Illinois is no stranger to the film industry. Essanay Studios, founded in Chicago in 1907, is where silent film stars including Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson, and Charlie Chaplin made some of their earliest films. Although filmmakers soon flocked to Hollywood, with its robust advertising industry, Chicago became — and continues to be — a hot spot for making commercials.
Today, TV productions are on the rise with shows including “The Chi,” “The Bear,” “South Side” and others joining Dick Wolf ’s “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Med.” Many Windy City-based series are shot in the nation’s second-largest soundstage, Cinespace Chicago.
“Illinois has long been a thriving arts hub, with iconic movies filmed right here including ‘The Blues Brothers,’ ‘Home Alone’ and of course, ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ’,” says Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “This is why in 2022, the $700 million production revenue in our state shattered records and eclipsed our pre-pandemic revenue numbers. I attribute this success to our expanded film production tax credit as well as our diversity, inclusivity and commitment to equity; we’re ensuring our state is a welcoming place where every production wants to film.”
According to the Illinois Film Office, in 2022 the state’s film and television production revenue was $110 million more than 2019’s pre-pandemic high.
“Looking at production spend, in 2017, 70% of the spend was in television,” says Christine Dudley, executive director, Illinois Production Alliance (IPA), a trade association that lobbies the state legislature and collaborates with business and trade unions in support of the film and television industry. “In 2019 it rose to 83%. By 2021 it was 86%. Commercial ads have remained stable, maintaining about 12%-15% of the overall spend.”
The IPA, which also translates industry terms for government workers, and vice versa, played a key role in pushing through recent expansions and extensions of Illinois’ Film Production Tax Credit. In 2022, the 30% tax credit for qualified expenditures on production spending and salaries — plus an additional 15% on salaries for people living in disadvantaged areas — was expanded to include a limited number of out-of-state residents’ wages for production work performed in Illinois.
“A percentage of the tax credit funds a pool for ongoing film workforce training programs,” says Peter Hawley, deputy director, Illinois Film Office.
“Part of the legislation says those funds cannot be swept,” Dudley adds. “They’re only for the purpose of training programs for the film and television industry.”
In 2022, the new Film and TV Workforce Training Program served approximately 175 students at seven locations around the state; more than 70% of participants were people of color, and 80% landed paid production positions after completing the course.
“The goal, over a decade, is to train 2,500 to 3,000 people with a large number being women and minorities,” Hawley says. “This training program will show people who wouldn’t normally think about a career in the film and television business that there are great careers in the business that are high-paying union jobs — and they don’t have to leave the state.”
Earlier this year, Pritzker extended the tax credit for another decade, showing the industry that Illinois is in it for the long run. Dudley says getting state legislators to support the tax credit expansion and extension was easy since the previous credits “expanded the market triple-fold,” and set the stage to increase the state’s market share.
“In the last few years, other states have come online with competitive programs,” Dudley says. “Illinois didn’t want to lose out. They saw the need to revisit what we could do to capture more market share and stay current not only with neighboring and competitive states, but also with the fast-paced industry that’s been evolving with the explosion of streaming content.”
While the Illinois Film Office helps productions understand, manage and apply state tax credits, other film offices throughout the state help scout locations, find skilled labor and deal with logistics. For the Chicago Film Office, that means being a one-stop liaison between productions, city services and sister agencies.
“We provide tailored support for whatever a filmmaker at any level needs,” says Jonah Zeiger, director, Chicago Film Office. “If they need a permit to film on city property, streets and sidewalks, or if they’re interested in filming in a city building, they contact our office and we’ll guide them through the process so it’s really streamlined and expedited.”
Zeiger’s office assigns dedicated liaisons to long-term productions — including Apple TV+ series “Dark Matter” — to ensure consistency throughout the production. “We also have people focused on independent features, commercials, documentaries and student films,” he adds. Zeiger’s team can coordinate with police and fire departments, even obtain special permissions from sister agencies such as the Chicago Park District.
When it comes to permits, things are markedly different at the Quad Cities Film Office, which encompasses Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline in Illinois as well as Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, on the opposite side of the Mississippi River. You might assume dealing with multiple municipalities would make permitting harder, but it doesn’t.
“Historically, we’ve never had permits here,” says Doug Miller, film and media liaison to the Quad Cities Regional Film Office. “You bring in the fire chief, the police chief, city administrator and a risk management person, tell them what you’re doing, and you make sure you’ve got the right insurance. Big cities like Chicago have a lot more to deal with.”
