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Producers say movie-making has never been better in Chicago

Aspiring filmmakers no longer have to head for the hills of Hollywood.

That was the take-home message from producers at the inaugural Chicago Film and Media Summit held Sunday at the Cultural Center.

“We have talented people here who used to have to leave to work in the film industry,” said DePaul University producer in residence Steven A. Jones, whose credits include “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “The Harvest.” “The filmmaking community in Chicago — it’s getting stronger.”

An estimated 500 people turned out for the free, all-day affair put on by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. The summit featured a showcase of short films, small sessions devoted to casting and trailers, and larger panels on film financing, distribution and production. Veteran TV producer Dick Wolf (“Chicago Fire,” “Law & Order”) was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at 5 p.m.

Producers attributed much of Chicago’s growing muscle in the movie industry to the state’s tax credit, as well as offering deep bench of talent when it comes to cast and crew and an increasingly robust infrastructure. These factors have helped make 2013 a banner year for television production, too. A record six TV series are filming in the the city.

“You look at Cinespace and it’s like mini Hollywood; it’s fantastic what’s going on today,” said producer Bob Teitel (“Barbershop,” “Soul Food”), referring to the sprawling studio complex on the West Side that opened in 2011.

Teitel, a Columbia College Chicago grad who grew up in the northwest suburbs, shot his first indie film, “Scenes for the Soul,” in the city in 1993 for $150,000.

“Today you can make a film easier for $150,000 than back then” thanks to technology, said Teitel, a partner at State Street Pictures in Los Angeles.

While most projects still get jump started in Los Angeles, “it’s easier to raise money here for a film than in L.A.,” he said.

Chicago native Albert Berger (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Cold Mountain”) said a lot of investors in L.A., ironically enough, are from Chicago.

“Maybe if the stuff that’s percolating here now was here 10 years ago, they might have stayed,” Berger said. “Now, Chicago’s got those stages and has those rebates.”

In late 2008, the state’s general assembly passed the Illinois Film Production Tax Credit Act, offering producers a 30 percent credit on qualified expenditures.

Tax credits have changed the landscape, the panelists said.

“With ‘Cold Mountain,’ we had to go to Romania to do a Civil War movie,” Berger said.

“The busiest states have the best tax credits,” added Christina Varotsis, a production manager for Showtime’s “Shameless.” The premium cable network series shoots many of its exterior scenes in Chicago. “Every time I work with a company it’s, ‘OK, do a budget for New Orleans, Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago.’”

Varotsis lives in Chicago largely because “I love the community aspect of our industry,” she said. “I pride myself on being able to make it in the business without having to live in L.A.”

Laurel Ward, associate producer for the 2005 film “The Ice Harvest” shot primarily in Waukegan, said Chicago has a good reputation in the industry as the city that works.

“There’s a joke but it’s sort of true — ‘the Chicago way,’” she said. “People just sort of make things happen here. If you have a problem, everybody sort of smoothes the way.”

Chicago is especially fertile ground for folks interested in producing documentaries, said Zak Piper (“The Interrupters”). He’s working on the upcoming film “Life Itself” based on late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert’s memoir by the same name.

“It’s definitely a viable place to be for documentaries,” Piper said. “Everyone’s supporting everyone else’s films.”

Many of the people in the audience at producers’ panel wanted to know how to break into the film industry. The answers generally weren’t glamorous.

Piper got his start as an unpaid intern at Kartemquin Films in Chicago.

“If the job was to fill up the copy machines with paper, I made it the best filled copy machine anyone’s ever seen,” he said.

Teitler warned that a stellar script isn’t enough to get a project off the ground. You’ve got to have something to show, even if it’s a short film.

“People are getting jobs off these shorts,” he said. “You need that visual presentation.”