Coming to a State Near You: Illinois Brought in Record Dollars from Entertainment Industry Last Year

Apr 1, 2014

An upcoming film about the late author and former Illinois State University professor David Foster Wallace opted not to film in the Bloomington-Normal area and instead chose Michigan, reportedly for the state’s more generous tax breaks.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Robots from space attacked Chicago, blowing up buildings and vaporizing residents as they ran through the streets. A mad villain flipped a semi-trailer end over end and blew up a hospital. Two blues men drove through a suburban mall, crashed into the lobby of the Richard J. Daley Center and caused a pileup of police cruisers while tearing around the city on a holy mission. 

But it was all good news for Chicago and the state of Illinois because these are a few of the iconic scenes from movies — Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Dark Knight and The Blues Brothers — filmed in the state. While Chicago has been a popular backdrop for film and television for many years, tax breaks and the construction of the largest soundstage outside of Hollywood have helped to ramp up the number of productions taking place in the city. In 2013, Illinois had a record year with an estimated $358 million spent in the state by film and television production. That total was up from $184 million in 2012. 

An estimated $203 million of the money spent in 2013 went to wages paid in the state. “This is about jobs. This is about jobs for Illinoisans,” says Betsy Steinberg, managing director of the Illinois Film Office, which is based in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. “It has been incredibly exciting and inspiring to see how far the film industry in Illinois has come in such a short time,” says John Coli Jr., president and business manager of Teamsters Local 727. The Teamsters union represents many of the Illinois residents who work on film and television sets. “Last year, we had more Illinois teamsters working in this industry than ever before, from drivers to caterers to custodians.” 

Many familiar with the industry cite The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan and released in 2008, as kicking off a resurgence of the industry in Chicago. With its big-budget production quality, stunts and special effects, Rick Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, says, “The Dark Night reflects the sort of new generation of film industry in Chicago.” He says the film and its success generated a lot of excitement from the public and interest from producers. “A big part of the story behind that film was: ‘How did they do that? Where did they do that? What all went into it?’” 

“It had been some years since a really large-scale [film], sort of what one would call a blockbuster had been here,” Steinberg says of The Dark Knight

While The Dark Night helped to usher in a resurgence in film and television work in the city, Moskal notes that Chicago has been in the spotlight for decades. “We’ve really been at this since the late ’70s, ever since The Blues Brothers was shot in Chicago,” Moskal says. “This is hardly a new industry for us; what is new is the volume that we have currently and the ability to attract the industry in new ways that we haven’t before.”

Jake and Elwood Blues put the city on display as they went on their “mission from God” to save an orphanage in the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers. “Chicago is one of the stars of the movie,” Dan Aykroyd, who played Elwood and co-wrote the script with director John Landis, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We wrote it as a tribute.” Many credit the film for making Chicago a place where directors want to film movies. The over-the-top car chases and stunts signaled that the city was willing to work with directors to stage elaborate scenes. According to the Sun-Times, at the time of its release, the film set a record for the number of cars crashed in a movie. 

The film also showcased the city from Lower Wacker Drive, which would later feature prominently in director Christopher Nolan’s vision of Gotham City, to the beauty of the skyline and Lakeshore Drive, to the grittiness of the city’s steel mills. “Part of what was showed off in [The Blues Brothers] was just how interesting Chicago looked on the screen,” says Moskal. 

A former Chicago steel mill now is a key component to the growth of the television and film industry in the state. In 2011, Cinespace Chicago Film Studios opened on the site of the Ryerson steel plant on the city’s west side. “It served our state and people very, very well for nearly a century, but things change,” Gov. Pat Quinn said of the plant. The Cinespace campus is more than 58 acres and has 18 sound stages. The facility has 1.5 million square feet of space in its buildings, including the stages and office space. Some television shows, such as Boss and Chicago Fire, even use the office space for shooting. The owners of the facility hope to eventually complete 30 stages, including a water tank. 

In addition to Boss and Chicago Fire, scenes for the Transformersfranchise and the film Divergent were also filmed at Cinespace. Divergent, which is adapted from the first book in a trilogy of teen novels, is based in a dystopian future Chicago and is one of the only large-budget movies to film entirely in Chicago to date. Moskal says that if Divergent follows in the trend of other recent teen franchises, such as the Twilight and The Hunger Games series, it could benefit the city for years to come. “Those films have drawn flocks of tourists to the places where they’ve filmed.”

Steinberg says that while Chicago has long been a “beloved” place for location shoots, after directors got their outdoor shots, they would often pack up and leave town. She says that the construction of Cinespace was a game changer for the city because now there is room to shoot multiple projects simultaneously indoors. “Illinois has never before had this volume of stage space,” she says. “It basically just exponentially changed the amount of projects, the volume of work, that could be going on at one time.”

