When it comes to Chicago and Hollywood, 2013 has been the best of times and the worst of times. The city’s beloved critic and cultural icon Roger Ebert passed away, but the movies are very much alive and well in the Second City—especially in its streets and soundstages. In fact, when it comes to Hollywood (and TV) productions shot on location, Chicago may have entered a new renaissance. And with streets closed around the city in recent months for "Transformers 4" (Mark Wahlberg), "Divergent" (Kate Winslet) and "Jupiter Ascending" (Channing Tatum), 2013 could be its banner year.
“Chicago’s reputation as where productions can happen quickly, as a film-friendly destination, is something that has caught the attention of the industry at large,” said Richard Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, part of the City of Chicago’s Cultural Affairs department. “Success has brought more success. This level of production is the new normal.”
Indeed, production companies spent a record $184 million in Illinois last year, most of it in Chicago. A new revenue record will almost definitely be set in 2013, Moskal said. With six TV shows being entirely produced in the city this year, a small-screen record is a sure thing. “We’ve never had as much TV shot in Chicago in a year, ever,” Moskal noted.
But what exactly has attracted the likes of Batman ("The Dark Knight"), Superman ("Man of Steel") and the Transformers—along with smaller characters on shows like "Chicago Fire" and "Chicago PD"—to Chicago in recent years? Moskal, who worked in the industry as a location manager before taking the helm of the Film Office in 1996, said it’s a winning combination of iconic scenery, local talent, welcoming government and a sprawling new soundstage that can accommodate massive and multiple productions.
A 30 percent tax credit on qualified production costs in Illinois passed by the state legislature in 2008 has been a key tool for attracting Hollywood producers, but this financial incentive alone isn’t enough; 40 states now have them. Moskal argued that a crucial driver of the current record run is local on- and off-screen talent, drawn from the theater world and skilled set production shops.
As president of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, Alex Pecio hosts plenty of that talent at the largest production space in the world outside of Los Angeles. Sprawled across more than 50 acres that formerly hosted a steel mill just five miles from the Loop, the 1.5 million square foot facility is proof that the classic Field of Dreams adage—“if you build it, they will come”—can pay off, big time. After launching in 2011, Cinespace has been operating at capacity this year. The family-run Toronto-based company has taken in about $108 million in revenue and created 2,200 union jobs since launching in 2011, Pecio proudly notes. It’s currently expanding to handle even more productions.
“We’re very happy that success has happened as fast as it has," Pecio said. “I don’t see it slowing down.”
The crucial thing that’s happened to expand the industry in Chicago is that more companies are producing entire TV shows or films in the city. For example: some stunt scenes in Transformers 3 were filmed in downtown Chicago in 2010, but Paramount Pictures is actually building sets for Transformers 4 at Cinespace in 2013.
In late August, the sci-fi action production closed down the major thoroughfare of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood for a few days of filming. The area, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel is promoting as the “Uptown Entertainment District” due to its unique collection of historic concert venues and theaters, is no stranger to Hollywood. Johnny Depp visited in 2008 to film a bank robbery scene for "Public Enemies."
But more to the point, Uptown once hosted one of the world’s largest film production companies, back when Chicago was (briefly) at the center of America’s budding film industry. Between 1908 and 1915, Charlie Chaplin and other silent movie era stars called Essanay Studios home, making hundreds of short films. But the sunny predictability of southern California soon drew the film industry west, and by 1918 Essanay was a shell of its former self. (The handsome studio buildings still stand at 1345 W. Argyle St., where they now host a college.)
The question today is: Can Chicago sustain its newfound Hollywood success? Everyone in the city loves the attention and wants the industry to keep knocking at Chicago’s door; its good for the city’s economy, self-image and national reputation. Chicago’s last high-visibility run in the industry was about 30 years ago—think "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off", "The Blues Brothers" and "Sixteen Candles"—but that had more to do with director John Hughes’ love for the city than anything else. When Hughes’ career tapered off, so did the city’s visibility on the big screen.
This time around, the relationship between Hollywood and Chicago runs deeper—it’s more about economic value than any one filmmaker’s tastes. That financial reality bodes well for Chicago, said Moskal. “Film and TV have great influence and power in messaging Chicago to audiences. It’s how people come to know a city on the national and international level,” he said.
Hollywood productions, then, serve as subtle advertisements for Chicago. In other words, it’s a safe bet that Mayor Emanuel is a big fan of the Transformers franchise.