Credit: Photo illustration: Paul John Higgins

Now that Cook County Board president Todd Stroger has saved his 1 percent sales tax hike, and only has to worry about the state legislature’s attack on his veto power, a grand jury probe of his administration’s spending, and the next election, he’ll be turning his attention to something a little more glamorous. Stroger has his heart set on establishing the first Cook County Film and Entertainment Commission, complete with an executive director’s job any well-connected busboy or Stroger cousin would love to fill. He’s been pushing the idea for the last couple months and is looking to have the office up and running by January 1.

Two strong government entities—the Illinois and Chicago film offices—already schmooze and service the movie industry. And before the economy went south, the movie business in Illinois was getting a solid boost from the tax credits those agencies helped put into place. People in the industry say they could use a point person in the county to help them with red tape—a single source filmmakers could go to for permits to shoot, say, in the forest preserve, Brookfield Zoo, or a suburb. That might be handled with a part-time reassignment of an existing county employee. But Stroger’s people, who’ve been holding meetings on the subject since mid-August, have a bigger idea: a commission that would deal not only with films but with live performance and other kinds of artistic endeavors.

Stroger special assistant Jack Weinrauch says that after meeting with “several hundred people” from the entertainment community and taking recommendations from them, they’re on the 13th draft of an ordinance to create the commission. He thinks it’ll be ready shortly and hopes the board will approve it by December 1. What they have so far, he says, stipulates that the commission would include seats for the sheriff’s office, the Forest Preserve District, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and an Illinois-based film production company; it might also include everybody from union representatives and advertising agency execs to academics and artists.

“We want a chairman of this commission and we want an executive director,” Weinrauch says. “We want them to provide support services, which include securing permits from county agencies or municipalities. We want them to promote the use of Cook County locations, facilities, and services for production. We want a resource library on the Internet and production manuals. We want to conduct trade shows and workshops to promote Cook County. We want guides showing financial incentive opportunities, and we want standardized permitting. I understand from our meetings that everybody wants to do films in the Chicago area. It’s just that they’ve not been able to consolidate their efforts in a convenient way. We want somebody that would take the responsibility to do that.” And, he adds, “We want the city and state film offices involved. We don’t want duplication or overlapping.”

The proposed commission would also offer direct support—”either expertise or money, based on need and merit”—to independent filmmakers, live productions, and “young, talented artists in the county,” Weinrauch says.

The commission would be expected to present marketing plans to the County Board for review within six months of being established, and also to submit recommendations on film incentives, including possible increases in the tax credit that could be presented to the state legislature. “Illinois currently has a 30 percent tax credit,” Weinruach noted. “We hope to be able to maybe make that competitive with Michigan, which has a 42 percent tax credit.”

That’s where somebody should be yelling, “Cut!” Chicago Film Office director Rich Moskal thinks a county office that would make it easier for filmmakers to navigate the government could be helpful. But both Moskal and Wayne Kubacki—vice president of Essanay Studio and Lighting and a member of the board of the Illinois Production Alliance, a nonprofit “visual media” lobbying organization—view Michigan’s incentives with alarm. While they’re attracting what little business is out there now, Moskal says, supersize givebacks (also offered by Massachusetts, Georgia, and—until its program was suspended September 18, amid allegations of gross mismanagement and fraud—Iowa) are too costly to be sustained. Illinois’ current tax credit covers local spending, including wages paid to Illinois residents up to $100,000 per person; Michigan’s takes in everything spent, even wages paid to non-Michigan residents making up to $2 million each. (When Clint Eastwood made Gran Torino in Detroit, for example, Kubacki says, his salary as director and producer would have qualified for the Michigan incentive.)

“They know that they can’t continue to offer those incentives indefinitely,” Kubacki says. “They think they’ll do it for a while, until they have trained local people and infrastructure, and then they’ll be set to sustain that business without the incentives. But if infrastructure and experienced crews were enough to sustain the business, why has Hollywood done nothing but bleed jobs for the last 10 or 15 years?”

Illinois has “the most aggressive incentive that still makes economic sense,” Kubacki argues. “The IPA isn’t asking the state of Illinois to change it. We don’t feel that would be the right thing to do.” Ultimately, he says, there won’t be enough business to support expanded production facilities. And though the states with higher incentives may retain some small amount of business when the incentives are dumped, it won’t be close to an amount that would justify the “grandiose plans and money invested.” The saddest case, in his opinion, is Michigan, where “people are thinking the film industry will replace the auto industry,” and ex-autoworkers are going through training programs with hopes for stable employment.”

“The problem we’re facing right now is strictly the economy and these competing incentives,” says Moskal. “If you were to ask producers about Chicago, the overwhelming response would be, ‘Great place to work, great crews, great cooperation, very cinematic.’ But right now everybody’s shopping the deep discounts. We’re well positioned for the long run given the incentive we have, but the competition is really fierce at the moment.”

According to the Illinois Film Office, filmmakers spent $144 million in the state in 2008. But things started to slow down last fall, Moskal says, and though there’s been a flurry of commercials—which also qualify for the tax credit—film and television business right now is minimal. At about $250,000, the Chicago Film Office budget is “a lot leaner than it used to be” and the staff (Moskal and two employees) “has never been smaller.”

Weinrauch declined to say what the Cook County Film and Entertainment Commission will cost. “Our budget analysts have to look at it,” he says. They should take a good look. What Weinrauch is describing sounds like the state and city film offices combined, with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and a piece of the Illinois Arts Council thrown in—when all that may be needed is a clerk.