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Chicago strengthens reputation as the Hollywood of the Midwest, aldermen told

Retiring Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly said filmmaking is “significantly up” in Chicago, with a record 15 TV productions in the city right now, at an estimated economic value this year of about $750 million.

Cinespace Chicago Film Studios at 2621 West 15th Place.
Several TV shows are produced at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, 2621 W. 15th Pl.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s roadmap to recovery from the pandemic called for Chicago to capture a far greater share of the nation’s film and television production.

Mission accomplished, aldermen were told Thursday. Chicago has strengthened its reputation as the Hollywood of the Midwest.

Retiring Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly said filmmaking is “significantly up” in Chicago, with 15 television productions in the city right now — a record.

“We estimate the economic value of that for this year will be about $750 million. It’s now over 20,000 jobs. … And because Illinois’ tax credit is the only tax credit that has a minority hiring clause with additional benefits, over 50% of crews” in Illinois are either minority or female, Kelly said.

“Is it enough? No. But compared to any other city, we’re off the charts.”

Kelly noted Chicago-based Cinespace — where NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Med” are filmed — is now the “largest studio in North America.”

A crew is shown in 2013 shooting a scene for “Chicago Fire,” along the Chicago River off Lower Wacker Drive.
A crew is shown in 2013 shooting a scene for “Chicago Fire,” along the Chicago River off Lower Wacker Drive. It’s one of several NBC TV shows that are filmed in the city.
Sun-Times file

That local inventory of production space is expected to expand when Chicago-born rapper Common and producer Derek Dudley break ground — “any time now,” Kelly said — on their $60 million film studio in South Shore.

That project, on seven acres at 7731 S. Chicago Ave., calls for six studios for both film and television production, Kelly said.

Dudley has said the project could anchor a South Side entertainment district that would include the nearby Avalon Regal Theater.

Thursday, on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings for the final time, Kelly said the importance of “this emerging film scene” cannot be overstated.

“Not just economically. Think of it as sort of like the Michael Jordan impact. Think of how this one individual sort of remade Chicago’s image in the world. Well, filming does that, too,” Kelly said.

“We see L.A. and New York through the films that come from there. We, in Chicago, should emerge as one of the top film-producing locations in this country.”

The embarrassment of Hollywood riches has not been without growing pains.

At the budget hearing, aldermen complained to Kelly about the inconveniences their constituents have endured — too often without warning or compensation — to make way for TV and film production.

“Sometimes they knock on doors. Sometimes they don’t. … If you’re a resident and you’re coming home, you’re not given enough time to know that your block is going to be commandeered … for that week or for the number of days they’re gonna be out there. You’ve got to park around the corner,” said Ald. Michael Scott (24th), whose West Side ward includes Cinespace.

“I want to make sure that every show on every block does exactly what they need to do to make sure this happens.”

Cars piled up in a plaza along Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, Friday, July 16, 2010, during filming of the movie “Transformers 3.”
The movie “Transformers 3” filming on Michigan Avenue in July 2010.
Associated Press

Kelly noted the film office requires 48 hours notice to impacted communities and 72 hours notice in neighborhoods “where there’s too much filmmaking.”

“They have to meet that. If they don’t, we hold them accountable,” he said.

“And where filming becomes excessive, we will introduce a moratorium for 30 or 60 days because they need to go somewhere else. We did it three times this year.”

As for the uneven reimbursement for production inconvenience, Kelly said $60,000 was recently spent to compensate residents and business owners on 61st Street alone.

“That should be standardized. Everyone she expect the same as that goes forward. Where you hear that’s not the case talk to the film office,” he said.

Near West Side Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) was among a parade of aldermen more concerned about the plethora of neighborhood festivals that either blindside aldermen, drain police resources or both.

“There’s getting ready to be a gang fight right down the block. I’m like, ‘Commander, they’re getting ready to shoot guys. They just called and told me what’s going on.’ And she’s like, ‘Alderman, I don’t have no people.’ They’re at all these festivals,’” Burnett said.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said the festivals that flock to his downtown ward are a “great thing” and a “wonderful way to show off the city.”

But he added: “It’s difficult to field those angry phone calls when we’re not brought into the process on the front end.”