Aymar Jean Christian and Elijah McKinnon
Founder and Interim Executive Director, OTV
Television from the ground up: that’s how Aymar Jean Christian describes the programming of OTV that’s supporting a vital range of creators who are telling stories in Chicago and about Chicago. “We help artists make and release TV online. In addition to fees for distribution, we offer artists access to mentorship and free consultation, from fundraising through marketing and community-based resources from spaces to referrals.” Christian sees economic forces on Chicago’s side. “Cost pressures will continue to bring bigger productions here and organizations like OTV will develop and distribute local talent to keep Chicago’s growth sustainable.” Next year, 2020, OTV turns five. “We’ve catalyzed indie TV production in the city and done it with artists who are the most often to be overlooked. We are increasing staff, starting an app, and pursuing partnerships outside of Chicago, including studios in Hollywood and Sundance, which we believe will be a long-term partnership bringing Hollywood to Chicago to support development and distribution. Funding from the MacArthur, Surdna, and Field Foundation support our full-time staff and the app. OTV is scaling up: we have our first executive director in Elijah McKinnon; our first Heads of Community and Exhibition in Jenna Anast and Chris Walker; and we’ll be hiring in development and marketing for 2020. We got our downtown office this year, and next year we’ll be anchoring film and TV programming at Northwestern’s downtown campus. 2019 was our biggest season to date, doubling the number of programs versus 2018. Our alums are shining: Sam Bailey sold her first feature this year, Ricardo Gamboa is writing for ‘The Chi,’ Karan Sunil whose series ‘Code-Switched’ will revolutionize South Asian representation next year, was on staff on ‘The Red Line’ (where another alum, Fawzia Mirza, was also a staff writer), Fatimah Asghar directed her first short. All of this action has us incorporating our new Studio arm and we’re approaching investors in the fall. In five years? OTV will be an institution unique to Chicago but also unparalleled nationally.”
Brenda Webb and Richard Knight, Jr.
Executive Director, Chicago Filmmakers, Features Co-Programmer, Shorts Programmer, Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival; and Features Programming Director, Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival
“Owning our own home gives us a sense of control over our future,” Brenda Webb, who has been part of Chicago Filmmakers since 1978, says of the group’s home, a firehouse bought from the city of Chicago. But “raising funds to renovate it, and managing it through the construction process, something completely outside my normal experience is something I never plan to do again!” Webb points out “renting a space, you are subject to rising rents, landlords, and sometimes developers who want to profit from the gentrification of a neighborhood to which your organization may have inadvertently contributed by its very existence there. Having moved from Hubbard Street to Lakeview to Wicker Park, our moves were triggered by developers or real estate issues. Arts organizations are often drivers of economic development but rarely benefit from it. Owning allows us to plant roots in our neighborhood, where we can enjoy development rather than see it as threatening to our future.” Chicago Filmmakers supports independent filmmaking in many ways: funding digital videos for the web, screening independent films and videos for the public, teaching film production to youth and adults, providing services for independent filmmakers, awarding $100,000 annually in grants to local filmmakers through the Chicago Digital Media Production Fund and two public film festivals: “The Onion City Experimental Film & Video Festival” and “Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival.” Richard Knight, Jr. says, “As the Features Programmer for Reeling, my greatest challenge is assembling a slate that walks the fine line between surefire crowd pleasers, artistically adventurous work and at least a smattering of culturally relevant films. I watch queer-themed movies, hundreds of them, and assemble them for Reeling, the second-oldest LGBTQ film festival in the world. Lucky for me, I love queer cinema. I look forward to continuing to hold the banner aloft for queer cinema.” “Vying for the attention of younger audiences is always a challenge,” Webb says, “especially given the accessibility of digital media. Our responsibility is to remind people that seeing a film with an audience in a community environment, often with the filmmaker in person, has added emotional and intellectual value over watching a film on their television or computer. Even with all that is available online, there are so many amazing films that will not be on the average viewer’s radar outside a film festival.” The Chicago film community, Knight says, is “much more vibrant then when I came on the scene. There are many more festivals; many more venues to watch movies, but a shrinking, distracted audience for the type of movie festivals typically program. Film festivals and the indie film houses have risen beautifully to the challenge. Competition has bred creativity.”
