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Chicago Filmmaking Continues Steady Uptick

By Amy Ross

Although 2014 was a smaller year for Chicago as a destination for filming Hollywood features, local productions and television series helped maintain the city’s steady uptick of filmmaking. Richard Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office since 1996, estimates that the revenues and total number of shooting days of 2014 would continue the growth trend of the last five years.

Aside from films and television series, commercial production also played a key role in boosting the filmmaking statistics of 2014 to a record of 2200 filming days and approximately $358 million dollars in local spending towards actors, equipment rental and facilities, among others. “What we are very enthused about is the growth of the local filmmaking community making independent features that may not be Hollywood films but do well in festivals and ideally secure theatrical releases,” said Moskal.

The Chicago Film Office is a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and is in charge of attracting and facilitating the production of local screen entertainment, including feature films, television series, commercials and documentaries. The Office comprises four people and functions as a “one-stop liaison” for filmmakers who need support obtaining permits and accessing city services, among other things. According to Film Office director, the competition for attracting Hollywood producers is fierce and the business is often fickle in term of where to film. 

The state of Illinois currently provides a 30 percent tax credit on all local spending, as do many other states across the country. However, Chicago offers other production incentives, including its architectural and its cultural life. Others involve the variety of resources available, like the birth and consolidation of CineSpace film studio, which undoubtedly aids in attracting filmmakers.

“Chicago is built on its reputation as a theater town with a host of large and small theater communities that offer nationally and internationally recognized talent,” Moskal said. “That is a huge benefit for casting in the city because it cuts time and the costs of flying people in from other places.”

The Chicago Film Office also often accommodates unconventional requirements such as low-flying helicopters and explosions for films like the upcoming Batman v Superman and last year’s Insurgent. In terms of television series, Chicago Fire and Chicago PD continued shooting locally as they had the previous year, joined by new projects like the musical drama Empire which will air over the next months on FOX. The Chicago born Wachowski siblings also shot their upcoming sci-fi show Sense8 in the city. That show will be available on Netflix Sense8 this spring.

Chicago Dance Company Reaches Out To ‘Dance Citizens’

By Amy Ross

By Amy Ross

The future sustainability of dance depends as much on nurturing extraordinary artists as it does on cultivating an audience, true “dance citizens.” This is the philosophy behind DanceWorks Chicago, an organization founded in 2007 to provide a laboratory for early career performers while reaching out to the community. On Dec. 13, Danceworks gave a clear example of its intentions to engage the community: its staff opened company auditions to the public. Members of the audience were allowed to watch this competitive process, held at the Dance Center of Columbia College in Chicago.

“Creating an environment for meaningful exploration by artists and audiences is an important part of continuing the forward movement of the art form as well as part of building Chicago as a destination for dance,” said Julie Nakagawa, who directs DanceWorks alongside Andreas Böttcher. As they sum it up on their website, Dancework’s commitment is to “community” not “company”; to “participatory,” rather than the “proprietary.” An Evanston native, Nakagawa has invested her efforts in the development of dance artists and their collaborators since 2007, after retiring from a successful career as a dancer with Christopher D’Amboise’s Off Center Ballet, Cleveland Ballet, and Twyla Tharp Dance.

For Nakagawa, “making it” in the dance scene depends more on the measuring stick than on anything else, as there are many ways successfully participate in the dance community. DanceWorks Chicago fits into that equation by allowing dancers and choreographers to explore new levels of artistry through training, collaboration, mentorship, and performance.

“Dance has really grown in the past few decades, in lots of ways, not all of them qualitative. There’s more out there to navigate, whether studios, post-high school options, companies, non-profit structures, etc.,” she said. Although she works far from the commercial dance arena, Nakagawa believes that commerce and art can maintain a healthy and fulfilling relationship in dance, as they do in many other art forms such as architecture, fashion, music, and theater. “Technology provides a lens through which to experience more dance,” Nakagawa said.

“Technology is not changing the body and the possibilities of the body, rather it is changing how we view bodies in motion, literally and figuratively.” Dancework’s next live performance will be held on Saturday, January 17 in the Family Matinee Series at the Harris Theater, located at 205 East Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are available here. For more information on the DanceWorks community and upcoming events, you can visit the company website or follow its Facebook page.

