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Monday, 25 April 2011 20:03

Midwest Milestones

Written by  Johan Kharabi
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Heading out to the Midwest, you’ll find that many of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters are taking the region by storm. The third Transformers film was shot in both Illinois and Indiana, and the city of Chicago has hosted the Dark Knight franchise. At the same time, Kansas and Missouri are churning out popular independent films like Winter’s Bone, which exposed audiences to the under-photographed Ozarks. And Kansas City, lying in both Kansas and Missouri, boasts some of the region’s most unexpected and interesting film festivals. This dynamic region offers large cities and vast plains along with experienced crew, eager film offices and large state-of-the-art facilities. So it’s no surprise that the Midwest is getting more and more well-deserved attention these days.


The state of Illinois is sure to conjure up iconic images beginning with Chicago, home to Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. The Windy City’s more recent productions include Showtime’s “Shameless” (starring William H. Macy), Ron Howard’s The Dilemma and the upcoming films Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Dark Knight Rises, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (starring Matt Damon) and Source Code (starring Jake Gyllenhaal). When all is said and done, Chicago’s larger-than-life reputation as a major Midwest production hub makes perfect sense.

midwest_chicago_photo_sfwAccording to Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, the city really started to see the benefits of the state’s current taxincentive program in the past year. “2010 was an extraordinary year for Chicago, and for Illinois as a whole, particularly coming off of what was a slow 2009 when we saw the effects of the poor economy,” he reports. He adds that production throughout the year was indeed unprecedented, as Chicago saw six TV pilots, including “Shameless” and Fox’s “The Chicago Code,” which shot 13 episodes.

The latest Transformers film shot in the city throughout July and August 2010. Such a largescale production is typical of Director Michael Bay, and the chaos that ensued while reducing parts of Chicago to rubble was a challenge. But Moskal says the shoot could not have gone more smoothly. “We had a great partner in Michael Bay and his entire team, because they recognized that they were looking at something challenging and wanted to do it in a way that made sense for the film and the city of Chicago,” Moskal explains. “The production took a very conscientious and respectful approach to what was clearly some of Chicago’s busiest real estate [like Michigan Avenue] and [they] could not have been more proactive and receptive being a partner in this.”

Ultimately, top filmmakers like Michael Bay and Ron Howard see that Chicago has an authentic look that’s incredibly accessible for filming. The city’s beautiful architecture and vibrancy are just two of many factors that make the city a great place to shoot. “Filmmakers recognize this and get that audiences see it too,” Moskal says. “From a filmmaker’s perspective it’s a rich place to tell a story.” Some of the state’s most impressive soundstages are also housed in Chicago. The Chicago Production Center (WTTW) is a state-of-the-art broadcast facility featuring four soundstages that support everything from Sony HDCAMs and XDCAMs to three Avid Media Composer Adrenaline suites and roomy production office space. Big Deahl Productions is equipped with three stages that total over 10,000 square feet, which is ideal for many of its commercial productions. Chicago Studio City is a 100,000-square-foot facility that boasts over 45,000 square feet of soundstages. Illinois also offers a lot of perks outside of Chicago. Through the Illinois Film Services Tax Credit, the state provides producers with a 30-percent credit on all qualified expenditures without a yearly sunset provision (no credit expiration). A 30-percent credit is offered for Illinois salaries up to $100,000 per worker, and an additional 15 percent is available on salaries for individuals living in an economically disadvantaged area. To be eligible, projects that are 30 minutes or longer must accrue an in-state spend of at least $100,000. For productions under this level, Illinois production spending must amount to $50,000.

The economy upswing in 2010 made for a great year in Illinois. “2010 was a banner year for us and, so far, for 2011 we are off to a great start,” says Betsy Steinberg, director of the Illinois Film Office. “Word about our fabulous crew and infrastructure and our great tax credit has gotten out.” Illinois is currently five crews deep, and while it has seen both film and TV series productions, it has historically been heavier on features. What’s Illinois’ goal for this year? “For 2011, we are going to aim to keep projects coming in,” explains Steinberg. “The busier we are, the better it is. And we have the capacity to handle it.”


From an aesthetic perspective alone, Kansas offers filmmakers a very different production experience. From the limestone vistas of the Smoky Hills to the tall grass prairie of Flint Hills, Kansas offers any visitor a unique glimpse into the heart of the U.S. Its varied topography, Midwestern hospitality and affordable production costs make the state an appealing location for both television and film shoots. Unfortunately, however, today Kansas finds itself in a hyper-competitive atmosphere, where neighboring states are doling out increasingly appealing incentive packages in order to get a slice of the American production pie.

In 2009, the Kansas state legislature axed the state’s film credit program (which offered a 30-percent credit on direct production expenditures) in an effort to balance the budget, so the state was left without any major film-tax credits or incentives. This may have placed Kansas at a severe disadvantage but incentives are not everything, and there are still plenty of reasons why the state deserves more production activity.

