Film Offices Sponsor Screenplay Contest

As part of a long-term strategy to shore up the state’s increasingly uncertain location feature film and television production business, the Illinois and Chicago film offices are getting into script development. The two film offices, which jointly stimulate and facilitate local moviemaking, are sponsoring a scriptwriting competition for Illinois residents in hopes of uncovering several scripts of interest to Hollywood producers and directors. Illinois Film Office director Suzy Kellett says, “The film offices have been primarily production-oriented, so now we feel it’s time to make an investment in our creative community.”

The competition has consciously been structured to produce scripts that, if sold to Hollywood, would likely bring more film production to the state. One rule says that “screenplays must be set in Illinois with at least 75 percent of the script identifiably set within the state.” The five winning scripts in this first competition, which organizers expect to become a biennial affair, will be selected in a two-tiered process. A jury of local film industry executives will read all scripts

submitted by November 15 and choose 50 for further evaluation. On the basis of creativity and marketability a second jury will narrow the field to five winners, who will be announced in June 1995. Before the scripts are submitted to Hollywood film executives, the authors will polish them up with professional screenwriters. Kellet says that of course no film deals are promised, but at the least local writers will benefit from the industry exposure. Al Cohn, Chicago FilmLetter editor and publisher, agrees: “The process at least will open up some doors for the winners and perhaps launch some careers.”

The debut of this first statewide film script competition comes as a response to what has been a down year for film production in Chicago and around the state. It’s too early for final figures, but Kellett predicts direct film company expenditures in the state for 1994 will wind up between $50 million and $60 million. If that estimate proves to be accurate, the 1994 total will represent a marked drop from the record $115 million film companies spent on location in Illinois last year. The 1993 numbers were boosted by two television series–The Untouchables and Missing Persons–that were filmed entirely on location in Chicago. Both shows were canceled for the 1994-’95 television season.

Though it isn’t emphasized in the initial announcements, Kellett sees the competition as a long-term means of averting lean years that may be in store for the Illinois and Chicago film offices. According to Chicago Film Office director Charles Geocaris: “The business is definitely changing.” With the studios backing either low-budget films for well under $5 million or pictures with lavish production values and high-priced stars that cost well over $70 million, Kellett fears that moderately priced films costing between $10 million and $20 million–the ones that could afford to shoot on location in Chicago or around Illinois–are falling by the wayside. Also producers of mid-range films are looking for locations where they can film as cheaply as possible. These days that often means Canada, where the U.S. dollar is strong. Adds Kellett: “I don’t see the situation in Canada changing for a long time.” But with local writers churning out scripts that have Illinois literally written all over them, Kellett hopes Hollywood executives will find on their desks compelling reasons to keep coming to Illinois.

A Wise Increase?

Wisdom Bridge Theatre has upped its top ticket price a hefty 40 percent to $35 from last season’s high of $25, raising eyebrows among managing directors at other midsize not-for-profit theater companies. Notes Remains Theatre artistic director Neel Keller: “We’re trying to keep our ticket prices as cheap as humanly possible.” Tickets for Friday and Saturday shows of Remains’s upcoming production of Pterodactyls on the Organic Theater main stage will be $25, though some less desirable seats will be available for $20. This season both Northlight and Victory Gardens raised top ticket prices a dollar, to $29 and $28 respectively, while Steppenwolf, with a $4.5 million annual budget, kept the same $32 top it had last season. Victory Gardens managing director John Walker says, “I feel like ticket prices are too high, and I wish we could charge $20, but you can’t do that anymore with expenses what they are.”

With its $35 top ticket Wisdom Bridge is second only to the Goodman Theatre, which charges $38 for a Saturday night performance. Its substantial price increase comes after a 1993-’94 season punctuated by financial difficulties. The company recently abandoned its original Howard Street facility and took up residence at the Ivanhoe Theater in a neighborhood its board of directors deemed safer and more inviting to theater audiences than north Rogers Park. Wisdom Bridge producing director Jeffrey Ortmann says the $10 jump is justified because the company expects to employ star talent for several of its shows. He also says that the increase puts the company more in line with other Equity productions in nearby theaters. Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a for-profit venture at the Briar Street Theatre, has a $39.50 top, while the priciest off-Loop ticket remains Angels in America at $45.

Orbach Exits Early

Laughter on the 23rd Floor has been open only a little more than two weeks, but already it’s losing a key cast member. According to a spokeswoman for the show, Ron Orbach leaves the production after this Sunday to take a featured role in the new Paramount TV series Platypus Man. His swift exit leaves a gaping hole at the center of the production. Two of the 11 brief paragraphs in Trib chief critic Richard Christiansen’s review dwelt on the glories of his performance, and the Sun-Times also took pains to single out Orbach, who played a different role in the original Broadway production. One of Neil Simon’s less successful efforts, this play about a team of television comedy writers in the 1950s ran for less than a year on Broadway.

Early this week producers Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals were still mulling over how to fill Orbach’s shoes. Hiring and rehearsing a suitable replacement would take time; understudy Mark Morettini, who is likely to perform the part for a while even if another actor eventually replaces Orbach, could be given the role on a permanent basis.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.