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Chicago’s Hidden Hollywood

Chicago’s Hidden Hollywood

Articles - Locations

It’s the Windy City—home to Oprah and presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama. But to moviemakers big and small, the city of Chicago is so much more says resident Ruth L. Ratny. Ratny also happens to be the editor and publisher of ReelChicago.com, an online magazine dedicated to uncovering the city’s hidden movie world.

From classics like Home Alone to anticipated blockbusters like The Dark Knight, Chicago is finding itself in the spotlight for its film production resources. MovieMaker recently posed a few questions to Ratny about why this is so. She eagerly answered, relishing the opportunity to help others discover the history and benefits of this metropolitan moviemaking world.

Mallory Potosky (MM): When people think of filming in a big city, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto seem to be the most obvious first choices. But Chicago has been in the news recently as well—especially with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in production there. What does the city offer moviemakers that they might not otherwise be aware of?

Ruth L. Ratny (RR): We’ve got it all—everything is in one place. It’s a complete destination, with mile after magnificent mile of locations. Within the city’s rich and varied 234 square miles are diverse, ethnic neighborhoods not found in other cities to match any location a screenwriter can dream up. Around the corner from my high-rise, for example, is a shady street of brownstones from the 1890s. You can film Mexican life in Little Village, urban life on the South Side like in Barbershop (2002) and affluence in the North Shore homes of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People and John Hughes’ Home Alone.

Chicago has been making movies for 100 years—that’s about 75 years longer than Toronto. Our infrastructure is established and always evolving to accommodate the latest requirements. Our crews are experienced, third and fourth generation union members so crews don’t have to be imported from L.A. like in other places.

As Chicago Film Office director Rich Moskal says, our level of service comes with a thorough understanding of the filmmaking process. We know what’s required in every department. We know how limited resources can be stretched to save money.

MM: My Best Friend’s Wedding, Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally were all filmed on location in Chicago. I had no idea Chicago was such a romantic city. Windy, yes, but I would’ve pegged France to top Chicago in the romance department. Why do you think these and other sentimental stories were shot in the city?

RR: Chicago is a beautiful city conducive to love and romance. Stroll along the lakefront, holding hands with someone you love, and you’ll understand why we’re such a romantic city. We’re a city with a heart. People here are genuine, in a real, down-to-earth, Midwestern way. We’re quick to help with a big smile. Above all, Chicago is a cosmopolitan city, actually cited as one of the 10 global cities of the future. Thanks to Mayor Daley’s vision, Chicago’s personality has evolved beyond “hog butcher of the world,” as Moskal puts it.

Furthermore, the city is a chameleon and can become any place you want it to be. It has lent itself to a wide range of stories from Batman, The Lake House, The Weather Man, Road to Perdition, The Fugitive, The Blues Brothers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Ice Harvest, The Untouchables, Risky Business, High Fidelity and hundreds more.

MM: You run the Web-based moviemaking web ‘zine ReelChicago.com. What was your purpose in launching this site?

RR: To continue serving the community. I’m called the “official chronicler of the Chicago film scene,” by virtue of having published a leading trade magazine for many years. Uniting the industry has always been our strength. We’ve been credited with creating a community where none had existed before. The Reel continues that tradition. Going virtual from print was also a natural evolution. We love the ability to be on top of the news by continuously posting new stories and alerting our readers accordingly.

What gives the Reel its unique authority is my background as a hands-on filmmaker and an award-winning scriptwriter. I’m a board member of the Illinois Production Alliance, the organization responsible for the tax incentives, and was active in many industry organizations in the past.
I also write screenplays. We’re currently developing a major motion picture that will be filmed, of course, in Chicago. So next year I’ll be an indie moviemaker taking advantage of all the benefits here.

MM: What does ReelChicago.com do for moviemaking talent looking to shoot in the city?

RR: The Reel is the first place filmmakers go for exclusive local news. Taken as a whole, it gives a picture of the full depth and breadth of all aspects of filmmaking that add up to a vibrant, active, thriving film center.

MM: Does the city or state of Illinois provide incentives?

RR: Filmmakers get a big bang for their buck here. The Illinois Film Tax Credit offers a 20 percent credit on all in-state labor and non-wage expenditures-hotels, transportation, security, supplies, location fees, anything you spend with an Illinois company or Illinois resident. The credit is transferable so companies that can’t use the credit themselves can sell it. The Illinois Film Office can help to identify buyers. You can get another 15 percent by hiring minorities according to certain guidelines (see www.ildceo.net/dceo/Bureaus/Film/Tax+Incentives/).

Both the city and state film offices extend themselves in every way to facilitate cost-efficient production and assure the producer a great experience here. The City of Chicago offers so many special benefits, like filming on city-owned properties and obtaining the cooperation of city departments. Things you can’t put a value on.

MM: I mentioned some big-name movies before—The Dark Knight, My Best Friend’s Wedding—which obviously had the resources and budgets to film in Chicago. But what does the city do for the independent moviemaker to make sure everything moves as seamlessly as those bigger productions?

RR: The Chicago Film Office takes the demands of small indie productions very seriously and gives them all the help they need. They get the same attention, service and accommodation as the big-budget blockbusters. They just don’t get the same media attention. Nonetheless, the city has been bustling with back-to-back, Hollywood indie features for a long time.

Now in production is The Cache, a $5 million revenue thriller starring Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings) and directed by Steve Anderson. Also: The Merry Gentlemen, directed by Michael Keaton; The Express, with Dennis Quaid; Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns; Robert Townsend’s Of Boys and Men; John Malkovich’s Drunkboat; Quebec, the directorial debut of writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man); and native son Vince Vaughn’s Fred Claus.

Last year, the Reel counted 144 Chicago-made indie projects. This amazing figure underscores the fact that Chicago has a large and active, but unfortunately little-known indigenous film community.

MM: Even if a moviemaker doesn’t get a chance to shoot in Chicago, the city hosts a number of film festivals that people can enter and/or attend. Any that stand out to you?

RR: Omigosh! We’re Film Fest City! There’s something like 35 annual fests, bigger and better each year, presented in the city and suburbs. They include the world famous Chicago International Film Festival (October 4 – 20) in its 43rd year, Children’s, Latino, Gay and Lesbian, Underground, Docs, Black Harvest, Comedy Shorts, Horror, Flyover Zone, Israeli, Hong Kong, Asian, Polish and so many more-including the monthly Midwest Independent Film Festival that attracts huge crowds of 400 to 500. You can attend a film event practically every day of the week, every week, all year, as attested by the bulging lists in the Reel’s Screenings & Events. So come and get to know us through one of our festivals and meet the filmmakers. You’ll be very pleased that you did.

For more on Ruth Ratny and what’s happening on the Chicago film scene, visit www.ReelChicago.com.

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