Give ‘Em Some Incentives

With the right ending, it might make a salable script: commercial real estate powerhouse (think Meg Ryan) is a closet cineast, tapping film reviews into her computer in her spare time, jetting off to Cannes, yearning to be a player in the movie biz. Her wealthy, aspiring-politician ex-husband suggests her to the governor-to-be for the state’s top film industry slot–in spite of her lack of experience in the field. When word of the pending appointment leaks, she comes in for some nasty criticism from industry folk but gets the job anyway. Then she walks on water.

That’s what Brenda Sexton will have to do in her new position as managing director of the Illinois Film Office. Her predecessor, Ron Ver Kuilen, says that when he left, annual business had dropped from $125 million to $30 million in two years, and that the only way to turn it around would be to make it cheaper to operate here. Industry people in Illinois are looking for financial aid from a state government that’s broke and refused to help even when it had money. Sexton, who was appointed three weeks ago, vowed to bring the government around when she was introduced at a meeting of the Illinois Production Alliance Tuesday night at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. Looking out at several hundred members of her new constituency, she said, “It breaks my heart that the burden of competing with Canada has been on all of you.”

Canada is the evil empire in this plot. In 1997 the Canadian government began to give a tax credit equal to 11 percent of a film’s labor costs, sweetened by some provinces to more than 40 percent. This past February, the national government credit was increased to 16 percent. These incentives, added to a weak Canadian dollar, makes locations north of the border irresistible to film companies, many of which are now owned by multinational corporations with bean counters calling the shots. High-profile, set-in-Chicago films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Chicago–potential showcases for the city–are being shot mostly on back lots in Winnipeg and Toronto. The civic embarrassment at Oscar time was palpable.

Ver Kuilen left the Illinois Film Office in December after 23 years there, the last eight as director. He survived an attempt by Governor Ryan to dump him four years ago, when the local film industry was bringing in record amounts of money, only to watch helplessly as the business drained away, first to Canada and then to New Mexico and other states that enacted Canadian-inspired tax breaks while Illinois didn’t. “We drafted all the legislation,” he says, “but I didn’t have the political access to get it passed.” Ver Kuilen heard as early as last June that Sexton was interested in his job. “When one of the union guys said, ‘You’d better fucking pack your bags,'” he decided to take advantage of an early-retirement option. “Sometimes,” he says, “you need new blood.”

Ver Kuilen says Sexton has “a ton of political capital”–her ex, former securities trader Blair Hull, has contributed more than $700,000 over the last ten years to Democratic candidates running for state office and is currently running himself for the U.S. Senate seat Peter Fitzgerald is vacating. Sexton has another advantage: she’s working under a Democratic administration with the same party in control of both sides of the legislature. Although downstate lawmakers oppose tax breaks for the film industry because not many movies are made, say, in Effingham, she has a more unified playing field than he ever saw. On the other hand, the state is facing a $5 billion budget deficit and isn’t in the mood to give anything away. Industry hopes are riding on legislation introduced by Elmwood Park’s Skip Saviano, now before the house executive committee, that would grant feature-length films and major commercials a 25 percent tax cut on wages paid to Illinois residents. Illinois Film Office assistant director Bob Hudgins says the 27-page amendment will change as it passes through the legislative process, but as it’s written now the credits would be nontransferable and would have to be taken in the year the wages were paid. Ver Kuilen says restrictions like those will make it useless.

Without a tax incentive, Sexton says Chicago can’t compete, even for business cut loose since Toronto was quarantined by SARS: most of it will “just go to other Canadian cities.” The film office is also working to loosen up criteria for “Lights, Camera, Illinois,” an existing state loan program, and to get public or public-private ownership for Chicago Studio City, the languishing west-side soundstage that’s on the block. But right now the action is in the legislature. Sexton needs an effective tax break passed before they call it a wrap this spring.

The Museum of Contemporary Art laid off eight employees last week. Spokesperson Karla Loring says the cuts included six full-time regular staff positions: two from curatorial, one from public relations, one box-office employee, one secretary, and one preparator. The MCA had a staff of about 100 before the cut. Museum officials had no comment on the reasons for the action….The Performance Loft, a small theatrical venue at 656 W. Barry, is closing; the Second Unitarian Church owns the space and is taking it over. Darknight Productions’ Starting Monday, which opens tomorrow and runs through May 25, will be the Loft’s final show.

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