Artistic Director, Chicago International Film Festival
Evanston native Mimi Plauché has been program director of the Chicago International Film Festival and on staff since 2006, and she’s now only the second artistic director in fifty-two years (as well as one of the few female film fest artistic directors in the industry). “I can think of no person better qualified to serve as artistic director than Mimi,” founder and now president-CEO Michael Kutza said earlier this year when the appointment was announced, “From the moment we began working together, we have forged a partnership to curate the festival’s programming, and she has challenged me to grow the festival in innovative new directions.” Kutza had mentored Plauché for a decade and at that time said that she “hopes to build a tradition of bringing the finest in international and independent cinema to Chicago’s adventurous and informed festival audiences.” Plauché is now responsible for all film programming at the festival as well as other film projects that Cinema/Chicago hosts year-round and intends to expand after this year’s October two-week cavalcade of a hundred-plus features, seminars, panels and other events at North America’s oldest competitive film festival.
Founder and Partner, Madison Wells Media
Indie producer and financier Gigi Pritzker got into the moviemaking game with her OddLot Entertainment in 2001, and with a quirky assortment of less-than-conventional, small pictures (“Rabbit Hole,” 2010; “Drive,” 2011; “Hell or High Water,” 2016; “Landline,” 2017) and two notable box-office misses, the dark SF adventure “Ender’s Game,” returning $125 million worldwide on an estimated $110 million budget and the widely shunned Johnny Depp-starring debacle “Mortdecai.” Pritzker folded OddLot in 2015 into Madison Wells Media, which also works on live events, digital video and immersive media including AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality), often in collaboration with Sony, such as Jon Favreau’s VR project “Gnomes & Goblins.” Within the larger company, OddLot remains the production/co-finance shingle, with National Geographic’s “Genius” a notable, awards-nominated recent success. MWM’s diversified portfolio also includes investments in Atom Tickets, The Void, streaming service Fandor and distributor STX Entertainment. Pritzker is also an active philanthropist and a member of the Sundance Institute Board and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (The company is reported to have taken its name from the corner of Madison and Wells Streets, where Pritzker’s great-grandfather is said to have sold newspapers as a young boy.)
Executive Director, Independent Filmmaker Project/Chicago
“Film and content are on the cusp of yet another revolutionary wave,” producer and IFP/Chicago executive director Nicole Bernardi-Reis says. “I’m excited about the possibilities of how and where people engage with stories and how storytelling will continue to evolve with new technology and distribution mechanisms. But we also need to talk about how to keep people in the business.” Bernardi-Reis has begun development on a doc, a narrative and pilot concepts, with hopes to fund those in the coming year. She also consults on other projects. “Someone called me a ‘creative midwife’ the other day. I think that’s an apt description.” IFP/Chicago just turned thirty, and the Chicago Underground Film Festival, its largest program, turns twenty-five in 2018. “I think a lot about how much impact those programs have had, and how they continue to be relevant and necessary as the industry and our community evolve. There is something to be said for continuity and adaptability. All of these roles have me thinking a lot about sustainability, specifically how film artists can sustain careers while living and working in the Midwest.” Artist development and access to funding are Bernardi-Reis’ key ongoing concerns. “Those are the two main things that Chicago needs to make good as a powerhouse regional film center. Specifically, we need to create access to development funds and resources so that filmmakers are able to take the time to create projects that are able to be both artistic and commercial successes. Some of our new programs, such as the Illinois Film Tour, which takes work across the state, are right in line with conversations being held at the national level on sustainability. Engaging the entire film ecosystem—from funders to programmers to audience members—is key to keeping American independent film alive and well. We know there are audiences hungry for these new artistic voices. We have to focus more on connecting them.”
Brian Andreotti and Ryan Oestreich
Director of Theatrical Distribution & Acquisitions, Music Box Theatre and Music Box Films and General Manager, Music Box Theatre
Roles blur in the Music Box realm, with employees often holding positions at both Music Box Films and the Music Box Theatre. Two figures are representative of this empowering practice. Music Box Theatre veteran Brian Andreotti’s responsibilities have grown to include managing the marketing and theatrical sales staff, as well as taking a leading role in acquisition. That side of the business started the year with two Oscar nominations, including one for best foreign language film for the Swedish “A Man Called Ove,” the seventh nomination in Music Box Films’ ten-year history. At $3.4 million, “Ove” was the year’s highest-grossing foreign art-house film. Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biography, “A Quiet Passion,” grossed over $1.7 million. At the Southport Avenue location, general manager Ryan Oestreich keeps rein on the daily plethora of attractions, including the Music Box’s overwhelmingly successful 70mm Film Festival, which this year included the theater’s own newly struck print of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Music Box programming has expanded to a summer film series at the Park at Wrigley, combining movies with music and special guests. Among the many, many attractions that will briefly grace the newly restored vintage marquee is November’s genre film festival, Cinepocalypse, from the minds that created the Bruce Campbell Film Festival, and will expand into wider genre cinema, celebrating new cinema, and classic repertory, with guests, parties and interactive events.
