Director, Chicago Film Office
The past year set records for film and television production and the numbers are impressive: Nine full season series headquartered in Chicago plus portions of other series and studio features shot here. The Chicago Film Office issued nearly 2,000 permits in support of 428 individual film and media projects for an all-time high combined total of 2,339 production days, a twenty-five percent increase from 2015’s production day total. And 2017 is on track to boom even louder. “The production demands of hosting full-season, year-round television series has definitely changed Chicago,” longtime Chicago Film Office director Richard Moskal says, “And all for the better. Chicago now has greater crew depth and diversity. New vendors are choosing to set up shop here. Local actors are getting more roles. And the industry increasingly sees us as a full-service, high-functioning production hub. This is not a new industry for us, by any stretch,” he says, nodding to the 1990s boom before he took the reins of the CFO over twenty years ago. “But we now have far greater capacity, expertise and the trade amenities producers have to have.” What does Chicago have for all these incoming productions other cities can’t offer? “No question, this is a fiercely competitive marketplace,” Moskal says. “And producers are always on the lookout for better deals and fresh locales. But they also crave consistency and predictability. Chicago has been offering a stable, affordable and welcoming big city setting for many years. And thanks to a variety of iconic standouts you just can’t find anywhere else, like Lower Wacker Drive and a labyrinth of El tracks, it’s a mighty, cinematic metropolis that is glamorous, gritty and original. We’ve got personality and good looks!” It’s a city of neighbors and neighborhoods? “Yes. Filmmaking happens in every corner of the city and for good reason. The diversity of ethnicities, culture and architecture tell a world of visual stories. At the same time, respect for residents and minimizing the inherent disruptions that can accompany production is essential to our ability to welcome the industry and our long-term growth.” Late in 2016, CFO also launched the Independent Film Initiative, as well as the first-ever City of Chicago Filmmaker-In-Residence program, which appears to be the first city government program of its kind in the country. The initiative also includes the ChicagoMade Shorts series, showcasing the work of local filmmakers as part of the Millennium Park Summer Film series. On average, that popular outdoor series draws on average 15,000 people a night.
Gordon Quinn, Betsy Steinberg, Tim Horsburgh, Leslie Simmer, Ryan Gleeson, Joanna Lakatos, Emily Strong
Artistic Director, Executive Director, Director of Communications and Distribution, Director of Editing, Post-Production Manager, Director of Development and Programs and Engagement Manager, Kartemquin Films
“What’s most exciting and gratifying to us right now is the success of our filmmaker development programs, which in the past decade have helped hundreds of alumni move projects and careers forward,” Kartemquin Films’ Tim Horsburgh relates, looking past the collaborative center for documentary media makers’ epic year-long anniversary celebrations. “We’ve been looking toward the future, reflecting on what Kartemquin can become, and what qualities we must preserve, that is, a Midwest-focused community of documentary makers, committed to quality storytelling, ethics and meaningful social impact, but we’re also experimenting with new formats and fundraising models, as well as considering the larger role we can play in leading advocacy and in efforts to build sustainable careers that insure a viable documentary industry.” To that end, former interns like Liz Kaar, Ian Kibbe and Dinesh Sabu completed their first co-productions with Kartemquin, which is now seeing the first output from its Diverse Voices in Docs initiative. Among core filmmakers like Steve James, Maria Finitzo and Kaar, the past year also saw the release and broadcast of James’ “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail,” Sabu’s “Unbroken Glass” and Margaret Byrne’s “Raising Bertie.” Upcoming are “America To Me,” Steve James’ epic new series, co-produced with Participant Media, and Gordon Quinn’s long-awaited “’63 Boycott,” debuting at the Chicago International Film Festival on October 22, the actual anniversary of the largely forgotten march against segregation depicted in the film.
Debra Tolchinsky and David Tolchinsky
Director, MFA in Documentary Media program and Chairman, Department of RTVF/Director, MFA in Writing for Screen + Stage program, Northwestern University
NU’s ambitious kino-twosome continue to broaden the ambitions of Northwestern’s department of Radio-TV-Film in their respective programs. A range of successes include student film acceptances in festivals like Camden, Locarno and New Directors; alumni staff writing gigs on “The Late Show,” “Late Night” and “I Love Dick”; student, faculty and alumni awards including Guggenheim, PEN America and Writers Guild nominations. Visiting luminaries included documentary elder Frederick Wiseman; Joshua Oppenheimer, (“The Act Of Killing”), Sam Raimi and “I Am Not Your Negro” director Raoul Peck. New facilities include a state-of-the-art recording and performance studio; a new black-box theater for the department’s acting-for-the-screen program; and designs for the Performing and Media Arts Center in downtown Chicago, which will extend the department into the greater Chicago filmmaking community. Dave introduced an emphasis in the department on comedy, based on the department’s alumni pool, which includes Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert. Debra co-founded the Chicago chapter of Film Fatales, which supports Chicago-based female directors. Debra is also currently directing and producing “True Memories and Other Falsehoods,” a documentary that explores the intersection of contaminated memory and the criminal justice system. Dave is involved in filmmaking and theater as well as projects that bring theater and film together, including the play “An Attempt to Heal in the Contemporary World,” about psychologist Wilhelm Reich, to be combined with Melika Bass’ film, “Creature Companion,” which he also co-produced.