The former incentive program, due to its nonrefundable and nontransferable nature, had mainly helped to generate local projects while failing to lure bigger, out-of-state productions.At the peak of the state’s production success, Kansas mostly saw locally generated independent features — some with budgets of up to $2 million — driven in part by incentives but also by a decrease in the costs of productions for independent films. Of course, there’s little doubt that a robust incentive package would help the state, as even one or two large projects would bring in a great deal of revenue. In recent years, Kansas has become ever more dependent on small, day-to-shoot productions, mainly via industrial commercials. The state’s talented crew base remains highly experienced with a clear capacity to handle bigger shoots, a direct result of the state’s history with more high-profile production during the 1990s. This crew base is undoubtedly one of the state’s greatest assets, according to Kansas Film Commission Director Peter Jasso. “We have what is needed to handle large productions,” he says. “A lot of our crew has been here for a long time, and they continue working for features in neighboring states while still being based here.” It’s important to remember that a state like Kansas not only has the capacity and infrastructure for shoots, but also the unparalleled ability to accommodate the varied needs of productions. Kansas can shut down roads at little to no cost, for instance, and communities are incredibly receptive to filming — much more so than in busier states. “We can marshal the resources for all kinds of shoots, even very large ones, much easier,” Jasso confirms.

Unfortunately, productions too often focus their attention on incentive packages rather than considering the many other ways a location might cut their costs. By looking at the bigger picture, they would likely see that factors outside of incentive packages can help their bottom lines. Kansas is a great example of how this can be true, but there’s only one way to find out: Go and see for yourself.


Missouri offers tax credits of up to 35 percent of qualified production in-state expenditures. For out-of-state cast and crew — when Missouri taxes are withheld — tax credits can equal up to 30 percent. This package is becoming important for a state that has found itself more under the spotlight in the last few years. In 2010, Missouri was on the tip of the tongue of many movie viewers. Sundance-winner and Academy Award-nominee Winter’s Bone shot in the state’s Southwest Greene, Taney and Christian counties. With a full-time crew of 35 and a majority of its cast comprised of local Missourians, the film resulted in $800,000 of direct expenditures in the region and brought $1.5 million in economic benefits to the state. The success of Winter’s Bone is a brilliant example of how the state is being increasingly recognized as a nucleus for independent film. Additionally, the 2011 True/False International Film Festival, which took place in March, displays the state’s passion for documentary films.

If you have any doubt that the independent film movement is alive and well in Missouri, talk to Ben Meade, president of the Kansas City International Film Festival. A native of the city, which straddles Kansas and Missouri, Meade has overseen a growth of the festival’s presence over the last 10 years. Now in its 11th year, the festival takes place at Glenwood Arts (located in the Kansas portion of the city) in a 300-seat theater along with two boutique theaters (seating 90 each). “We’re in a big town but it’s really a hometown festival,” says Meade. “[I] never thought it would last two to three years.” The festival is made up of more than 50 one-time showings and over 20 countries represented. Kansas City is quite spread out, so it’s a boon to have a onestop shop to view some of the world’s most cutting-edge documentaries and short films.

According to Meade, the key for independent filmmakers in Kansas City is to build networks with other filmmakers, and this is what the festival allows him to do. He is undoubtedly well connected to the independent film world, and it could be that Kansas City is one of the most overlooked spots for indie films today. For one, these are actually independent films, meaning that there’s no major studio behind them at all. “We do it all with our own money and our own spirit,” explains Meade, “and documentaries allow for a type of creativity and thinking that most other media doesn’t provide.” Meade runs the festival in addition to his other passion: saving the city’s old theaters from being demolished. He has teamed up with twin brothers Brian and Ben Mossman to save a total of 13 independent screens from going under in Missouri and Kansas. Kansas City is the ideal place for such a venture, as it has one of the largest numbers of independently owned theaters in the country. Missouri is currently experiencing momentum as a hotspot for documentaries and independent films, and half of all the movies produced in Missouri were shot in the last decade. The 2009 film Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, prominently featured the state as it shot throughout St. Louis, and Actor William H. Macy plans to direct his upcoming film Rudderless in Missouri, making it clear that the state is well able to attract big names with just as much ease as it does smaller productions. Missouri should see a lot of production activity in 2011 and beyond.


Film Indiana, the state’s official film commission, recently discovered that the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, a 1,000-acre facility in the southeast used for immersion training for military, government and private agencies, would make an excellent backlot for productions looking to shoot at anything from a courthouse and prison to cabins, lakes and a Middle Eastern village. “It’s like having a Hollywood backlot here in Indiana,” explains Film Indiana Director Erin Newell. “We’re looking forward to the opportunities it will bring our way.”
Newell has a great reason to be optimistic. Big features like Public Enemies, A Nightmare on Elm Street and the latest Transformers movie shot throughout the state, and many other projects have been drawn to Indiana in recent years. Moreover, Indiana has long had a strong commercial and corporate video industry, and the film commission’s website content has grown.

Most notably, independent filmmaking has taken the state by storm, with several Indiana shot projects set to appear on screens and in film festivals throughout the country. The key has been getting the message out that Indiana is a great place to shoot independent films.

Newell’s office recently added a new page to their website titled “Follow Local Films,” which features blogs from Indiana filmmakers to share stories about what they’re doing.
In 2010, five projects were approved under the state’s brand new Media Production Expenditure Tax Credit Program, which offers a tax credit of up to 15 percent on qualified media production spend. Indiana is a beautiful state, and the film commission is eager to promote its impressive variety of distinct locations ─ from downtown Indianapolis to the Indiana Dunes ─ great accessibility and experienced crew base, which is one to two crews deep. For now, these perks have encouraged more independent film production. In the long term, much will depend on increased capacity and more of the great publicity the state is already getting. Meanwhile, Newell is positive about the state’s future. “With Muscatatuck Urban Training Center and a steady increase in independent films coming to Indiana, we’re hopeful that business will continue to grow,” she says. “Things are falling into place.”

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