By Ray Pride
The city of Chicago’s 2018 Millennium Park Summer Film Series, presented by The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), which focused on made-in-Chicago movies two years ago, takes a fresh Chicago turn, sharing its programming with film festivals from around town, including Siskel Film Center’s Black Harvest, Chicago Film Archives, Chicago International, Chicago International Children’s, Chicago Latino, Chicago Underground, Chicago Critics Film Festival, CIMMFest, Chicago Media Project’s DOC10, Midwest Independent and Chicago Filmmakers’ Reeling LGBTQ+ International, offering exposure to tens of thousands of Chicagoans who might be unaware of their existence, let alone their year-round work.
We talked to Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, deputy director Betsey Grais, DCASE public relations coordinator Mary May and CFO independent film coordinator Thavary Krouch in a compact ground-floor office at the Cultural Center on the first eighty-plus degree-day of May. A view of the bandshell is visible looking past Michigan Avenue—at least until you sit down, when the largest vista offers a release poster for the super-Chicagophilic “The Fugitive.” (Among smaller memorabilia in the office is a framed print of a panel from Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan,” depicting a stretch of downtown Chicago with Superman splattered onto a street that could well be the stretch of the avenue outside.)
In six years, you’ve shown seventy or so movies. Have you had to cancel any shows?
Moskal: We really only faced bad weather, such bad weather that we had to cancel, just twice.
Torrential rain? Lightning?
Moskal: Lightning! We go rain or shine. It was “Spinal Tap.” It was a shame too, we had a really good crowd. We did that as a partnership with “Sound Opinions,” with Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis. We got about two minutes into the movie and then it was really thundering down. The very first year, we showed all musicals, just a way of showcasing the [bright LED] screen when it was brand new. Millennium Park wanted it as a supplement to performances that were going on the stage. On July 3, we showed “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and it was pouring rain, but no lightning. We showed it anyway to a crowd that had to be twenty-five people, just sort of hung under tarps. It was a horrible night, we were like, should we just pull the plug? And it was, No! Rain or shine! Those twenty-five people were more than happy just to sit in the puddle. We’ve also done themes throughout. We’ve had set-in-Chicago films.
May: We’ve tied them to the festivals like Taste of Chicago, the Air and Water Show.
Moskal: Yeah, we’ve tried to program around other milestones or events. Each year we’ve tried to include attractions a little bit different from previous years. A couple of years ago, we started showing locally made shorts, as part of what had been branded as a Chicago-made film series. We’re doing that again this year. Thavary just closed our submissions.
Krouch: Submissions ended right before midnight last night. We have a total of 133 submissions. I’ve seen half of them, so there’s another half I have to finish watching. After the first round of decisions, we’ll whittle down to what seems to be the best fit. People aren’t coming down for a shorts program, so we try to be short and sweet and funny and entertaining. We have that captive audience of as many as 15,000 people out there for a feature. But they will see something that they may not have been aware of in terms of talent in Chicago.
Moskal: We don’t have a redline on length, but five minutes or less has been our goal.
Krouch: We can make exceptions, depending on the content and the quality of the film, but definitely aiming for those five minutes. The idea is to screen that short film right before the feature and try to program it along with the themes of the feature film. The ChicagoMade short series is a really great way to put the focus on our local independent filmmakers.
Moskal: The festivals of Chicago are the crossroads where film culture and the film industry meet. So in promoting our local film festivals, we’re literally fostering the growth of all segments of the film industry. Not only to showcase Chicago as a place that celebrates cinema throughout the year, but also as a place where the industry meets and conducts its business. Festivals seem to be the perfect gathering. [By our count], there are fifty festivals throughout the city of Chicago that happen during the year, so not everybody is attending every festival. This is another way for filmmakers and filmgoers to meet year-round.
It’s public visibility and accessibility, too. It’s not productions behind far-flung closed gates during a production workday that aren’t public.
Moskal: Right. Film festivals are at the crossroads of film culture and commerce. In supporting festivals, we’re promoting the larger film community eco-system. And showcasing Chicago as a city that not only celebrates cinema, but also as a place where the filmmaking industry convenes and conducts business. Chicago is also literally seeing the world through these movies. This year, we chose to use our platform, which is substantial, of drawing large crowds. Twenty thousand last year for “La La Land”! We’re taking the opportunity to expose our audience to festivals they may not have heard of. With fifty festivals throughout the year, there’s a good likelihood that our audience isn’t even aware there are that many festivals, touching genres, ethnicities, communities. What a perfect way for all that to convene, in Millennium Park. While we have only fourteen movies to show, we can only partner and collaborate with fourteen festivals, we’re using the series to promote all fifty festivals in ways that are still being devised, either through enhanced recognition and presence on our website, capturing Chicago as a city of film festivals. And working with our partners at Choose Chicago, who recognized film festivals as a tourism generator. Choose recognizes film festivals, especially Chicago International, as a tourism generator, but we see this not just as that, but as a way to go about reaching our general population and exposing them to that culture. Our fourteen festival partners were chosen as being representative of their communities at large: comedy is represented, documentary is represented, local films are represented. Each movie will have its festival partner and they will be given a platform to talk about their festival. Each film was curated in collaboration with them to reflect not necessarily what they would program specifically, but a movie that captures the spirit of their mission and their programming. A great example is the opening night, with the Chicago Underground Film Festival, we’ll be showing John Waters’ “Hairspray.” “Hairspray” may not be the most “underground” of Waters’ films, but it certainly is a great way of drawing a large audience to a populist film that still gets the mission of the Underground. We probably wouldn’t have shown a John Waters film otherwise.