While Miller says a more standardized process will likely one day be adopted, the goal is always to keep it as simple as possible. Having dealt with bureaucracy in both Iowa and Illinois, Miller says Illinois has one of the best tax credit systems in the country. “There are lots of checks and balances, which makes the tax credit very marketable,” Miller says.
Gary Camarano, executive director of the Northwest Illinois Film Office, which includes cities Rockford and Freeport, farmland, factories and the historic town of Galena, also likes to keep things streamlined. “We’ll hook them up with locations, we’ll work with them to get the proper permitting and we make sure they know about the state incentives,” Camarano says, noting that HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” filmed in the area.
“We know the vendors, contractors and which hotels have good internet speed for your uploads and downloads,” says Camarano, who started the Northwest Illinois Film Office in 2017 based on what he’d learned by helping launch a film office in Las Cruces, N.M.
Additional film offices span the state, from the Rockford Film Office in the north to the Southern Illinois Film Office in the south, with the Central Illinois Film Commission and the Champaign County Film Office in central Illinois.
“There’s a very good film community in Champaign and Rantoul, which is a town right outside of Champaign,” Hawley says. “There’s a decommissioned Air Force base there that they’re using as a film studio for some independent productions. And Southern Illinois University has been a hotbed of film for decades.”
When it comes to locations, Illinois offers plenty — even the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville. “We have everything you need. A world-class city, international airports, the lakefront. We have prairie and farmland. We’ve got the Mississippi River,” Hawley says.
It also has castles. When filmmaker Don Hatton, who grew up in Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University, was executive producing the horror film “The Blacklight” (2021), he knew exactly where to find the castle called for in the script.
“They used Stronghold Manor in Ogle County,” Camarano says. “It worked out very well for them. And there’s another castle-type structure in Carroll County.”
Yet at its core, Illinois is America’s heartland. In 1990, Italian filmmaker Pupi Avanti came to the Quad Cities to make “Bix” (1991), a biopic about legendary jazzman and Quad Cities’ native Bix Beiderbecke. He’s returned to film in the area numerous times since. “He likened us to the America of Frank Capra,” Miller says.
In 2019, the Farrelly brothers shot exteriors for their series “The Now” in and around the Quad Cities. Once Miller learned Bill Murray was in the show, he put two and two together: Murray has spent a lot of time in the area visiting family and likely suggested it.
“‘Somebody Somewhere,’ which is a show I really love on HBO, based itself out of a far-western Chicago suburb — well outside of the 30-mile zone — and did all of the work outside of Chicago,” Hawley says, noting there’s a good deal of production going on beyond Chicago. Still, Chicago’s state-of-the-art studios including Cinespace handle the bulk of Illinois-based productions.
“At least two major studio complexes are in the pipeline,” Zeiger says. “We recently did a groundbreaking for Regal Mile Studios on the South Side. It’s a very exciting initiative led by Derek Dudley and Susan Cronin of ID8 — they’re some of the producers behind ‘The Chi’ on Showtime with Lena Waithe and Common as executive producers. It’s aiming to revitalize the community in the South Shore neighborhood and to create state-of-the-art studio spaces on the South Side.”
Regal Mile Studios will have its own workforce program dedicated to giving area residents an opportunity to be trained and mentored by seasoned professionals. “This is not small-scale DIY filmmaking,” Zeiger says. “This is playing in the area that the major creators and producers are in.”
Christine Dudley believes the newly extended tax credit is crit- ical to undertakings such as Regal Mile and the Fields Studio, which is planned for the city’s northwest side. “Smash Studios is also uniquely positioned for newer virtual technology,” she adds.
While downstate locations might not have cutting-edge studios, Miller sees one advantage Chicago can’t match: Affordability. “No offense to Chicago, but it’s cheaper here,” Miller says. “I like to use my Coors Light test. At the end of the day I can get a Coors Light for $2.50 at any of the local bars here. What’s that beer going to cost in Chicago? The same is true for hotels and everything else. We offer an economic advantage on top of the tax credits.”
Adds Camarano: “The state is saying, ‘This is a good place. Come and make your film here with a tax credit. You can do it economically, and we have a lot of good locations.’”
The industry knows Chicago has plenty of locations, talent and infrastructure. “We’re trying to amplify that and let the industry know our capacity has expanded and is expanding even more,” Zeiger says.
“In the last decade we’ve had so much success and growth,” Dudley says. “We’re building on the legacy that’s created a lot of tremendous television.”
Unlike other states, Hawley says Illinois’ film and television tax credits are uncapped. “Governor Pritzker has shown the industry that Illinois is open for business. I see us getting to a billion dollars a year very quickly.”
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