Producers Increase Spending on Production in Chicago

TV production is a fast-growing business in Chicago.

In addition to NBC’s Chicago Fire, P.D. and Med, the Second City is host to series including Fox’s Empire, Amazon’s Patriot, Netflix’s Easy and Fusion’s The AV Club. New series include Showtime’s The Chi and Amazon’s Electric Dreams.

“Chicago is pretty uniquely positioned to attract industry in large part because it is affordable, paid by the state tax credit,” Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, said. “But we’re also blessed with an abundance of actor talent, crew, vendors and facilities and we, the city of Chicago, have been working with this industry for quite some time dating back to the 1980s when primarily feature films discovered Chicago as a new fresh destination.”

According to the Illinois Film Office, TV and movie production generated $499 million in spending in 2016, up 51% from the prior year. That came on top of an 18% increase in 2015. The surge in business resulted in 13,388 non-extra job hires during 2016.

Most of that activity is going on in the city, according to Moskal, where TV is finding a home in a location with a rich movie history. Films such as The Blues Brothers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off gave Chicago awareness in Hollywood, but NBC’s Chicago shows have given the city a Dick Wolf stamp of approval that has boosted its cred with TV networks and producers.

“Decision-makers have started looking at Chicago as a place to headquarter series in ways that perhaps they hadn’t previously,” Moskal said.

Credit Where Credit Is Due
Other big factors are a 30% tax credit program to encourage production in Illinois, as well as the opening of a huge studio facility, Cinespace, which has 30 stages and is home to as many as eight shows.

At this point, Chicago is not attracting only shows set in Chicago. For example, while parts of the Amazon series Patriot took place in Chicago, scenes set in Washington, D.C., Belgium, Berlin and other locations were shot in Chicago neighborhoods.

While the city is famous for its actors and comedians, Chicago-based independent filmmakers are creating TV shows and when they do, some are shooting in town as well. Those include Steve Conrad, creator of Patriot, and Joe Swanberg, who is behind Netflix’s Easy.

“The number of Chicagoans who have risen to the position of being decision-makers as producers, as directors, as screenwriters, and as television writers has increased significantly,” Moskal said.

All of this has business booming at Cinespace, which was opened in 2011 by the family that owns the Cinespace production facility in Toronto. The first show shot there was Starz’s Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer, followed by the short-lived The Playboy Club on NBC. Then the pilot for Chicago Fire was shot at Cinespace, and the rest is Windy City history.

“Having Dick Wolf here really put Chicago on the map and it built tremendous infrastructure,” said Alex Pissios, president of Cinespace Chicago. “With his help, now we have 30 soundstages, which makes us one of the largest film studio operators in the world.”

Fox has also been supportive. In addition to Empire, Cinespace has been home to Fox shows including APB, Exorcist, Crisis and Mindgames.

The facility now has on premises an animation company, two post-production companies and a casting company.

“It’s been fun to watch Cinespace grow since we started,” said Chicago Fire executive producer Derek Hass. “With three shows here, it’s a lot of money that we spend and it stays here because it’s all the crew, all the cast live here.”

Also, NBC and Cinespace have teamed up to create an apprentice program with DePaul University for students working toward a digital film degree. The students learn hair and makeup, grip, electrical and carpentry. “The nice thing is these kids are graduating and they’re getting jobs on these shows here on campus,” Pissios said.

Casts and crew of the shows help the community in other ways as well. “Any time you ask, these actors show up,” Pissios said. “At Thanksgiving I feed a thousand people here at Cinespace. The actors will all come and serve. Most of the actors are not from here. I think a lot of them are falling into this Midwestern-type of personality.”

Pissios said Cinespace is close to getting approval from the city to fence in his property to create a backlot. Once that’s accomplished he’ll set up tours of the facility.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.