Dean, College of Computing and Digital Media, DePaul University
David Miller oversees three schools at DePaul—cinematic arts, computing, and design—where he sets strategic vision and seeks the financial and human resources to enable faculty and staff to equip students with tools and opportunities for successful careers in the cinematic arts. Miller is proud that concentration on the School of Cinematic Arts has led to ranking as a top film school by several industry publications, as well as the development of the state-of-the-art 32,000 square-foot production facility at Cinespace; a collaboration with The Second City to offer degrees in comedy filmmaking (the only such degree in the country); an academic partnership with Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC), the top film program in Mexico, to provide filmmaking opportunities for students from both institutions; and the growth of the film, television and animation programs to over 1,500 students and forty-four full-time faculty. “We also just made a significant investment in media server technology to allow our students to learn the most advanced professional collaborative post-production workflows.” Recognizing that cinema has always been an international art form, DePaul is developing further partnerships like the collaboration with CUEC. The school is also expanding its virtual and augmented reality offerings in collaboration with DePaul’s School of Design. Miller is bullish on Chicago too, seeing the city grow not only as a production hub, “but also a center for content creation across the entire development process. More original content will be written, shot and finished here. Chicago has the talent, but we need to do more to support these artists with infrastructure and financial resources. We also need to continue to foster a strong sense of community and collaboration among local filmmakers and to increase the diversity of creative voices.”
Mimi Plauché, Vivian Teng, Anthony Kaufman, Sam Flancher
Artistic Director, Managing Director, Film Programmer, Programmer, Chicago International Film Festival
“Now that we have finalized the program for this year,” Mimi Plauché says of October’s fifty-fifth Chicago International Festival, “We can say that we are energized by the state of contemporary filmmaking. While the film industry is certainly in a state of flux, as models for production and exhibition shift, we feel that the art of cinema is as vibrant, diverse, and bursting with creativity as ever. Through the programming, we love both tracking and showcasing emerging cinemas from different parts of the world, but we also are encouraged by the increasing excellence of films made right in our backyard.” Programmer Sam Flancher agrees. “While festival and industry landscapes might be shifting, the sheer amount and range of quality work that we screen and consider is encouraging. It’s easier than ever to make a film and submit it to festivals, and that democratization of the art certainly improves our program.” Short films have been Flancher’s purview for a few years. “The short film program is integral to the Festival because we’ve always highly valued discovering new, talented filmmakers. Short filmmaking as a form has fewer barriers to entry, so it’s an arena where new filmmakers can experiment and express honest, clear versions of their style and voice. We often develop long-standing relationships with shorts filmmakers, many of whom go on to make features that we present at the Festival.” Michael Kutza leaves behind a massive history for the staff to live up to. “The Festival was founded on the spirit of discovery, and we have an amazing legacy, built by Michael,” Plauché says, “of showcasing emerging filmmakers, many of whom have gone on to become celebrated directors. We will continue to champion new works from emerging filmmakers around the world because we believe that this mission is as important as ever. Still, we are constantly evolving to ensure that we continue to present programming that benefits filmmakers and audiences alike. We are achieving this through a range of strategies. The Chicago film community has grown immensely in the past five years, and we have seen this in both the quantity and quality of films from Chicago submitted to and exhibited at the Festival. There are broadening opportunities for creators, film students, and audiences alike. And our audience is also expanding “downward” as our programs have been embraced by a younger demographic.” Flancher adds, “The city’s filmgoing audience grows more dedicated each year, and that’s exemplified by the sheer number of film organizations that are able to thrive here. We anticipate that these trends will only grow stronger in the next five years.” Plauche says, “As movie-watching is increasingly defined by small-screen, individual viewing, creating shared in-person experiences will be more important than ever.”
Barbara Scharres, Marty Rubin and Jean de St. Aubin
Director of Programming, Associate Director of Programming, and Executive Director, The Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute
