Standing inside the cavernous warehouses of Cinespace Film Studios, it’s easy to let the imagination take over. A constant buzz of activity from construction workers being directed by dozens of headset-wearing, clipboard-wielding assistants means this space can be transformed into seemingly anything. One day it might be a dystopian training ground in Divergent, then a New York City record studio for “Empire,” or a playground for giant CGI monsters in Rampage. The 1.45 million square foot facility hosts 31 sound stages, and by the time it opens six more this fall, Cinespace will be the largest film production studio in the entire country.
Take a step outside. Look up at the gray late April skies, hear the rumble of a nearby train, feel the sting of a cold wind gust. This is not Hollywood. This is Chicago. From the sidewalk, these warehouses still resemble the steel factories of their past life. While Chicago has proven itself as a production town, hosting Oprah Winfrey’s syndicated talk show for two decades and producing award-winning documentaries at Kartemquin Films, the urgent question is whether Cinespace can turn film production into a big part of Chicago’s future.
On the corner of the lot, where an asphalt driveway leads behind one of the warehouses, next to the railroad tracks along the eastern edge of the property, a pair of doors open into what is essentially a back staircase for the studio’s 18th sound stage. A logo on the wall directs people upstairs with the message, “You Found Us!” At the top you can find the offices of Chicago’s film incubator, appropriately named “Stage 18.”
Cinespace president Alex Pissios started Stage 18 in 2015 as a not-for-profit initiative to develop homegrown Chicago filmmaking talent. Compared to the multi-million dollar productions coming through town, it was a nice, if insignificant gesture. He selected an ambitious young film producer named Angie Gaffney as the incubator’s executive director. Her choice of first residents was obvious: Patrick Wimp and Hamzah Jamoon, a pair of promising local filmmakers Gaffney met during their shared time at DePaul University’s film school. “In my mind they were and still are setting the standard of quality for independent film in Chicago,” Gaffney says.
The company got to work on an independent TV pilot written by Wimp, Public Housing Unit, based on the real life adventures of three Chicago police officers patrolling low-income neighborhoods during the massive drug crackdown of the Reagan era. Its positive reception represented hope for what the incubator and its residents could become. Wimp earned a Best Writing Award at SeriesFest, a prestigious TV festival in Denver, and a piece in IndieWire praising the script for “impeccable pacing and dialogue.” HBO even brought in the creators for a pitch meeting, and though they didn’t purchase the pilot, development executives let Wimp know he was on their radar.
The road to success in the movie industry is strewn with the deflated, once-high hopes of similar filmmakers who once had expectations of making it. In order to break into Hollywood from 2,000 miles away, Wimp knows he needs a big hit with mainstream distribution.
On this bleak April afternoon, he sits in his windowless office at Stage 18 and prepares to screen his latest project, a comedy web series called “Brothers from the Suburbs,” for his investors. He’s hopeful this is the project that will put him over. He appears calm, but his confidence rings hollow. “I’m not nervous,” he says, like he’s trying to convince himself. He fiddles with a pen in his hand. “I feel pretty good.” He pauses. “I mean you’re always nervous right before you press play, but if you press play enough times…” Another pause. “You never really know if they’re laughing just because you’re there or if they really like it.”
Wimp has a lot riding on this project being a breakthrough, and though he may not realize it, so does Chicago’s filmmaking ambitions.
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Chicago wants to be the next Hollywood. It’s not alone.
Attempts to pry away the film industry from Los Angeles gained momentum in the 1990s, when Canada began offering government-sponsored tax incentives to attract productions north of the border. It worked, and successes like Titanic, Good Will Hunting, Brokeback Mountain and even Chicago—named after the Windy City but shot entirely in Toronto—proved Canadian filming locations could be masked convincingly to fit any setting.
Competition broke out among states to offer the most enticing incentive packages in response, convinced the “next Hollywood” was available to the highest bidder. The various incentives, “refundable” or “transferrable” credits, sales tax or lodging waivers, all work to reimburse productions for a percentage of the money they spend in-state. In areas where the manufacturing industry had been decimated, film production promised an exciting opportunity for job creation within the new creative economy.
New Orleans emerged first, using Louisiana’s 30% tax break to attract over 1,100 productions between 2008 and 2015, including a handful of Oscar-winners like 12 Years a Slave and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The Brad Pitt-led drama received $27 million back on its $167 million budget. Atlanta upped the ante by removing minimum and maximum spend clauses on their 30% offering, becoming an unofficial home for blockbuster franchises The Hunger Games, The Fast and the Furious and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Productions spread across the country, from Albuquerque through the Midwest down to Miami. By 2009, 44 states had some form of motion picture incentive in place.
