Chicago Film Project Update: Summer is Serious Movie Season

By Brian Hieggelke

We’re now four months into this project, and so far, nothing concrete to share. We’ve received more than our share of local media attention, from the Sunday Tribune to WBEZ to WGN, which has motivated a surge in submissions each time. I can only hope that the actual film we make gets so much love when it comes out. (You can read/listen to the coverage here: https://www.chicagofilmproject.com/about-chicago-film-project/)

We’ve received dozens and dozens of submissions, liked about one in five enough to ask for complete scripts, and remain interested, to varying degrees, in less than ten projects. I’ve not yet read a script that’s elicited a yell of “Eureka! This is it!” But that’s perhaps not surprising. A fair bit of the material is stuff that’s been around for a while; perhaps projects that have been shopped and turned down, only to get a dust-off and submission to us. That’s not necessarily a bad thing on its face.

Several of the projects are writer-director works; some have producers and even talent attached. The latter is a pervasive phenomenon; the prevailing wisdom in the film business is that talent drives the financing of the project, especially concerning potential for foreign sales. This leads to a fair bit of counterintuitive thinking: an imperative for signing actors with some level of Hollywood exposure rather than simply finding the best actor to play a role, which can really shake up the cost of a project as well as the scheduling, both factors reducing the probability that work gets done. I think this is a mistake as far as nurturing an independent film culture in Chicago. We need to show that films can be made here, and that the talent pool, right here, is outstanding. By doing so, we’ll make our own names who become “known” talents, in the same way that Chicago theater does. (See Tracy Letts.) The famous-talent obsession leads to some odd pitching gymnastics, along the lines of “I’ve got Joe Smith, who appeared on a short-lived cable series a decade ago, attached to play the lead.” Something tells me that, if I haven’t heard of Joe Smith, the guy buying the rights for the Pakistan market won’t have either. Conventional wisdom also points to genre films—most notably horror and Chicago gangster pictures—as having built-in prospects. While I have no reason to believe that to be untrue, it’s a handcuff for anyone interested in making quality pictures outside of those genres. None of this is to say we’re pie-in-the-sky about our intentions. In fact, I’ve used every chance I can to state a governing principle of this undertaking: that any project we do must have an expectation to make money. Of course success is never guaranteed, but you’ll never find it without a clear understanding of how to get there. Making a film is both an artistic process and a startup business. The challenge is to manage both of those ideas in a manner that is not inherently in internal conflict.

And so here’s where we stand: we continue to seek and review projects/ideas, while moving forward informally with several of those to determine production budgets as well as to assess the strength of the artistic vision we’ll have to believe in. At the same time, we’re undertaking the process of building revenue models for the film(s) we make. As I’ve discovered the hard way, it’s easy to spend money, but another thing entirely to make it. The Newcity calendar lightens a bit starting this week, so look for much more activity these next few weeks.