It’s a gateway drug to the other John Waters films.
Moskal: Before you know it, you’re on to “Desperate Living.” Yeah. There’s fun and challenges. I think all the festival partners have been great about saying, yeah, we get it, we want to draw a big crowd, too.
If Chicago Underground gets only 10,000 in the park, that’s more than the entire festival will get across its entire run at the Logan the week after “Hairspray.”
Moskal: For sure. John Waters won’t be able to attend, but we’re hoping he’ll make a video for us, just as we might with other programs, so it’s not just someone from the festival getting up there. Having some other element, like when we had Alice Cooper greet the crowd for “Wayne’s World” last year. We’re always looking for ways for this series to do things you won’t get in other places. During “Slumdog Millionaire,” our joint presentation with the Chicago International, we hope to have some sort of dance sequence on stage, interactive with the audience.
Does any other city do this on this scale?
Moskal: I haven’t looked at that lately, but this series is a continuation of the Outdoor Festival we used to do at Butler Field in Grant Park, where it was film projected with James Bond as our projectionist. The screen now is an LED screen, it’s a different experience.
It’s to the same as many, many years ago when James Bond projected a 70mm print of “Days of Heaven” in Lincoln Park starting at the magic hour.
Moskal: No, it’s not that experience. In fact, what makes this different from just about any other outdoor screening is that we start at six-thirty. The screen is so bright, you can see it in daylight hours. It means that we can draw an audience that is inclusive of people who work downtown, people who want to bring their families out for an early evening, local residents, that a later-night screening, like we used to do in Grant Park, could not offer. We were all surprised by the turnout for “La La Land.” It’s not like people hadn’t seen the movie, but part of what is offered here is that experience of seeing films on a large screen in a beautiful setting, where the social element as well as the entertainment, is unlike any you can get elsewhere.
It’s different from seeing “La La Land” in its third week on a Wednesday night with twenty-two other people at the Davis Theater.
Moskal: The scene out on the lawn and in the seats is very cool. Picnics and families and friends hooking up and trying to track each other down. That social dynamic is something that we probably wouldn’t have in a darkened theater. Just the fact that you have the city as a backdrop is something that makes this series unique.
And it’s not just the skyline, either. The ceiling at the Music Box was designed to emulate the stars above the open-air cinemas of Italy and other Mediterranean countries. So that century-old custom is also honored in the park, and it wraps around Chicago’s motto, “City in a garden,” movies under the stars in the city in a garden.
May: You should write that down! It’s also important that we’re bringing our audiences to the festivals in all the neighborhoods throughout the city, exposing them to new organizations and new ideas. But it’s always a way of saying, from the hub downtown, we’re spreading out to every ward and neighborhood we can. With such a huge stage, a lot of people just out for the evening are going to learn about something new in their city. All of these festivals are part of a growing appreciation in movies in Chicago, for that many festivals to survive and to thrive, even though all of them are struggling to get attention in a very crowded world of distractions. Chicago has an appetite for movies.
Moskal: Here’s an example. In years past, the cultural appetite in Toronto for film and moviegoing and cinema is huge. Toronto is an industry capital both in terms of production and exhibition, and the growth of the Toronto Film Festival went hand-in-hand with Toronto as being a place where the industry made films. We see this as an opportunity to talk about Chicago now in those [historical] terms. Chicago is very much on the rise as a place where television series are produced, where web series are made, where independent filmmakers are getting attention, where big feature films not only come to be made but to be premiered. That identity for Chicago, as a place where the industry happens, is reflected in the way audiences respond to going out to see a movie, too. Film really is important in that respect, as part of the cultural menu, the same way people go out to see live music, seeking out theater in storefronts, niche films in unexpected places in intimate ways, which could include rooftop films or movies in the park. It’s a neighborhood thing to do. We hope this festival is celebrating that. Hey! We can talk about movies made in Chicago, we can show shorts made here, we can talk about the festivals that happen all through the year, and people will respond, because they’re already responding to that in growing numbers. It’s a different landscape than it was even five years ago, ten years ago. There were the standard multiplex offerings, the Music Box, the Siskel Film Center, Doc Films. Those anchors were always offering nontraditional and independent cinema. They’ve bred a much larger culture, and out of respect for all those institutions, we’ve said, let’s use our draw to help share that attention.