“The film business as we know it is never going back to Los Angeles,” said acclaimed filmmaker Joe Carnahan during a press conference last year. He shot his latest project in Cincinnati. “It’s a jump ball for what next city can build an industry. There is a real opportunity for a city like Cincinnati to take the lion’s share of what’s going on.”
Chicago wanted desperately to show it belonged among the contenders. In 2007 Alex Pissios and his uncle Nick Mirkopoulos purchased the 1.45 million square foot former Ryerson Steel plant on the West Side and began developing a film studio in the mold of the one Mirkopoulos owned in Toronto (on the lot where Chicago was filmed). Illinois implemented its own 30% tax credit a year later, and Cinespace began hosting several high profile TV shows and movies, a feat thought to be unlikely when Oprah Winfrey left town in 2011. When Michael Bay strode down Michigan Avenue with a bullhorn firing up crowds of spectators while blowing up cars on the set of 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it sent a message to the industry that Chicago was still ready to compete for its biggest projects.
The state’s film industry has generated a total economic impact of more than $2.6 billion and 90,000 jobs since 2011, according to data from the State of Illinois. Just last year, productions spent $474 million locally. “Chicago’s film and television industry is not just taking off,” former mayor Rahm Emmanuel said at a February press conference. “It is putting down roots.”
Skeptics, as you might expect, have words of caution. Michael Thom, a former professor at Michigan State University now at the University of Southern California, took a closer look at the costs of motion picture incentives (MPIs) states used to compete for business over the past two decades. He found them to be a remarkably bad investment. In a 2016 study, Thom found that “states spending more money on MPIs were no more or less likely to reap gains in motion picture employment, wages, [gross state product], or industry concentration.” And there’s no evidence they become a better investment over time. Tax dollars flow not to movie studios or television networks themselves, but to individual productions. So each time a film or even a multi-season television show packs up and leaves town, the fight to lure another starts over. Filmmakers always choose cost efficiency over loyalty, meaning local governments have to keep handing over the money, or else.
When Louisiana tried restructure its incentive to put a cap on total spending in 2015 there was a swift reaction—a 90% drop in production. Within two years the cap was removed and work returned. Due to an underdeveloped infrastructure in these locations, the jobs are not created so much as given to an existing or imported labor force. Georgia steals jobs from Louisiana, for example, and then Louisiana steals them back. “If Hollywood wanted to be in Athens, Georgia, it would’ve been for the past 100 years,” Thom says. “The cost of trying to overcome those market forces is so great that it doesn’t make sense for taxpayers.”
States are taking notice, and as of last year only 31 still had MPIs in place. Illinois’ MPI comes up for renewal in 2021. Either way, the MPI system can be likened to a hamster wheel. As more money is pumped in it spins faster and faster, but it will never move forward. Why? Because productions originate on the coasts where filmmakers, top-level talent, agents, managers, and investors live.
If Chicago wants to have a sustainable film industry, let alone become the “next Hollywood,” it must be able to develop projects and talent from within, then successfully export them to the world the way Hollywood has for decades. Stage 18, the incubator tucked on the corner of the Cinespace lot next to the railroad tracks and behind the sound stage, could prove the key to Chicago’s film industry aspirations. If it does, it will show off the foresight of innovators like Patrick Wimp.
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Wimp gathered four trusted colleagues in the Stage 18 conference room on a sunny day in late October to share the scripts for his latest project, a web series called “Brothers from the Suburbs.” During nearly six hours of discussion, the group split on a key plot point, in which one of the protagonists is about to ask his crush to the school dance. There’s a twist. The crush’s passionless boyfriend gets sick and asks the only guy he trusts, Wimp’s protagonist, to take her to the dance in his place. Half the writer’s room believed the situation to be so ridiculous it couldn’t be believable.
This exact scenario happened to Wimp in high school though. He poured himself into “Brothers from the Suburbs.” As the son of a black father and a white mother, raised in the western suburb of Downer’s Grove, his own experiences serve as source material for most of the series’ plotlines, centered on a trio of African American students at an all-white high school.
Wimp took this opportunity to step into the director’s chair, something he hadn’t done since his time at DePaul as part of the school’s first MFA graduate class in “digital cinema.” Wimp relied on former classmates as collaborators, as he does in nearly all his projects. Two were in his writer’s room. One served as his assistant director and another as his cinematographer during five dizzying days of filming in December.
“To be candid I would work on anything he works on,” says Ross Herron, one classmate-turned-collaborator. “He is a perfect example of somebody who is just so ridiculously talented, to the point where he doesn’t maybe even realize it.” After graduation Herron moved to New York City to find steady work, then cut his income in half to move back and rejoin the Chicago community. “[In New York] you show up, you do your job, you do it to the highest degree you can and then you go home,” he says. “But in Chicago we show up, we do our work, we make these films, then we talk about the films when we go to the bar after set or when we hang out on the weekends.”
