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Film 50: Chicago’s Screen Gems 2013

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jonathan-rosenbaum11 Jonathan Rosenbaum, retired critic, writer, teacher
After the passing of Roger Ebert, his contemporary, Jonathan Rosenbaum may be the last sage on the block, as the history of Chicago film criticism goes. While he retired from reviewing duties at the Reader in 2008, he remains as active as much younger men. The longtime Chicago resident’s JonathanRosenbaum.com continues to swell with work drawn from his fifty-plus years of reviewing, as well as the entirety of his memoir, “Moving Places: A Life At The Movies,” where he traces the influences of living in a film family in Alabama in a Frank Lloyd Wright house on young Jonnie Rosenbaum. Recently, he contributed seven essays to a forthcoming Taschen blockbuster volume about one of his favorite directors, French comedy master Jacques Tati. Along with a roundelay of film festivals around the world, Rosenbaum is about to serve his second stint at retired Hungarian film director Béla Tarr’s idiosyncratic Sarajevo workshop, Film.Factory, as one advisor to sixteen students from fourteen countries around the world in a program meant to show the students that everything they’ve been told about filmmaking “was a lie.”

Chaz Ebert © ray pride

Chaz Ebert photographed by Ray Pride.

12 Chaz Ebert, publisher, Ebert Digital
Introducing one of many films at this year’s Ebertfest, the fifteenth and first convocation after Roger Ebert’s passing, Chaz Ebert reached for her eyeglasses case and instead came up with a small yellow flutter of Post-Its. Passwords, she explained. A few months earlier, Roger had given them to her along with that day’s hand-passed notes. He knew she would need them someday. Although the attempt to revive the heyday of Ebert’s television programs, “Ebert Presents At The Movies,” failed to find sustaining backers, Chaz’s decades-long support of her husband and his work continues in her role as owner of Ebert Digital and publisher of RogerEbert.com. That’s where Ebert’s forty-six-year repository of reviews moved from the servers of the Sun-Times, along with new work posted daily from reviewers around the world and edited by New York magazine’s television critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who had been a friend of Roger. Its renewed mission, set out in a September press release, is “to add next-generation interactivity and voices to what already was a go-to source for film reviews and movie news.” Frank Sennett, former president and editor of Time Out Chicago, joined the project as interim COO, with a mandate to garner national advertising. “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she is the love of my life, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone,” Ebert wrote of his beloved wife, and the “great fact” of his life is now in her resolute hands. Ebertfest 16 is  set for April, 2014 in Champaign-Urbana, with passes on sale from early November. During this year’s event, Chaz said that Roger had prepared a substantial list of films and filmmakers whose work could reflect the late critic’s taste for years and decades to come, alongside newer work that he would certainly have found words for.

BruceSheridan13 Bruce Sheridan, Chair, Cinema Art + Science, Columbia College Chicago
New Zealand native Bruce Sheridan has been heading up Columbia College’s film department since 2001, and over that time his program’s reputation has soared, recently placing number fourteen in the Hollywood Reporter’s ranking of top American film schools. With a faculty of thirty-six and MFA programs in cinema directing and creative producing to go along with its vast undergraduate discipline, the school is a local force. Its growing list of notable alumni does not hurt, either, with the likes of Mauro Fiore, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer (“Avatar”) and Steven Spielberg’s go-to shooter, multiple Academy Award-winner Janusz Kami?ski (“Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan”), along with filmmakers George Tillman Jr. and Robert Teitel of “Barbershop” fame.

Tolchinsky.David14 David E. Tolchinsky, Chair, Department of Radio/Television/Film, Northwestern University
Yale and USC Film-educated screenwriter David Tolchinsky heads up Chicago’s, and one of America’s, top-rated film programs, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Combined with a theater discipline that’s turned out some of America’s top actors, from Warren Beatty to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the influence of Northwestern’s program is so deeply rooted in LA and New York that the phrase “Purple Mafia” has arisen to describe it. It doesn’t hurt that the list of notable alums in entertainment is loaded with Academy Award and Emmy nominations, either.

justine-nagan ktq site15 Justine Nagan, executive director, Kartemquin Films
Kartemquin’s executive director since 2008, as well as an executive producer on all its projects including the dozen or more currently in production, Justine Nagan’s diverse background and contributions to earlier projects led to her hire as the first non-founder leader of the documentary production powerhouse. She also directed “Typeface,” a medium-length documentary about the history of American typography, and executive-produced Steve James’ “The Interrupters.” Bill Siegel’s long-in-the-works “The Trials Of Muhammad Ali” is in theaters now, and forthcoming films including James’ Roger Ebert bio-doc, “Life Itself”, as well as documentaries with exceptionally promising project reels, including personal explorations by Usama Alshaibi (“American Arab”) and Xan Aranda (“Mormon Movie”). Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden’s “Almost There” captures the dilemma of what happens when filmmakers attempt to help their subject; in this case, getting a show for an eighty-two-year-old outsider artist, inadvertently shining a light on his past. A Hollywood studio would have a hard time matching the current slate under Nagan’s hand.

Brian Andreotti © Ray Pride

Brian Andreotti photographed by Ray Pride.