The added studio space means that there is more room for television shows to shoot in the city. The shows Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, Sirens, Crisis, Mind Games and Shameless have all done recent shooting in the city. Television shows help to sustain the industry in the state because they typically last longer than films and provide longer-term employment. “TV shows are a real economic workhorse,” Steinberg says. She says that serial television provides a consistent economic infusion over an entire season of episodes. “They spend enough money to be like 22 to 23 little indie movies.”

While the bulk of production in Illinois goes on in Chicago, shooting takes place in other parts of the state, too. “It’s a creative driven question,” Steinberg says. “If somebody needs something that is not urban set, then, for sure, they will come and they will scout all over the state.” Man of Steel turned Plano in Kendall County into Superman’s adopted hometown of Smallville. The Informant!, a 2009 film about Archer Daniels Midland’s price fixing tactics in the 1990s starring Matt Damon, shot in Springfield and Decatur. The 2012 drama At Any Priceshot in DeKalb County. 

Illinois has also missed out on some movies in the recent past. The final installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Night Rises, was shot in Pittsburgh and Newark, N.J. “It was a disappointment,” says Moskal. “But we certainly were not in position to feel too bad” after the first two films used Chicago as Gotham City. He says Nolan was looking to keep the franchise fresh and had already featured several interesting parts of Chicago in the first two films. He says one reason for the move was “just the need to find new places to do cool stuff.”

An upcoming film about author and former Illinois State University professor David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour, will not be shooting in Illinois. The Bloomington Pantagraph reported in January that the movie’s director and producer made a scouting trip to Bloomington-Normal, but in the end decided to shoot the “Bloomington” scenes in and around Lansing, Mich., because the state offers better tax breaks. The movie is expected to be released sometime next year.

Illinois does offer a tax break to film and television production companies that shoot in the state. Many cite the state’s current credit as part of the reason for the recent spending record. “By every measure the Illinois Film Production Tax Credit Act has been a huge success in fostering the development of a world-class television and film industry in Illinois that has strengthened and diversified Illinois’ economy, created thousands of jobs and supports local businesses across the state,” Chicago Fire creator Derek Haas said at a news conference in the city. 

The credit applies to 30 percent of spending in the state. It only applies to the hiring of Illinois residents. Last year, the state Senate approved a proposal that would have allowed an exemption for out-of-state performers, but the bill was never called for a House vote. 

  “We’re prepared to receive more shows, more movies and more series. I think that if we were able to expand the tax credit to wages as well, then we would attract even more opportunities to the state. And we see that this money turns right into income, wages, for people who live in Illinois,” says Chicago Democratic Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, who sponsored SB 1816. “It turns into real money on the ground for the people who live in Chicago.” She does not plan to push the bill again this session, but she thinks lawmakers should consider making the change in the near future.

Actors who are from Chicago say they would like to return to the city to work, and that a tweak to the tax credit would make that more likely. “The one kind of recurring theme for Illinois natives is the love to work back home and be able to stay,” actor and director Billy Zane told a Senate committee considering the bill last year. “We are in a high tax bracket, and we’d love to pay it here.” Zane and many other actors and actresses got their start in the Chicago theater scene. Nolan has Chicago ties, too. His mother is British and his father is American. As a child, he split time between London and Chicago.

  While most states give film tax credits, they aren’t without their critics. A report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that the credits generally do not generate enough revenue to pay for themselves and instead take “money that [states] otherwise could have spent on public services like education, health care, public safety, and infrastructure.” The report says that while subsides are touted as job creators, “in the harsh light of reality, film subsidies offer little bang for the buck.”

However, Steinberg says they can be necessary to land a big project. She says that often producers and directors may love a location, but their final decision comes down to the financial picture. She says she thinks that’s what happened when Illinois lost out to North Carolina to be the shooting location for the recent blockbuster Iron Man 3. “Very often the bottom line is a driving factor in where movies and television shows decide to shoot,” she says. “It’s a multibillion-dollar industry that is portable.”

Actor Billy Zane and Chicago Democratic Sen. Patricia Van Pelt testify before a Senate committee about proposed changes to the state’s tax credit for film and television production.
Credit State Senate Democrats

  Moskal says that Chicago has a lot to offer in addition to the credit. He says the city has enough experienced crews to manage up to five productions at once without having to fly in many additional workers. The city’s theater presence also allows for the possibility of hiring polished local talent. He notes that Michigan has been offering bigger incentives, but he says that productions that have opted to go there have incurred other costs because there is not as deep of an experienced local labor base. “They had to fly in most of their crew. They had to put them up in hotels. They had to fly in all their equipment,” he says. Moskal says that Chicago also offers “glamour” and a “big city” look that can only be found in a few places in North America. “What makes Chicago and Illinois, I think, so desirable right now is that beyond the incentive, there’s other things that draw the interest of producers,” he says. “It’s a good place to tell a story.”

Illinois Issues, April 2014