Eddie Linker and Susie Linker
Producers and Co-Founders, Forager Films and Elevated Films
“Forager made seven movies really quickly, and now we are ready to start finding projects again,” trader-turned-producer Eddie Linker reports of the Chicago-based low-budget production company (begun in 2013 by Linker, Joe Swanberg and Peter Gilbert). “It’s amazing how the market for films continues to change, and Forager has to change with it. We need to continue to make really interesting movies, and focus on returns for the people who believe and have invested with us.” Of their early slate, including Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas” and “Digging for Fire,” Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected” and Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth,” Linker says, “Our returns have been solid. It’s a balance between not compromising our principles with respect to the type of films we will invest in—financially and emotionally!—and making sure that we continue to have solid returns. It’s a marriage of artists and investors.” Their next venture is the third feature by Spencer Parsons. “I’m also working on an app concept with a team of five others, with backgrounds from film to finance and everything in between, which should launch near the end of the year.” Linker and his wife Susie are also behind Elevated Films. “After I left investment banking a couple of years ago, I wanted to enhance the indie film presence here in Chicago,” Susie says. “Eddie and I had been working on Forager Films, and wanted a creative way to raise awareness to the independent film scene in our hometown. The not-for-profit component could provide resources to young artists and filmmakers, perhaps in marginalized communities, or even just as a supplement to Chicago Public Schools, where arts funding continues to be cut. Giving back to the community is important, and the outdoor indie film series brings people together to enjoy, and gain an appreciation for, independent film, while providing a platform to demonstrate the need for more arts funding for Chicago youth. It’s important to align each event with the film’s theatrical release, so we are showing new releases before they hit theaters and video-on-demand.” (At the most recent event, filmmaker Sean Baker presented “The Florida Project” at the Ace Hotel.) “Each event begins with a local musician or band, followed by a short film made by a young filmmaker chosen from a program we support. A Q&A with the writer-director follows the feature film, and sometimes an actor from the film. Our events are funded by a low admittance fee and corporate sponsorships, and net profits are donated to support youth art and film programs.”
Ted Reilly and Kelly Waller
Executive Directors, Chicago Media Angels
“Our most exciting news is Kelly Waller joining as a partner,” Chicago Media Angels founder Ted Reilly reports. “She brings exceptional experience as an investor, fundraiser and producer and has led the organization through tremendous growth in the past year. We continue to make selective equity investments through our growing angel group as well as provide easy, transparent and efficient financing to any projects that qualify for the Illinois Film Tax Credit.” This network of “angels” now numbers over forty. “It’s their enthusiasm, vision and commitment on which we hang our success. CMA has funded six investments with equity and/or tax credit financings, and is currently working to close two additional equity investments as well as one tax-credit financing this summer.” Among Chicago investments are upcoming features “Chasing the Blues” and “When Jeff Tried To Save the World.” “And in the coming months we will launch CMA Digital Studios with a public call for submissions to produce a slate of five web series, developed, packaged and produced in Chicago. Our goal is to build a dynamic network of savvy media investors in the Midwest. Two years ago, we stated that the Illinois production market could easily triple to be over one-billion dollars annually. With our growth since that conversation, we believe we are well on pace to achieve that goal and we hope to be a major part of the accelerating pace of growth in our local industry.”
Tom Leavens and Jerry Glover
Partners, Leavens, Strand & Glover
The Leavens, Strand & Glover firm has grown to nine lawyers strong since the 2015 Film 50, six in Chicago, two in Nashville and one in Michigan, practicing on a full range of entertainment and media matters, not limited to entertainment law, related copyright-trademark-media issues and promotion-marketing law. It’s an intricate enterprise. The firm advises producers, directors, writers and actors, largely with independent films and non-scripted television, on all aspects of production and distribution. “But we have strengthened our film work particularly in the area of film finance,” Tom Leavens says. “We want to continue to serve as a full-service media/entertainment law firm and continue to expand our national presence.” Leavens has joined the board of directors of Chicago Media Angels, and the firm will present programs this fall with Stage 18 on the legal and business aspects of film development, production and distribution. Leavens admires this moment in the Chicago industry for its support structure. “Finance, talent, facilities, crew and education are stronger than ever.”
Producer, Black Apple Media and Executive Director, Stage 18
Angie Gaffney remains a force in multiple streams of the Chicago film scene, including increasing the scale of independent project incubator and shared workspace Stage 18, located on the lot of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. (Gaffney cofounded the effort in 2015 alongside Cinespace’s Alex Pissos.) The goal is to produce regular programming from its members, as well as working to provide learning opportunities and affordable resources to their filmmakers. As a producer under the Black Apple Media umbrella, Gaffney co-created the “Public Housing Unit” pilot with Patrick Wimp and Ted Reilly, the first larger-scale project to be developed, funded and produced out of Stage 18. She is developing other indie films, and helped produce Hugh Schulze’s “Dream Detective” short films as well as working as line producer on “Signature Move.” Gaffney is also an adjunct faculty member at Harold Ramis Film School, and teaches at DePaul University, while serving on the board of IFP Chicago and the Midwest Independent Film Festival.
