Lights, camera, and no action: what's happened to the film business? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Lights, camera, and no action: what's happened to the film business? 

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When the old-timers in the local movie business gather round to moan about their industry's woes, they invariably tell the tale of the director from LA hired by the state to film a commercial promoting tourism in Illinois. "If you want to know why the film industry here is hurting so much, that about sums it up," says Peter Donoghue, a veteran film-crew worker here. "The state might as well put up a billboard saying, "Don't come to Chicago. The talent's no good."'

Donoghue and others contend that Chicago and Illinois are losing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business to Minnesota, New York, and other places because city and state officials are doing a lousy job of promotion. "I know guys who were making big money a few years ago, and now they're going out of the business," says Tom Lewis, another veteran crew member. "What's going on is scary."

Over the past few weeks Donoghue has been rallying coworkers for informal meetings where they exchange horror stories and search for solutions. State and city film officials don't appreciate such efforts. "Donoghue in particular is always on the phone calling, calling, calling," says Suzy Kellett, director of the state's film office. "Enough's enough, already. I say to Peter and all the others, "Quit your bitchin'. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you're doing everything you can to make this place affordable?' I think it's cowardice to meet in small groups. It's not constructive to call the newspapers."

In many ways Donoghue's career reflects the ups and downs of the local industry. His first job, back in 1975, was working as a gaffer, the set electrician, on a small-budget movie called Towing. After that he worked on Stony Island, directed by Andrew Davis, a Chicago native who went on to direct The Fugitive and other action hits. By the late 1970s Donoghue was well into the business, which was booming.

"There was a time when the old Mayor Daley was in office that Chicago was not welcoming movies to town," says Joe Rowley, executive producer of Southpaw Productions, a local production house. "It was an issue of control. Mayor Daley didn't trust outsiders. He wanted to review scripts. He didn't want them making gangster movies that might hurt the city's image."

But mayors Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne and Governor Jim Thompson opened their arms to the industry. "They were into it," says Marty Frazier, a production coordinator. "They saw it as a chance to promote the city and state."

In the late 70s Steve McQueen came to town to film The Hunter, an action flick that included a classic shot of a car falling from Marina Towers into the Chicago River. Then came a stream of work, including My Bodyguard, which was shot in and around Lake View High School. "The breakthrough movie was The Blues Brothers," says Lewis. "It showed the city in new ways. There were scenes on Maxwell Street and Lower Wacker Drive, even City Hall."

Byrne gave director John Landis the right to film wherever and whenever he wanted, even allowing him to close Lake Shore Drive on a hot summer day to shoot a chase scene. "There's that famous picture of Byrne in sunglasses with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd," says Donoghue. "Whatever you think of Byrne, that one picture was great for our business. It said, "Come to Chicago. This is where it's happening."'

What followed were movies like Four Friends, Thief, The Color of Money, Risky Business, and several John Hughes films, including Home Alone. All told, there have been 523 productions shot in Illinois since 1975; according to Suzy Kellett, they left about $683 million in the state and created more than 240,000 jobs. That meant paychecks for gaffers, best boys, grips, set designers, and other crew members.

"In a good year a gaffer could make $60,000--that's how much work there was between TV shows, movies, and commercials," says Donoghue. "And there were a lot of jobs--on any given film you have seven employees in the electric department, props has five, set dressers seven. You're talking about 35 gainfully employed people making at least 50 thou. And they aren't throwing it away--they're buying cars and mortgages and iceboxes. They're spreading it around the local economy."

In the early 80s Donoghue and his wife bought a house near Roscoe Village. "It looked like a business with a big future, so I stayed," he says. "I didn't want to move to LA. Working in movies there is like making cars in Detroit--you're just a stiff on the line. Here it's special. We have a community. We know everybody. It's a home."

The peak year was 1993, when $116 million were invested in 27 different productions, including two television series, Missing Persons and The Untouchables.

Then came the collapse. In 1994 only $51 million were invested in Illinois, Kellett says. This year the business will be lucky to match that sum. "This business is cyclical, and we had our run," she says. "There's not much I or anyone else can do. We don't control scripts. The industry likes to go to places that are hot. If you're going to do Vietnam or westerns you're not going to think about us. You can't compare us to New York. We don't have New York's base, with De Niro, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, the soaps."

For a time production workers were able to live off their savings. But as weeks turned into months without work, those savings evaporated. With time on their hands, they rattled the phone lines, calling one another to exchange painful stories of coworkers selling off equipment, losing their homes, getting out of the business, leaving town.

Donoghue began pressing Kellett and Charles Geocaris, head of the city's film department, demanding to know what they were doing to promote new business and how he could help. "I don't want them to take this personal, because it's not about them--but no one's doing enough to promote our city," says Donoghue. "Always it's with the excuse. "Oh, the exchange rate with Canada's killing us, so they're going north to shoot.' Fine. Then tell me why Minnesota's booming? They say, "Minnesota's willing to work for cheap.' I said, "We'll cut our rates. We've already made some concessions. And besides they ain't working for cheap in New York.' Then they tell me, "The problem is you guys steal'--you know, equipment from the set. Can you believe that? First of all, they never get specific. And second of all, what are you telling me--they don't steal in New York? That's where stealing was invented. We're her [Suzy Kellett's] product, and all she does is run us down. We're expensive, we're thieves, and we don't know what we're doing. No wonder no one wants to work here.

"Then it's all sorts of little things. The state cuts Suzy's budget. For Showbiz Expo, the big convention in LA, Suzy shares a booth with Wisconsin and Minnesota. Meanwhile New York's got their own booth. They got uniformed cops handing out gimmick parking tickets saying, "You have an appearance in New York.' Why can't we do something creative like that? Then I see Premiere magazine comes out with a special issue on the film industry in New York. It was a beautiful glossy spread with pictures that make scruffy gaffers like me look like ballerinas, for Christ sake. I called up Suzy's office and I said, "Did you see this?' And someone tells me that doesn't mean anything. That's when I knew--these people don't have a clue."

His biggest gripe is with the Illinois tourism office going out of state for a director for its commercial. "They turned their back on us," he says. "Are they really saying there's not a quality director in this town?"

That's not what the tourism office was saying at all, Kellett counters. "They have nothing against local directors. They looked at all the director reels and thought the other director was best. Peter and the others don't know all the things we're doing. He keeps talking about the Showbiz Expo. It doesn't matter who you share a booth with. Producers don't care about that. The bottom line is production costs. I would say to him, "Are you dropping your rates?"'

Production-crew members say they would take rate cuts if the city slashed its taxes on film productions. But Kellett says, "They want us to cut taxes and raise budgets--that's not very realistic. I understand why crew members would get pissed off at the loss of jobs. But it's a cyclical business--that's the nature of the game. You either play it or get out."

Donoghue says he wants to play. "They're taking it personally," he says. "Charlie Geocaris calls me up and says, "What, do you want my job?' I say, "No, Charlie, I don't want your job. I want my old job.' And I'm gonna do what it takes to light a fire under this industry."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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