“Consider Leonard Cohen’s metaphorical tower of song, but it’s a tower of film, with Marty and I, the programmers and curators, cultural caretakers hustling from floor to floor, listening to all the filmmaker voices from the birth of the movies to the present,” Barbara Scharres says, describing the Siskel. “Some demand that their art resonate through the ages; others plead to just not be forgotten. The newcomers on the ground floor clamor for the chance to make their mark. At the same time, we are listening to the audiences, those outside the tower, because we answer to them, too. Our mission charges us to equally consider their interests and desires and cultural needs. Film programming for a cultural venue is a balancing act: neither entirely in the service of the movies or entirely in the service of the audience, but a job that requires bringing them together in a way that preserves cultural heritage and history, opens a way for new artists, and fires imaginations in the unique ways that movies can. We do exciting work that allows us to channel films from all times and places to extremely diverse audiences in Chicago. Then, when the films are turned loose in the culture at large, they have more far-reaching effect than we can ever know—the catalyst for discussions, arguments, lasting memories and ideas, and new thoughts for the viewers.” (She calls this “the high-flying side of what we do.”) “On a daily basis, programming for two screens that run all year round is an all-encompassing job that involves endless research, developing and maintaining domestic and international business contacts, much bargaining and intricate financial negotiations, and mundane discussions of exhibition formats and shipping. In addition, there’s writing for our publications and website, which must strike a balance between the promotional and informational and the critical and educational.” Beyond balance, there’s also the quest for diversity. “Our goal is to maintain the extreme diversity of our program, encompassing retrospectives, series, festivals including Black Harvest, the Chicago European Union Film Festival, and the festival of films from Iran, plus first-run and second-run films, restorations and special screenings and accompanying lectures and artist appearances. Within that eclectic model, we constantly make adjustments, although we aim to keep them subtle enough to not be noticed. Of necessity, we respond to the ebb-and-flow of audience trends, industry downturns, and the unending evolution of the technology, while attempting to keep the overall appeal of our programming as fresh as possible. I know that the stereotype is that longevity leads to stagnation, but this is the Film Center’s forty-seventh year of public programming, and that makes us more resilient and able to deal with change. Over that time, almost five decades, our organization has seen more change in the industry at large, in the cultural climate, and in the technology than many cultural organizations. By now, we take change as a given, knowing that we need to be prepared to adapt, rethink programs, and rethink ways of doing what we do.” Some programs run their course. “One of the hardest things for me was deciding that our longstanding Hong Kong Film Festival had served its purpose,” she says. “In something like twenty years, a critical mass of Hong Kong directors and films had launched into the mainstream. I still love those films, but had to acknowledge that our work was done, and the cultural moment when we could help build an audience for an unrecognized cinema was over. There were new goals to pursue and new audiences to serve, and our mission is a process, not a static scheme. As a programmer, I have to think in terms of the past, the present, and the future, but it all has to work now.”
Executive Director, Kartemquin Films
Jolene Pinder joined the fifty-three-year-old not-for-profit nonfiction powerhouse Kartemquin in May as executive director after a search of several months. “Over the last fifteen years, my work has been defined by hybridity,” she says, “part documentary producer, part arts administrator, part film festival architect. I am invested in supporting regional storytellers to make their work and have it seen by audiences. Filmmakers should have avenues to tell stories from within their own communities, their cities, their lived experiences. My work has often focused on creating a conduit for industry on the coasts to connect with the immensely talented filmmakers who live and work in the vast space in between, ideally to amplify the work and use documentary to enact real change in the world.” As for her new position, overseeing a unique, even eccentric, filmmaking factory she says, “With Kartemquin having weathered so many waves in the documentary space, it has meant that we’ve done a lot of different things for films and filmmakers over time. One of the greatest challenges we face is defining what we do best and how do we most strategically build upon these strengths to ably serve filmmakers into the future. We must examine our own role as a gatekeeper and identify tangible ways we can contribute to democratizing the documentary space at home in Chicago, in the Midwest and nationally. We also need to engage in critical conversations and actions to address the issue of sustainability in the documentary field.” While some call this a “golden age” of documentary, “too many makers struggle to make a living with their films. The people at the helm of these films are often the last to get paid—if they ever do! Over time, Kartemquin has taken a leadership role in addressing critical issues in the field and this feels like one that is beating at our door.” Has anything about the new job, or KTQ’s integration into the community, taken her by surprise since she took the job? “I don’t think I fully understood the critical role KTQ plays in helping so many filmmakers shape the stories they want to tell. Sitting in on KTQ labs and our intern showcase, I quickly got a sense of how engaged Kartemquin is in the creative process, especially at the editing phase. I added up the number of years of editing experience in the building, and it was staggering—over a hundred! To see how seasoned editors can pierce to the heart of a film is something to behold. Another element of surprise: understanding just how many people have been part of Kartemquin in some way. We have over five-hundred alumni of Diverse Voices in Docs (DVID), KTQ Labs (our work-in-progress screening series) and our internship program.” As for coming years, she says, “I hope we will make major progress in implementing strategies that fully support a diverse community of films and filmmakers under the Kartemquin umbrella, such as a healthy production grant fund, stronger equity partnerships and real advancement on issues of equity and sustainability.”