16 Brian Andreotti, director of programming for Music Box Theatre, head of marketing for Music Box Films
Since starting at the Music Box Theatre as a programmer in 1995, Brian Andreotti has relied on teamwork, including from a responsive audience, to make the theater competitive. Now, as the director of programming for the 1929-built movie house (as well as overseeing marketing for Music Box Films’ theatrical and digital releases), Andreotti oversees a team of programmers and special events coordinators for a schedule packed with all manner of attractions and showmanship that goes beyond the movie itself. The schedule is also jammed with a dozen or more festivals, including Noir City Chicago, a rare and unique 70mm survey, and the upcoming Docs at the Box, that add more than just the nightly attractions. “The Music Box is in a very competitive zone,” Andreotti says. “It’s very competitive to get films with wide appeal, plus there’s competition from other forms of entertainment, including streaming, video-on-demand, Netflix. So with showmanship, we’re not just showing a film, but making it a collective experience, which dates back to the days of the movie palaces, when they said, ‘The show starts on the sidewalk.’” The extras include sing-alongs, interactive screenings like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Trapped In the Closet,” to visiting directors and actors, to neo-vaudeville acts, and live organ accompaniment for silent classics. He wouldn’t work without teamwork, he says, with the staff going to film festivals, keeping atop what young audiences would want to see. “And the collaborators include our audience. We’re always receptive to audience suggestions. It’s not just us, but the greater community.”

Brenda Webb17 Brenda Webb, executive director, Chicago Filmmakers
Brenda Webb is Chicago’s alt-venue long-distance runner, heading Chicago Filmmakers for thirty-five years and, in 1981, founding Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival, the second oldest fest of its kind in the country. Along with two festivals, she’s in charge of weekly screenings, classes, equipment rental, fiscal sponsorship, a new film-production grant and kids/teen filmmaking classes, with a full-time staff of two. “It’s been a rough road all these years to get funding for what Chicago Filmmakers does, so there was never a big funding bubble that got burst in the recession,” she says. National Endowment funding has stayed constant for decades, but state budget woes reduced funding from the Illinois Arts Council. Foundations help, including The MacArthur Fund through The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the Donnelley Foundation, as well as grants from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “One big change is in funding for grants to artists,” Webb says. “We distributed $50,000 in cash grants to eight artists in 2012 and $100,000 in cash grants to fourteen artists this year for their digital video productions.” But what, really, does the group do? “I would say that Chicago Filmmakers exists to support independent filmmakers working outside the mainstream marketplace and to serve the audiences interested in seeing their work. Hollywood throws a big shadow over the rest of the film world and we want to help shine a light on filmmakers working independently.” And the memories: the 1980s Chicago Filmmakers space on Hubbard had some legendary screenings, mixing film and video with music, performance art and readings, and sometimes punk bands that weren’t accepted in bars and clubs. “One of my favorite memories is when Kenneth Anger was having a one-person show,” Webb recalls, “and Tennessee Williams came in with his entourage. He and his entourage were unruly and we found cheap jugs of wine under their folding chairs afterwards.”

DAVID MILLER18 David Miller, Dean, College of Computing and Digital Media, DePaul University
Though long known for being a theater powerhouse (DePaul absorbed the venerable Goodman School of Drama in 1978), its School of Cinema and Interactive Media, which is housed in the College of Computing and Digital Media overseen by David Miller, is coming on fast. It charted on the Hollywood Reporter top twenty-five list this year, in large part due to its innovative new partnership with Cinespace Film Studios, which gives its film and television students a unique level of access to real-life production work.

Brian Chankin credit Heidi Chankin19 Brian Chankin, Owner, Odd Obsession Video
The untrained eye could mistake the inside of the high-ceilinged storefront of Odd Obsession on North Milwaukee, between Bucktown and Logan Square, for the set of the TV series called “Hipster Hoarders.” Shelves cover the walls and floors, posters reach to the ceiling, 22,000 “precisely-organized DVDs” vie for space with 5,000 “poorly-organized VHS” tapes and a fifteen-year-old cat named Precious runs underfoot. It’s a boy’s space, writ large. While most every trace of brick-and-mortar video chains like West Coast Video and Blockbuster have vanished, a handful of furiously attentive independent video-rental stores persist in the U.S. In Chicago, the man found most often behind the counter is proprietor Brian Chankin, if not one of the twenty or so volunteers who have worked the store since its 2004 founding, as quick with a laugh as a suggestion of an obscure movie that can be found only with his arm’s reach. Curation, breadth and discernment count for much when Netflix streaming seems more an exercise in flipping through endless lists than actually consuming a film that precisely suits one’s taste. Odd Obsession also has the distinction of encouraging not only intelligent, informed viewership, but also a new generation of critics and filmmakers, as earlier shops on either coast succored imaginations of the likes of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. Two notables are Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, essayist, co-host of the short-lived “Ebert Presents at the Movies,” who is editing his first medium-length feature, and recent Reader hire Ben Sachs, both of whom have distinctive voices and bear the stamp of their immersion at Odd Obsession. As for customers? “Definitely always a strong undergrad college crew interested in foreign, experimental, docs and classic film,” Chankin says, along with locals renting television shows and new releases, as well as “internetless folk of all ages interested in everything.”

Howard-Tullman20 Howard Tullman, Chairman, Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy
After turning around Kendall College, a culinary school, serial entrepreneur Howard Tullman threw himself into the whole-cloth invention of a media arts school with a core digital focus and a two-year vocational program. Before long, Flashpoint would ink a vast partnership with Tribeca Enterprises, of Robert De Niro and Tribeca Film Festival fame, giving the fledgling brand a blue-chip Hollywood association, one that manifests in an aggressive philosophy in developing projects with “The Industry,” including Tyra Banks and the late Roger Ebert, who collaborated with them on the final iteration of his TV show. It’s too early to truly measure the influence of TFA grads yet, but given Tullman’s track record, it’s hard to count him out.

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