The future of Chicago film, TV

With a federal tax benefit set to expire at the end of this year, will the industry keep booming?

November 1, 2013

Illinois Film Office head Betsy Steinberg recently told the Chicago Reader that while studios are making fewer films, "a huge influx of episodic television" has been great for job security. "We love our movies," she adds, "but one season of 'Chicago Fire' could easily outspend a blockbuster movie."

Steinberg says that six TV series are currently filming in Chicago:

  • NBC's "Chicago PD"
  • NBC's "Chicago Fire"
  • ABC's "Betrayal"
  • ABC's "Mind Games"
  • USA network comedy "Sirens"
  • NBC's "Crisis" 

Meanwhile, the blockbuster films that used Chicago as a backdrop in 2013 include:

  • the Wachowski's "Jupiter Ascending"
  • Michael Bay's "Transformers 4"
  • the Bollywood musical "Dhoom 3"
  • the dystopian thriller "Divergent" 

When asked for comment on this record-breaking year for film and television in Chicago, Steinberg said the success is due in large part to the Illinois Film Tax Credit, which offers producers a credit of 30 percent of all qualified expenditures.

"As much as people love to be in Chicago, and as much as Chicago is such an excellent setting for film and television, we wouldn't have any business without the tax credit," Steinberg explained, "In today's climate, with many states competing in the very lucrative film and television industry, our 30 percent tax credit has been instrumental in attracting business."

But what will happen when Section 181, the federal film tax benefit that guarantees investors will get back up to 75 percent of their investment before a film is even distributed, expires at the end of this year?

Section 181 has expired before, most recently in 2011, and been reinstated. Plus, according to Steinberg, the Illinois Film Tax Credit is much more integral to productions at the state level than Section 181. 

"I'm sure there are plenty of producers, especially those who are in a certain range of $15 to $20 million films, who have been relying quite heavily on Section 181," Steinberg says, "But the type of business that we have been seeing, both in television and with studio movie blockbusters, aren't really the productions that depend on Section 181."

The evolution of Cinespace Studios also has played a major role in elevating the Chicago film and TV industry to new heights. Adds Steinberg: "Cinespace has increased the square footage that projects can now use to build huge sets. So basically, because of all this increased space, we can now hold a volume of work never before possible."

Still, in a city crammed with raw filmmaking talent and increasingly creative means for distribution, do other alternatives for film and TV production exist? 

Future success may lie in the web series, which has formed a kind of underground scene in Chicago that also has been rapidly gaining traction online.

"Easy Abby," a lesbian romcom web series from Chicago-based writer/director Wendy Jo Carlton, recently hit 5 million views and has garnered substantial audiences in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France, Germany, and the UK.

Other popular web series filmed in the Chicago area include the millennial comedy "Funemployed," now in Season 3; "Kam Kardashian," written up by the Chicago Tribune as "a web series worth watching;" and "Celestial Bodies," a live-action space adventure show for all ages that features a bevy of Chicago writers, artists, actors, and athletes.

Coming soon: a new project from award-winning local writer/director Jason Knade and "My Block, My Hood, My City" from Chicago author Jahmal Cole.

As much as I hope that big-budget TV shows and features will continue to be made in Chicago for many years to come, I'm also excited to see which Kickstarter-funded local web series and indie films will catapult their creators to national or even worldwide stardom. 

After all, wouldn't it be nice if the resounding refrain from industry professionals was not "You have to move to L.A. to make this happen," but rather, "Why move to Hollywood when you can do it here?"

Note: A previous version of this story misstated the expiration date of a film tax credit. The text has been updated to correct this error. Additional comment from the Illinois Film Office have also been added to further clarify.

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