Being far from a movie-making headquarters comes at a cost. Now, when the group gets together the conversation inevitably turns to whether or not they should stay in Chicago. For every Joe Swanberg, one director who found success without ever leaving the city, there are dozens who made a name for themselves after leaving for Los Angeles or New York.
Wimp is 36 years old, with a wife and four children, and the constant fight to secure funding for his projects weighs on him. “I’m always in and out of crisis, it’s a constant thing,” he says. Still, he doesn’t want to leave. The coasts provide opportunity and promises of wealth, but also risk. Here, Wimp is a big fish in a relatively small pond. Besides, the city is home.
He knows he is not the only talented filmmaker in Chicago. Stage 18 isn’t even the only company in the city hoping to develop local talent. But they do have one thing others don’t, and it’s located just three doors down the hall from Wimp’s office at Stage 18. This is the space given to Chicago Media Angels, one of few entities in Chicago actively financing film and television projects. The “office” has two crates of vinyl albums and a record player beneath a large screen along one wall opposite a futon-style couch and an equipment chest serving as a coffee table that fills the middle of the room. Wooden directors chairs and framed movie posters lean against every available inch of wall space.
Seated at one of the three desks in the corners on a recent stormy morning is CMA’s executive director, Ted Reilly. If Wimp wants to find success as a filmmaker in Chicago, Reilly is the man he’ll need to impress. Reilly’s appearance—wire-framed glasses, close-cropped hair, bushy beard—is less surprising in relation to his surroundings. Don’t let his hipster craft brewer look fool you, though. Working first as an investment manager at Goldman Sachs and then as an angel investor in the city’s startup scene, Reilly became a master of market inefficiency, enamored by two distinct advantages of film properties: fixed budgets and unlimited shelf lives. Reilly raised $739,000 in 90 days for an audio production house on the Cinespace lot in 2014, then watched as three of the four shows using the space were cancelled and the business almost went under. “There’s enthusiasm here. But, man, we’re so beholden to somebody from L.A. sending us work that our business could disappear like that,” Reilly remembers thinking. He went to Pissios, who quickly connected him with Gaffney. If this new incubator was going to work it would need someone like him—someone who could raise capital for promising projects.
In 2015, Reilly signed on as Stage 18’s second tenant. And he already had an idea for the company’s first project. He knew a retired police officer and logged dozens of hours of interviews with him and his two partners recounting their adventures. Reilly raised the money, Wimp wrote up the script, Gaffney produced, and Public Housing Unit was born.
Reilly and two partners, Kelly Waller and Mark Glassgow, founded Chicago Media Angels soon after using a simple strategy: Recruit a pool of Chicago investors, gather them four times per year to hear three pitches for projects, and allow them to spread their risk by investing small amounts in several films instead of taking a big gamble on only one.
The first five films CMA funded all sold and earned at least 20 percent return to investors, which calls into question why exactly Public Housing Unit didn’t sell. “It didn’t sell yet,” Reilly corrects me. He smiles, scratches his beard and leans forward in his chair. “We’re like a balloon salesman, and every day I’m trying to blow up another balloon. And yeah, I hope one of these balloons turns out to be a giant Macy’s Day parade float balloon and the whole thing just goes, like Napoleon Dynamite (the 2004 cult classic that turned $300,000 into $45 million at the box office). It’s going to happen one day,” he says. “Is this balloon going to be enough to make our whole cart fly? I don’t know, if it’s not we tie it to the cart and we start filling up another balloon. And eventually, we’ve got a hundred balloons on the cart.”
What he described is essentially the Blumhouse Productions model, in which an independent label rides consistent quality and a few breakout hits (The Purge, Paranormal Activity) into relevance. Reilly is certain that as he sells more of his films to distributors and builds deeper relationships, the appetite for his work will continue to increase, especially with Gaffney working to identify and develop up-and-coming talent. “Pat Wimp might not be important today,” he continues. “But when Pat Wimp wins an Oscar, people are going to be like what else did that guy do? And man he’s got this old pilot, Danny Willis directed this thing? Wow! And I’ll put it on Amazon for $9.99. And people pay us!”
Through Public Housing Unit, the three creators learned network executives like those at HBO weren’t looking for a ready-made TV pilot. “It was clear what they wanted was a pliable thing that they could further develop,” Reilly says. “So then it was ok what’s the right amount of investment to make this stuff scalable?”
Reilly spun off Chicago Media Angels into CMA Digital Studios and launched a new content initiative: five digital shorts, 30 minutes of content, produced for $50,000 each. It’s doubtful Michael Thom would object to the use of Illinois’ 30 percent tax incentive here, boosting the amount to $65,000 by hitting the law’s minimum spend threshold. He added Wimp’s “Brothers from the Suburbs” to the slate in the fall. Their ultimate goal is to attract a big distributor like HBO, who can develop a web series into a TV show the way they did with “High Maintenance” or “Insecure.” The more likely outcome is a collection of data on their online audience, using the information as leverage in future negotiations, perhaps even to land a brand sponsorship that could fund an entire season.