Director, Arts + Public Life, Professor, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago; Director, South Side Home Movie Project and Cinema 53; Host, TCM Silent Sunday Nights
Chicago’s film community has become more decentralized in recent years, Jacqueline Stewart says. “We have seen a boom of smaller film programs and festivals, particularly on the South Side. And major festivals like Black Harvest and Chicago International are partnering with neighborhood venues. I hope that over the next five years we continue to see this flow of centrifugal energy, so that we have more cultural equity across Chicago neighborhoods, with more places to enjoy and discuss films closer to home.” Stewart, a film historian with a focus on African-American filmmakers from the silent era to the present, also studies and practices film archiving and preservation, with a concentration on the impact of race on the preservation of film as cultural heritage. “The producers of an MSNBC documentary on Michelle Obama visited the South Side Home Movie Project in fall 2018 for footage of everyday black life during the era when she was growing up in South Shore. Documentarians struggle to find this kind of imagery in archives and stock footage houses. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of collecting and preserving our home movies, and making them widely available.” Stewart is also committed to providing free and meaningful film programming on the South Side. “I intend to keep up the momentum, and I remain committed to compensating artists who share their work, and to provide space at every screening for dialogue. Cinema doesn’t just work on us internally and individually. It also brings us together as publics, as collectives. My hope is that our screenings of home movies and our Cinema 53 programs can develop our skills of critical viewing, deep listening and honest, respectful speaking. These are endangered capacities that we must strengthen in to be informed and empowered citizens of this city, this country and the world. I especially enjoy hosting Cinema 53 at the Harper Theater, which is the neighborhood theater I’ve been patronizing all my life.” Of the latest of her many pursuits, presenting silents on Sunday on TCM, Stewart says, “Hosting on TCM is an extraordinary opportunity to talk about film with a national, and very passionate, audience. I look forward to bringing highlights from ‘Silent Sunday Nights’ to my neighbors here in Chicago.”
Brian Andreotti and Ryan Oestreich
Director of Theatrical Distribution, Music Box Films, Director of Programming, Music Box Theatre; Director of Finance, Music Box Films, General Manager, Music Box Theatre
The ninety-year-old Music Box Theatre remains a national leader in preserving film culture under longtime owner William Schopf, and much of its success lies with the ability to build and retain a creative and effective team. “A business needs to be overseen from every aspect of its operations, from programming the movies, to facilities, to staffing, and that is the role of a general manager,” says Ryan Oestreich. “I ensure all parts of the business run smoothly, but I also like to spend a lot of time helping program the films.” Brian Andreotti says, “If you didn’t know our eclectic and diverse style of programming, then it’s hard to explain, but I make sure that we keep a great balance of films playing by watching all the new releases and working with the programming team to greenlight the best new and recurring festivals and special events.” Those responsibilities extend to Music Box Films for him. “Thousands of films are made every year, and many will never see the light of day,” Andreotti says. “It’s my job to work with the staff at Music Box Films to bring the best and most unique foreign-language and independent documentaries, as well as American narratives to the screens and homes across the country.” (Music Box Films released two of the year’s most acclaimed films, Christian Petzold’s “Transit” and Sundance discovery “Give Me Liberty.”) Looking back, Oestreich says, “Five years ago, we had an adventurous and hungry filmgoing community, and in 2025, I foresee the same. You can’t replace sitting in a movie theater with hundreds of other people experiencing a great story on the silver screen.” In that same time, Andreotti says that he worked on some of Music Box Films’ biggest achievements. “We won an Oscar for ‘Ida,’ as best foreign-language film, released the documentary ‘Meru,’ by filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who have since won an Oscar, and distributed the hit ‘A Man Called Ove,’ also nominated for best foreign-language film. I see us taking more risks on new and emerging filmmakers telling bold and unique stories, like our current release of ‘Give Me Liberty.’” Oestreich helped expand the company’s footprint in genre cinema, collaborating with the Bloody Disgusting horror website, and horror releases like “Hagazussa” and “Gags The Clown.” At the Music Box, Oestreich has ushered in programs like the annual Cinepocalypse festival, this August’s ninetieth-anniversary celebration, as well as sustaining a commitment to the 70mm Film Festival, Music Box of Horrors, and holiday traditions of “‘The Sound of Music’ Sing-A-Long” and a Christmas double feature. He notes restoration work, including the marquee, new bathrooms, and the upcoming replacement of the theater’s old-fashioned seats. “Speaking of seats and future accomplishments, I plan to replace all 700 seats.” He says restoration work is coming due, and that Music Box “always balances new technology and materials with the classic design and aesthetic of the theater.” Andreotti is particularly proud of the 70mm capabilities. “Over the past few years, I have established the Music Box as the place to open a new Hollywood film on 70mm. We were one of only five theaters in the world to open Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon A Time In … Hollywood’ on 70mm. In coming years, I hope to help Hollywood realize there will always be a reason to open movies on celluloid, whether 35mm or 70mm, especially with the help of our great audiences at the Music Box.”
Director, Chicago Film Office
Kwame Amoaku succeeded longtime Chicago Film office head Rich Moskal in July 2019. For a conversation between Amoaku and the Illinois Film Office’s Peter Hawley, go to the “Film Leaders of the Moment” story.
Director, Illinois Film Office
Peter Hawley succeeded Illinois Film Office head Christine Dudley in May 2019. For a conversation between Hawley and the Chicago Film Office’s Kwame Amoaku, go to the “Film Leaders of the Moment” story.
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.