And you’re not just heightening awareness of these fourteen groups, but to that fifty and beyond.
Moskal: And beyond, for sure. We’re sensitive to that, we don’t want it to look like, these are the only fourteen that matter. That’s why we’re putting together an additional promotion to feature these other festivals as part of a city of film festivals.
We also asked programmers about the summer series and the role of their festivals in city life.
“Man on Wire”: DOC10
Paula Froehle of Chicago Media Project says, with one of her personal favorites, “we look forward to celebrating the art of documentary films with our largest Chicago audience yet.” CMP’s “Dinner & Docs at the Davis” runs year-round, but Froehle says this showing will demonstrate “quite literally” how docs “are rooted in true stories and extend beyond the screen into real life” by a pre-show performance in the park by sixth-generation high-wire artist Tino Wallenda.
“Groundhog Day”: Chicago Comedy Film Festival
“Chicago is the city of comedy but also a diverse city,” CCFF’s Brent Kado observes, and “we aim to represent diverse voices and showcase comedic storytelling from different perspectives. We want the city of Chicago to continue to celebrate the power of comedy and the ability comedy has to bring everyone together. People may not realize that independent comedy filmmakers who screen at our festival are one step away from writing the next hot Netflix comedy. We support comedy as a vital and influential art form and we hope more people will celebrate independent voices with us at the festival in November.”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”: Chicago Critics Film Festival
“Chicago is a city of many voices and it is only fitting that a festival curated by film critics would seek to inject even more voices into a culture that is so supportive of all types of art,” says Erik Childress of one of the park series’ boldest presentations. “We want them to be part of the overall conversation of film and invite audiences to spread the love for these wonderful titles.”
“Kinky Boots”: Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival
“We’re excited to introduce new audiences to our festival,” Brenda Webb says, pointing out “Reeling is the second-longest-running film festival of its kind in the world and brings the best LGBTQ-themed films from around the globe to Chicago audiences each September. We appreciate the city’s collaborative and inclusive approach to its programming of the series and are pleased that they will be shining the spotlight on the many film festivals that make Chicago a vibrant culturally diverse city.”
“Slumdog Millionaire”: Chicago International Film Festival
“The Chicago International Film Festival, now celebrating our fifty-fourth year, has always been about bringing community together to experience different cultures and new perspectives through the art of film and visiting filmmakers,” says Mimi Plauché, artistic director. “There’s nothing better than watching a film on a big screen with a group of people and film festivals celebrate this collective movie-going experience, through which we are transported to unfamiliar worlds together, where strangers become friends, and we can bond over this shared experience. The city’s programming, showcasing the film festivals taking place throughout the city all year long, is all about the collective experience, and we’re happy to be a part of this series. We were one of the first festivals to show ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ in 2008. Danny Boyle commented on the importance of film festivals for bringing independent and international cinema to audiences. It seems perfect to show the film again at Millennium Park this summer!”
“Get Out”: Black Harvest Film Festival
“Since we are celebrating this year, the twenty-fourth year, of the Black Harvest Film Festival, our participation in the city of film festivals event further underlines Black Harvest as one of the most important cultural events, not only for Chicago, but nationwide,” says programmer Sergio Mims. “This festival is a reflection of and the result of this great city’s vast diversity and its vibrant cultural significance.”
“Coco”: Chicago Latino Film Festival
Gearing up for its thirty-fifth anniversary after a festival year that drew more than 35,000 attendees (and 70,000 to year-round programs), founder and executive director Pepe Vargas hopes to raise awareness not only for the film festival, but also the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago Music Festival, Films in the Parks, Reel Film Club, special film screenings, comedy shows, theater presentations and lectures that draw an audience that is sixty-five percent Latino and thirty-five percent non-Latino. “Every one of our invited guests has become an ambassador of Chicago to their respective homeland,” Vargas says. “This enhances Chicago’s reputation as a world-class city.”
“Hairspray”: Chicago Underground Film Festival
“Partnering with the city on the Millennium Park screening this year has been exciting and also a challenge,” says artistic director Bryan Wendorf. “The irony of a festival that was started with a deliberately countercultural attitude is now, after twenty-five years, partnering with the city, not lost on me. CUFF has also strived to find the largest audiences for the kind of films we want to champion though and I welcome the opportunity to get in front of this many people. The challenge was in finding a film that could appeal to a mass audience and still represent the programming mandate of the festival. I’ve never programmed anything with an audience of 20,000 before. Obviously, John Waters has been an inspiration, a friend and an ally to CUFF for many years and it makes sense that his mainstream commercial breakthrough film would be what we’d go with. I’m hoping that this partnership will work in a similar way to what John did with ‘Hairspray,’ sneaking subversive ideas into something that appears mainstream and palatable.”
All films are free and start at 6:30pm, except the family film on July 9 at 11am. For a full schedule, go to Millennium Park Summer Film Series.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.