At this point in his career, Wimp needs the exposure. With each project comes the chance to catch the attention of someone who could change his life.
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Wimp sent the pilot episode of “Brothers from the Suburbs” to Reilly on Feb. 22, the deadline to submit it to SeriesFest. He waited, and after a week of no response, panicked. Then one day he passed Reilly in the hallway at Stage 18. “Oh, it was great!” Reilly said, easing Wimp’s nerves temporarily. But inside, the total creative freedom he was given left him anxious about his final product. As he got into the minutia of audio mixing, he found himself losing a grip on the effectiveness of the material. Was it actually funny? Was anyone going to care? An acceptance into SeriesFest offere validation, but what would audiences think? If this project doesn’t sell and return its money to investors the same way his first CMA collaboration failed, he isn’t sure if there will be a third.
Which leaves Wimp, on this late April day, twiddling a pen in his hands, trying not to seem nervous about screening all three episodes of his series for Reilly and the other Chicago Media Angels for the first time. He stands and makes the short walk down the hall. After exchanging greetings and small talk with Reilly, Waller and Glassgow, Wimp cues up the show on his computer and projects it on the large screen above the record player. Waller and Glassgow are seated in the other two desks, and Reilly takes his place on the couch, armed with a notebook and a pen. The thing Wimp fears most, he says later, is excessive note taking that would signal their dissatisfaction.
The lights are lowered and the first episode gets underway. There’s a lot packed into its 15-minute runtime, introducing the characters and following them to the house party of a white classmate, whose parents call the police on them. Still, comedic moments come and go without many laughs in the room. It’s not a good sign. Wimp stares blankly at his phone. As the credits roll, he navigates quickly to the next episode. “So you all have seen that one, here is the next one,” he says.
The second episode centers around a “black movie night” the Brothers host at the home of a couple of sophomore girls. It devolves into a satirization of Get Out. As the tension of the episode mounts it’s obvious that Wimp now holds the audience of three executives in his hands. The room is silent during dramatic moments, no notes taken. Bursts of laughter erupt during cutaway sight gags to a photograph of Barack Obama and creepy caricatures. Reilly slowly closes his notebook and rests it beside him on the couch. When the credits roll, he turns to Wimp. “Oh man,” he says. “Nice.”
By the time episode three plays, mostly taking place in an authentic black barbershop in the city, everyone in the room is thoroughly enjoying themselves. When the barber launches into a monologue about a sexual mishap, Reilly removes his glasses and rubs his eyes he’s laughing so hard. A cliffhanger ending elicits a slow nodding of the head from Waller. Glassgow agrees: “That was really awesome, the dialogue is really great.”
The CMA partners then launch into a discussion of strategy. A digital promotional campaign will be built around the “premiere” of the pilot at SeriesFest in Denver in June, driving people to an online destination for all three episodes where their data can be collected. A public relations effort will attempt to attract media exposure.
As for Wimp, the partners think its time to pursue representation. They mention a few names and begin planning a trip to Los Angeles in July to meet with potential candidates. Wimp is ecstatic. His goal for the year is to land Los Angeles-based representation. With a more direct link to the larger machine he could, in theory, land larger jobs without leaving Chicago.
Today, he’s agreed to assist Jacqueline Jamjoon, one of his former DePaul colleagues, with pickup shots that will play behind green screen footage in the CMA Digital short she is producing. The pair gathers their equipment and sets off minutes after the conclusion of the screening. It’s a ragtag operation. At one point, they set the camera on a tripod through the sunroof of Jamjoon’s Mazda 3, tethering the $20,000 machine to the car with the strap of her purse. Spirits remain high through the day though, and eventually they get the footage they need.
They return to Stage 18 for a few final shots and wrap up a few minutes before midnight. Some eight hours of filming will amount to a few seconds of background material. In Hollywood, this day would’ve involved a car resting on the back of a flatbed truck, a dozen crew members and a craft services tent. It’s a reminder of how far Chicago still has to go.
Still, the pair is all smiles as they put away their gear and descend the back staircase, past the “You Found Us!” sign and out to the parking lot beside the train tracks. It’s clear they love the process of making movies. Wimp climbs into his car and starts down the driveway toward his house in the suburbs. Tomorrow he will return to Cinespace at 9 a.m. to do just that. After all, he noticed a few color corrections in episode three he needed to make, before the world gets to see “Brothers from the Suburbs.”
The first three episodes of “Brothers from the Suburbs” can be seen online here.