Summer 2017

Location Report: Chicago's Burgeoning Production Scene

A 30% tax incentive, top-notch soundstages and crews, and eye-catching locations make the windy city an attractive alternative


(Photo: Shutterstock)

Chicago's long history as a production center stretches back to the silent era—Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson made pictures there before Edison's patent enforcement drove independent producers west. After decades with thriving sports, documentary and commercial sectors, the city saw an uptick in dramatic production in the 1980s, with John Hughes and others drawn by the architecture and atmosphere, which can easily double for New York or D.C. But the city has never seen a boom like it's experiencing today. With the help of Illinois' 30% production incentive, which was made semi-permanent in late 2008, the film and TV industry has blossomed.

The success of Dick Wolf's Chicago Fire and its NBC spinoffs sent a strong message that Chicago works. Fox has committed in a big way, with Empire, A.P.B. and The Exorcist shooting there, along with many pilots.

Critical mass was achieved one step at a time. In 2007, Chicago portrayed a grimly elegant Gotham City in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. In 2011, the late Nikolaos Mirkopoulos bought the former Ryerson Steel Plant and transformed it into "the largest production facility east of Hollywood." Support companies like PRG/Paskal Lighting, Panavision and Keslow Camera soon followed. Illinois production volume reportedly went from $25 million in 2009 to $500 million in 2016.

Columbia College's long-admired film program feeds the production beast, and the capable move up the ranks very quickly.

"The tax incentive has opened things up in terms of cost-effectiveness," says Joe Chappelle, a director/executive producer on Chicago Fire. "You get good deals, and now the filmmakers are coming and falling in love with the city because it looks so great. And the infrastructure and crews have grown exponentially. And it's been really rewarding to see the people who started lower down the ladder moving up and onto other shows. There's so much more opportunity here."

Christina Varotsis is a UPM who has worked in the Midwest for years. She is currently on Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, a 10-episode anthology series co-produced by Sony, Amazon and the U.K.'s Channel 4, among others. "Stage and studio space is at a premium right now, due to the numerous overlapping productions in town," she says. "Despite the crowded marketplace, we were able to gather an experienced and talented Illinois crew, with very few distant hires needed."

Prior to 2008, the production incentive was reapproved annually, making it difficult for TV producers to plan. By 2010, 21st Century Fox alone bought three pilots. Fox's Empire has set up shop at Cinespace, even though the show is set in New York City.

"The bottom line is that with the tax incentive, it's less expensive to shoot here than it is in New York," says Empire UPM Richard Lederer. "The hourly wage for crew, the union rate card, is significantly less. Fox has had a lot of success with the local crews and the unions. Chicago's weather is what it is—you embrace it, or forget about it. It gets very cold, but there's something to be said about the production value of snow, stark trees and steam coming from the streets. There's a personality you can't get in other places.

"The reality is there is more competition in L.A.," adds Lederer. "But I feel very fortunate that I can do what I love doing in my hometown, seeing my family every night. And I'm just one of thousands of crew members who feel the same way. It wasn't that way 10 years ago."

Windy City in a Nutshell

Philip Winchester and Monica Barbaro are filmed on location for Chicago Justice. (Photo: Parrish Lewis/NBC)

⇒ Locations:
Lake Michigan and Grant Park, Wacker Drive, LaSalle Street, Magnificent Mile, the El. "Chicago offers so many different looks," says Chappelle. "Skyscrapers and stunning architecture, the lake shore, industrial areas and interesting neighborhoods—and bucolic rural farmland and forest settings are a short drive away."

⇒ Soundstages:
Cinespace, about 20 minutes west of the Loop, is a full-service production complex offering 24 soundproof stages up to 20,000 square feet in size. Other facilities include the Chicago Production Center, Chicago Studio City, and Essanay Studio and Lighting Company on Goose Island.

⇒ Services:
The equipment rental house sector has grown by leaps and bounds—PRG and VER are heavyweight newcomers to the market. On-site vendors at Cinespace include Keslow, AbelCine, Cinelease, Universal Lighting, Periscope Post & Audio and Claire Simon Casting. VFX and post houses, a burgeoning field that includes the venerable Whitehouse Post. Most feature post work still goes to L.A.

⇒ Recent Television:
Showtime's Shameless, Netflix's Sense8, FYI's Married at First Sight, the finale of The Amazing Race's 29th season, Chicago P.D., Chicago Justice, Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Empire.

⇒ Recent Features:
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Death Wish, Bad Santa 2. Steve McQueen is currently directing his next feature, Widows, in Chicago.

The Industry / Technology

Articles on creative issues and new technology in features, television and new media.

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