Let’s get this straight: John Iltis is still around and still working. A stalwart ally of local independent filmmakers and widely regarded as one of the nicest guys in the movie promotion business, Iltis has, however, closed the door on the Lake Shore Drive headquarters of his firm, John Iltis Associates, as of earlier this week. His staff of a dozen–half what it once was–was let go, and the spacious suite of offices that had been the company’s home for more than a quarter century was emptied, save for the few desks, couches, and computers that hadn’t been sold.
John Iltis Associates was in the business of creating buzz, mainly by placing ads in newspapers and magazines. Outside of New York and LA, Iltis says, that business is a shadow of its former self–distributors aren’t spending what they once did on print advertising, and large national competitors have captured an increasing share of what business there is. Iltis isn’t packing it in completely: he’ll continue to work on a freelance basis, and he says he already has four projects in hand. But his longtime colleague, distribution and exhibition pro David Sikich, says the demise of the company, along with the recent loss of two local theaters that Sikich helped book–3 Penny, which closed, and Wilmette, which now shows more commercial fare–is a significant blow to Chicago’s independent film community.
Since 1993 Iltis and Sikich have also operated a subsidiary, Iltis Sikich Associates, a producer’s rep firm that negotiated sales and was the only local service of its kind. Their first project together was a little basketball doc produced by Kartemquin Films called Hoop Dreams. “[The filmmakers] saw us at an IFP [Independent Feature Project] seminar when we were just starting out,” Sikich says. “They were just finishing up five or six years of working on it and it was going straight to PBS, where it was financed. One of the things we do is try to ascertain the value of the film in the marketplace. In this case it was a rough cut, close to four hours. We looked at it and we were blown away. We said, ‘This is more than a PBS movie. It should be in theaters, and we’d like to help you achieve that.'”
“They saved our asses from being eaten alive,” says Hoop Dreams producer Gordon Quinn. “It was John who arranged for Siskel and Ebert to see Hoop Dreams, and they went ballistic. They reviewed the film before it had been shown at Sundance, so we went in with enormous buzz for a film nobody had seen. And then when it really took off at Sundance we had Orion and New Line and Sony Pictures, everyone coming at us, wining and dining us and making us offers like nothing we had ever heard. I probably would have taken the first one. You’re suddenly in this situation where everybody is your best friend, and to have somebody who knows that world, who you have a previous relationship with, who you trust and know is an honest person, it made a huge difference.”
Iltis and Sikich ultimately sold Hoop Dreams to Fine Line Features, pushing back the television premiere until after its six-month, $8 million theatrical run. “It was a phenomenon,” Sikich says, and PBS was “thrilled” because playing it after awareness had been built earned the network “one of its highest ratings ever.” But, he says, “in the 13 years since, there has not been another Chicago film that was on that level.” During that time the independent film business took off: more films were made, and agents and lawyers in Los Angeles and New York piled into the producer’s rep business. The two men kept their hold on the local market but were also at its mercy. Sikich maintains that Chicago suffers from a lack of strong production companies, financial backers, distributors, A-list agents, access to on-screen talent, and quality work. Though he and Iltis say they consulted on a number of films over the years (and turned down hundreds more) they represented only two: Tie-died: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Most Deadicated Fans, a documentary on Deadheads produced outside Chicago and released in 1995, and Lana’s Rain, filmed locally and released in 2004. “There’s too many films, perhaps 5,000 a year now,” Sikich says, “and not enough good ones.”
This fall Sikich will teach classes on film production, distribution, and marketing at Columbia College, where he’s taught part-time for 30 years; he’s also looking to get involved with promising films at a stage early enough to help guide them. Both men say they’ll continue to collaborate when it’s appropriate, but Iltis is looking for a new office in the Loop that’s big enough for just one.
Today the Storefront, Tomorrow the London Stage
Local performer and director George Cederquist met English playwright James Walker when both were students at a British boarding school in the mid-90s. They ran a theater company together until 1997, when Cederquist returned to the States to go to Yale. The two friends kept in touch, and in 2004 Walker sent Cederquist the manuscript of Proving Mr. Jennings, a satire on the effects of terrorism he’d just entered in the King’s Cross New Writing competition. “I read the script, loved it, and set to work trying to find a local theater company to do it,” Cederquist says. Word soon came that the play had won the competition, but that didn’t break the ice in Chicago, where, according to Cederquist, international theater is pretty much “off the radar.” The only local taker was Michael Colucci, artistic director of Actors Workshop Theatre. Proving Mr. Jennings, about a guy who goes to the hospital for a heart transplant and wakes up a terrorist suspect, will get its American debut this week at Colucci’s 44-seat storefront theater in Bryn Mawr’s emerging historic district, just down the street from City Lit. Cederquist will direct on a $3,100 budget, and Walker, whose current project is a commissioned work for England’s National Theatre, is flying in for the premiere.
Grumbling Around the Coyote
If you applied to show at the Around the Coyote Festival but didn’t make the cut, don’t expect to get your $100 application fee back. ATC director Allison Stites says she’s talking with some unhappy artists and is trying to do something for them, but “it’s stated very clearly in the application that it’s not returned,” and it’s been that way all three years she’s been there. It might be that nobody howled in years past because almost nobody was rejected, but this year ATC’s feeling a squeeze: a major venue, the Northwest Tower Building, dropped out, while, according to Stites, applications doubled. (She declined to say how many have been turned down.) At the same time, she says, ATC is aiming to become more of a curated event and is going through some “growing pains.” This year 191 visual artists will be showing at the Flat Iron Building, in tents in Wicker Park, and perhaps at two other venues Stites was still “hoping and praying for” this week. The application fee policy is being studied for possible change next year, she says. “It’s not our intention to be all about the money.”
Proving Mr. Jennings
WHEN: Through Sun 9/3: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM
WHERE: Actors Workshop Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr
INFO: 773-728-7529, actorsworkshop.org
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Flynn.