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The return of Chicago’s film industry

From a production ghost town to the media epicenter of the Midwest, Chicago has seen its film and television industry undergo unprecedented expansion in the past ten years. Evidence for this success is clear throughout the city.

According to a report issued by the Chicago Film Office, 2018 was the city’s most profitable year in film yet, bringing in over $474 million in local revenue. As recently as 2011 that revenue was less than a third of the size, totaling only $150 million.

In addition to the economic impact, the job market has increased as well. From 2011 to 2018 there has been an increase from 5,000 to 13,000 jobs supported by the industry. These numbers are expected to continue growing.

The addition of studio spaces in Chicago played a large role in stimulating growth in the local industry, with spaces like Cinespace Studio’s opening their doors in 2011.

Chicago’s Cinespace Studios is a 1.45 million-square-foot production powerhouse, with over 30 professional soundstages and six simultaneous television productions. The studio is credited for bringing in over 16,000 new jobs into the local industry in the last eight years.

In addition to offering studio spaces and production offices, Cinespace leases several of its stages to DePaul University film program, a deal which increased program enrollment from a few hundred students to over 1,200.

“Seeing the different productions happening really energizes me and gives me motivation to keep going to class,” said Eric Köppen, a graduate film student at DePaul University. “You really feel like you’re at the heart of the industry; everything you’re seeing is authentic.”

In 2018, Cinespace Studios revealed plans for continued expansion, beginning construction on a large studio backlot. This will be the only existing studio backlot in the country outside of Los Angeles

On a smaller scale, the addition of Columbia College’s Media Production Center in 2010 has also aided in the development of the professional industry.

“When I started here, all production had left Chicago,” said Bruce Sheridan, former chair of the Cinema Art and Science department. “This is strange to think of now, but the reason was because there was no studio.  Toronto had everything. Really good crews, cheaper, a nice city, an hour away by plane. If people were to come from L.A, they were just as happy to go to Toronto than Chicago. With all of that in mind, we started our plan to build the Media Production Center.”

With its mix of professional-quality soundstages and classrooms, the Media Production Center is a 35,500-square-foot filmmaking laboratory.

“We’re the only school in the Midwest that has it’s own teaching stage that is also a fully professional stage,” said Erich Scholl, the current chair of the Cinema and Television Arts Department.  He said one of the car insert shots for Batman was shot at the Media Production Center.

“We wanted to go where the industry is going, not just following it but leading it in new areas of technology,” Scholl said.

The addition of this studio space to Columbia College not only drew an initial increase in enrollment, but helps maintain enrollment throughout the department.

“We still have a robust enrollment, hovering between 1,400 to 1,500 students for the department. Our enrollment has gone down a little bit, as all colleges have, but it hasn’t gone down at the same percent as the college as a whole. Our numbers have been great, but we could always use more,” said Scholl.

With a 30% job placement rate in the department, hundreds of Columbia College students are joining the professional film and television industry each year.

For those seeking work in the film industry in Chicago, the outlook is quite bright.

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