Jacqueline Najuma Stewart
Film Scholar and Preservationist
What was a full plate for several years for Jacqueline Stewart produced a bounty of completed projects in the past year. “I continue to work toward using film to enrich the lives of folks on the South Side of Chicago,” the University of Chicago professor relates. “Black Cinema House, where she served as curator until recently, focused its screenings in the Stony Island Arts Bank, Rebuild Foundation’s stately, lovingly restored arts complex. We offered screenings that complemented the programs and collections in the building, including a series reflecting on black bodies in pain and testimony presented in conjunction with the Glenn Ligon neon sculpture on view in the main gallery.” This summer, BCH showed selections from the essential “Pioneers of African-American Cinema,” a five-disc box set Stewart co-curated for Kino Lorber. “I’ve been particularly honored to screen the works of black filmmaking pioneers of the pre-Civil Rights Era like Oscar Micheaux, James and Eloyce Gist and Spencer Williams in a building that houses such rich collections of black artifacts. We have been showing these films on a loop during open hours at the Stony Island Arts Bank, putting them in illuminating dialogue with the Johnson Publishing Company Library, and the challenging ‘negrobilia’ items collected by Edward Williams.” Large audiences also came out for a twentieth-anniversary presentation of Chicago-based “Love Jones.” “The warm and enthusiastic response to Black Cinema House programming demonstrates the passionate interest South Siders have in film; folks are keen not just to see interesting work, but to have the opportunity to have meaningful dialogue. Black Cinema House also hosted a screening and discussion of ‘Moonlight’ the night before it opened at the Harper Theater in Hyde Park.” Stewart just began Cinema 53 at Hyde Park’s Harper Theater, “expanding the range of offerings on our side of town.” And the South Side Home Movie Project that you direct? “We invite people with 8mm, Super-8mm and 16mm family films to contribute to our visual archive of the rich history and culture of Chicago’s South Side,” she urges. “From birthday parties to Christmas mornings, picnics and parades, home movies show precious details of everyday life in our communities. These fragile films are in danger of disappearing if they are not preserved. We ask folks to pull their home movies out of closets, basements and garages so that they can be seen and treasured for generations to come. We offer free digitization services, and conduct oral histories with donor families to illuminate the history of the South Side that is all too often overshadowed by the stories of violence and dysfunction that dominate commercial media representations. Additionally, SSHMP archivist Candace Ming has been running preservation workshops with the artist Maggie Brown, using the rich archive of Maggie’s father, the legendary Oscar Brown, Jr., as inspiration for teaching folks how to maintain their own personal collections of film, video, photographs and documents.”
Paula Froehle and Steve Cohen
Executive Director and Co-Founder, Chicago Media Project
Chicago Media Project, founded in 2014 and membership-based, works from a community model of philanthropy, and in three years, has supported more than twenty documentary films and media projects, which have premiered at festivals such as Sundance, Hot Docs and Tribeca, and screened on CNN, P.O.V., Amazon and Netflix as well as theatrically worldwide. Individual CMP-funded films have been used to train liaisons for homeless teens in Chicago public schools, as organizing tools for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and to raise awareness of the issue of moral injury on veterans. Five films premiered this summer. Along with the powerful “Whose Streets,” “Icarus,” Amanda Lipitz’s moving “Step” and Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s big-game-hunting doc “Trophy” are getting seen by national audiences. CMP will also reach out to Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia to meet in communities where CMP members live. Along with the annual DOC10 documentary weekend, the newest CMP content series, “Dinner & Docs @ the Davis Theater” runs quarterly Chicago premieres with dinner, followed by Q&As and discussions. And “CMP I/I,” the equity fund, has launched a high-tier fund for executive producer- level investments in all kinds of documentary films, expanding their reach to include personal docs, entertainment and historical nonfiction.
Executive Director, Chicago Filmmakers
“The most important change over the past couple of years,” relates Chicago Filmmakers executive director Brenda Webb of the forty-one-year-old institution, “would be our purchase and renovation of a firehouse, which will soon become our new home.” The landmark firehouse, built in 1928 on Ridge Avenue in Edgewater, was purchased from the city of Chicago in early 2016 and has been under construction for a year and a half.” Chicago Filmmakers’ year-round exhibition program is one of the longest-running in the country for American and foreign independent film and video, but just as important, the consolidated space will allow growth in its programs as “a diverse media arts center with programs in adult and youth education, equipment access and other filmmaker services, film distribution and preservation, and production funding.” The organization also sustains two annual film festivals, the twenty-nine-year-old Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival (adopted by Chicago Filmmakers in 2001) and the thirty-five-year-old Reeling, the Chicago LGBTQ International Film Festival. “Next year we intend to have Reeling screenings at the firehouse, but since seating capacity will be about seventy-five, it will still not be big enough for all the screenings. We anticipate the bulk of the screenings will still be at outside venues like the Landmark Century and the Music Box.” Still, the new space will include not only the theater in the old fire truck bay, but new equipment for students and co-op members, a new meeting space and expanded classrooms.
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.