Lights, Camera–but No Action

According to the old Hollywood saw, you’re only as good as your last picture, and though the state of Illinois pulled in a respectable $104 million from film and TV production last year, 1998 is beginning to look like a turkey. The Illinois Film Office reports that as of April 15 the state had collected only $13 million in direct expenditures for feature film and television projects.

Chicago’s reputation for subzero winters has always discouraged location shooting during the first quarter, but more troubling is the dearth of new projects lined up for the summer and fall. Ron Ver Kuilen, director of the film office, reports that only one theatrical feature is slated for production here in the months ahead: Message in a Bottle, a romance starring Kevin Costner, will include some scenes shot in Chicago. But the city might also land as many as four TV series waiting to be green lighted by the networks for this fall. CBS’s Early Edition has just been renewed for a third season, and three pilots for new series have been shot here: Cupid, featuring Jeremy Piven, will premiere this fall; Turks, starring William Devane, could debut at midseason; and Reel Life, starring Nia Peeples, is still in limbo. But the actual amount of location shooting each might require isn’t known.

For years we’ve been hearing that the city is becoming a mecca for the film and television industry, but after The Untouchables, The Fugitive, and more John Hughes movies than anyone can count, Chicago is suffering from overexposure in a cyclical business. The relatively high cost of experienced union labor has deflected some prospects, and in the summer of 1995 an FBI report alleging mob connections to local film-support companies did untold damage to Chicago’s reputation. Yet Ver Kuilen insists that the biggest problem is Canada, where the U.S. dollar now buys around $1.45 Canadian.

“It’s been a real challenge for us,” he says, noting that the Canadian government is funding continued improvements in the country’s film-production infrastructure. “Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal are all now very attractive cities to shoot in, and Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and just about every other Canadian province are also working aggressively to attract more film business from the United States.” Unless a script specifically requires Chicago locations, says Ver Kuilen, producers will pursue any deal that generates savings. “If producers feel they’re getting value, they’ll come here.”

Richard Moskal, Ver Kuilen’s counterpart at the Chicago Film Office, points out that the proliferation of high-tech computer graphics has also reduced the need for location shooting–the backdrops for big-budget epics such as Titanic and Independence Day were created largely on computer screens. In years past the city and state film offices have joined forces to promote Illinois as a good film locale, launching catchy ad campaigns in Hollywood trade journals or on billboards around LA. But Moskal says there are currently no plans–or city funds budgeted–for any such efforts.

Blame It on Bucktown?

After eight years Morlen Sinoway will close his art gallery at 2035 W. Wabansia. Sinoway is the latest dealer to abandon the increasingly gentrified Bucktown area: Aron Packer closed his Bucktown gallery last year, and the Portia Gallery, which specializes in glass objects, opened a second location in River North on May 1, with its old shop at 1702 N. Damen scheduled to close this summer. “Bucktown is a great place for a gallery to start,” says Amy O’Daniel, associate director of the Portia Gallery, “but it will be easier for our clients to get to us in River North.”

Sinoway says he decided to close partly because the art business has changed significantly in recent years. Just as superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble have crowded out small bookshops, fairs like Art 1998 Chicago at Navy Pier are monopolizing the market for fine art. “It’s like a giant art mall where you can see a massive amount of art at one time,” Sinoway says, “and people will spend a lot of money at such a fair.” Seven or eight years ago artists and art dealers were more visible in Bucktown, “but the art aspect has given way to restaurants and retail.” The West Side Gallery District, an association that covers Bucktown and Wicker Park, has seen its membership drop from over 20 to a mere dozen.

Yet other Bucktown gallery owners report that business has never been better. Kara Hughes’s Idao Gallery is located on the third floor of 1616 N. Damen, less than a block from the Portia Gallery; her recent Burleigh Kronquist show netted 23 sales, “more than I sold during all of 1995.” Hughes concedes that many artists who made the area hip have been forced into slightly less expensive neighborhoods like Logan Square, but she believes that gentrification has helped dealers: “People aren’t afraid to park around here anymore.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ron Ver Kuilen and Richard Moskal photo by Eugene Zakusilo.