Chicago PD filming on location
Chicago PD filming on location Credit: Deanna Isaacs

On my way to the film industry summit hosted by the city at the Cultural Center earlier this month, I bumped into the crew for Chicago PD, a new television series that’s a spin-off from Chicago Fire, set to launch on NBC January 8.

They’d taken over the northwest corner of Wabash and Randolph, where smoke
was rising from the street, a squad car had landed on the sidewalk, and a criminal apprehension was under way, all beneath the glare of a blazing bank of lights.

Pedestrians, kept at bay by crime-scene tape and real cops, clustered on the opposite corner, pulling out cell phones to capture a scene that’s not all that rare in Chicago anymore. As the upbeat mood and robust turnout at the summit attested, while most of us are still feeling the squeeze of a rotten economy, happy days are here again for the Illinois film industry.

Thanks mostly to television.

While the studios are making fewer (if bigger) films, Illinois Film Office head Betsy Steinberg says there’s been “a huge influx of episodic television” here, and that’s what’s keeping everybody working. “We love our movies,” she adds, “but one season of Chicago Fire could easily outspend a large blockbuster movie.”

Thanks to the state’s film industry subsidy (a 30 percent tax credit), expanded infrastructure, and a very lucky pilot season, Steinberg says, there are six TV series shooting here now: Chicago PD and Chicago Fire, plus Betrayal and Mind Games, both on ABC; Sirens, a USA Network comedy featuring Denis Leary; and NBC’s Crisis, with Gillian Anderson.

Steinberg’s particularly proud of landing Crisis, because it’s set not here but in Washington, D.C.

Last year the film industry spent a record $184 million in Illinois, at a cost of $52 million to the state. This year’s total will be significantly higher.

The summit offered standing-room-only sessions on subjects like producing, financing, distribution, and cool new opportunities for getting discovered with a little Web series like Teachers or Sugarboy. Among the advice dispensed: crowdsourcing has costs, the wrong first festival can sink you, deals are made in LA, and a theatrical release is useful to build publicity for the real business, which is video on demand. Also, as for every endeavor these days, you need to build an audience on social media.

Writer and producer Dick Wolf, creator of Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, and Law & Order, with all its spin-offs, was the closing speaker. Interviewed onstage by the Tribune‘s Steve Johnson, Wolf said the difference between a show that works and one that doesn’t is “the writing,” 23-year-olds don’t have “the mileage” to write drama, “the audience is never wrong,” and “success teaches you nothing; you learn from failure.”

Very little was said about Section 181, a federal film industry tax benefit that’s set to expire at the end of this year, so I dialed up attorney Hal “Corky” Kessler of local firm Deutsch, Levy & Engel to ask. Section 181 applies to the first $15 to $20 million spent on a project, including individual episodes of television series, Kessler said. Combined with a state benefit, it can guarantee that investors get back up to 75 percent of their investment before the film is even distributed—which explains the rush he’s seeing to get projects on the books (and grandfathered) before the deadline.

So will the loss of this federal bonanza affect the film business in Illinois? Kessler’s not sure, but offers a lesson from recent history. Section 181 has expired before, most recently at the end of 2011. It was out of the picture for a year before being reinstituted last January and made retroactive for all of 2012. Like the villain in many a horror film, it’s not necessarily going to stay dead.

Chicago-based director John McNaughton, famous for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, has a new thriller, The Harvest, which was the subject of a summit case-study panel that included McNaughton and actor Michael Shannon. As the discussion made clear, it was financed in a more traditional Hollywood way—by a deep-pockets investor whose blond bombshell wife landed a role in the film.