Anthony Kaufman started in the industry as a journalist and occasional critic, with a passion for movies. “I still love writing about films,” he says, “and I consider my work as a curator and programmer a direct extension of my years as a scribe.” 2017 marks his third year as a programmer at the Chicago International Film Festival, overseeing docs, U.S. indies and the Industry Days program, while overseeing the third annual edition of the spring DOC10 series and also teaching at New York’s New School (remotely) and DePaul in Chicago (in person). When Kaufman relocated to Chicago four years ago, he found a niche in programming documentaries. “It seemed like docs were the way to go, because they were easier to get ahold of than narrative features! The documentary form was beginning to blossom and mutate with exciting and boundary-pushing works, and documentary filmmakers are typically very nice, as well as doing it for the best intentions.” Chicago International’s doc programmer left shortly after Kaufman moved to Chicago, so it felt like a suitable transition. “Around the same time, I was approached by the Chicago Media Project about expanding their documentary programming and we came up with the idea for DOC10, a tightly curated festival of ten new documentaries. I’ve always enjoyed intimate film events and love that DOC10 is small, but the films and discussions pack a punch. ‘Tiny, but mighty’ became an unofficial slogan. As a counterpoint, Chicago International is massive, but what’s great about programming documentaries at the International is just that: its global reach. In the U.S., foreign-language documentaries are incredibly rare to find, so the festival provides a special opportunity to find and showcase real-life stories from around the world. And that’s so important right now to combat the xenophobic powers-that-be.” For the festival’s international documentary competition, Kaufman surveyed 646 documentaries across the past seven months. “At this year’s International Festival, there are stories of Iranian ex-pats, gay Syrians, Honduran émigrés, Russian miners, to name just a few. It’s vital and potentially transformative to meet these people, on the big screen, at least, and realize that they’re people like us and we shouldn’t ignore them, or demonize them or refuse them. We need to stay open to them and docs help us do that.”
Owner and Executive Creative Director, Sarofsky Corp.
Best known (to those in the know) for creating gorgeous, innovative main title sequences for television and blockbuster movies (including “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Ant-Man,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Doctor Strange” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”), the West Loop’s Sarofsky Corp., founded in 2009, as described by owner Erin Sarofsky, is more ambitious than just that. “We are a collective of artists, producers and technologists who produce design-driven work in any medium of communication,” she relates. “Whether it’s a broadcast commercial or an innovative piece of AR [augmented reality], we are down to be a part of the team. That amazing, open-minded attitude is alive and well here, working and playing together in our inclusive culture where everyone has a unique voice and a collaborative spirit. We firmly believe it’s how we are able to incubate great ideas and solutions and deliver them to you in the most unique, ‘ownable’ way possible.” “Chicago is the nice sweet spot between Los Angeles and New York,” she recently told Communications Arts magazine. “As a company working at the highest levels in both production and post-production, we are constantly in need of talent. Fortunately, Chicago is an extremely rich community for everything from DPs, gaffers and art department to compositors, 3D artists, editors, designers, casting directors and talent. Chicago’s world-class reputation for entertainment and production has everything to do with this wealth of skills and talents.” Sarofsky recently formed a working relationship with the Obama Foundation, providing both creative and production services for original video content that has started to show up on the foundation’s social media channels. “In the last few years my work has expanded significantly, in style, in medium, and in virtually every way, shape and form,” Sarofsky relates. “Stylistically I’ve become a more established live-action director, and that has not only affected my work on television main titles but also on commercials. For example, on our main title sequence for TNT’s ‘Animal Kingdom,’ I’ve experimented with the Phantom camera to create imagery ranging from high-speed to the extreme macro perspective.” But Sarofsky is never limited to a single approach. “My look can range from slick and sophisticated to gritty and raw,” she relates. “What defines the look has to do with the emotion and concept we are portraying. Since I like to be very purposeful about creating a look that’s appropriate for the content that keeps my work stylistically varied. Medium-wise, I’ve been working on TV main title sequences. But we have started working on feature films, [not only] big Marvel Studios but documentary collaborations, including Steve James’ “Abacus” from Kartemquin and Richard Robbins’ ‘Girl Rising.’ We want to continue to pursue both TV and film main titles, but also to expand our VFX work, which focuses heavily on screen graphics and design elements. We did a little bit of that work on ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and are excited to do even more.”
Ray Pride is Newcity film critic and a contributing editor of Filmmaker magazine. He is also a photographer: his history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images is forthcoming. Previews on Twitter (twitter.com/chighostsigns) as well as daily photography on Instagram: instagram.com/raypride. Twitter: twitter.com/RayPride. (Photo: Jorge Colombo.)