Steppenwolf Artistic Director to Speak at Northwestern

By Jacob Nelson

During her tenure as Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Martha Lavey has overseen the production of hundreds of plays, many of which have transferred to Broadway. She’s also seen Chicago grow into a destination for aspiring theater professionals.

“There is nationwide regard for Chicago as a fertile ground for actors,” Lavey said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “Chicago has that reputation as being a sophisticated place with a down to earth, blue collar sensibility.”

Lavey will be speaking about her career and leadership experience at the MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises’ upcoming speaker series event on Jan. 7. Under Lavey’s leadership, Steppenwolf has been awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the Illinois Arts Legend Award, and nine of the company’s 12 Tony Awards. During that time, Lavey says she hasn’t found that there is any one way to become a successful performer. Many performers who audition for Steppenwolf come from undergraduate training backgrounds or from graduate programs or classes.

“Classes are a good way to get plugged in and how to find an agent,” Lavey said. Getting plugged into the scene is important, according to Lavey, especially as Chicago’s theater scene continues to grow and more opportunities open up. “Here in Chicago the pool has grown,” Lavey said. “The theatre scene in Chicago has just flourished.”

Pointing to storefront theaters in addition to the larger ones like Steppenwolf, Lavey said there are many opportunities for aspiring theater professionals in Chicago. These opportunities include pathways toward non-acting positions as well. Though Lavey began as an actor for Steppenwolf before becoming its artistic director in ’95, she explained that Steppenwolf now offers apprenticeships in a variety of areas, including stage management, development, and marketing. These apprenticeships are not only ways to get exposure and an invaluable education – it could also lead to a job. “We hire internally, always apprentices first,” Lavey said.

“We always looks to that pool of people when we’re hiring first at the entry level.” When it comes to acting, however, training will only go so far. What Lavey says that what she looks for more than anything else is truthfulness and authenticity. “An actor’s job is to try to know him or herself and be truthful in that representation,” Lavey said. “It’s human behavior that’s captivating to us and that’s what we look for in actors.”

Lavey’s presentation will be held in Frances Searle Building Room 1-421, located at 2240 Campus Drive in Evanston, on at 5 p.m. on Jan. 7. RSVP here.

Learn About MSLCE Faculty and Events on YouTube

By Jacob Nelson
The Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises recently launched its YouTube channel. Check out our videos highlighting the program’s faculty and the courses they’re teaching.
Faculty Profiles: We’ve also posted video highlights from our past three speaker series events.
Speaker Series:

Games Producer Advises Northwestern Students to Collaborate During MSLCE Speaker Series

By Amy Ross

Collaboration, no matter how high-tech the endeavor, is about people. To be a success in the gaming industry, it’s just as important to know how to critique creative teams without irritating them as it is to understand how to code. These are some of the tips that game producer and content designer Matthew Schwartz gave in his talk at the Masters of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises’ (MSLCE) speaker series on Dec. 3.

Schwartz graduated from Northwestern’s Radio, Television, and Film department in 1995 and has worked as a games producer at Adult Swim Games and as a content designer at Cartoon Network New Media. “I developed a certain skill at being able to deliver creative direction and input…you didn’t want to come off as hostile, but at the same time you wanted to make your perspective very clear,” said Schwartz. This task was particularly complex because much of the communication took place through computer screens and was often directed towards people in other countries with different cultural backgrounds and limited English. Schwartz’ strategy focused on conveying to his developers that the feedback was coming from a place of respect and understanding, both of the product and the vision behind it.

These are crucial elements when critiquing projects that are often a product of years’ worth of a person’s time and effort. To do so, he invested hours and hours playing the games before offering feedback. He knew that the platform on which the projects were published tracked and reported this time back to the creators. “This is a much better way to get a creative person to see your view. As a producer your job is to make sure everybody is marching in the same direction. Sometimes your coder will become obsessed with the menu and other fundamental things are broken so you have to find ways to get everyone back onto the ‘critical path,’ which totally represents the production mindset, aside from being a gaming term,” said Schwartz.

Throughout the talk, Schwartz offered students insight about pitching, teamwork and project management. He also offered advice on how to reach out and get started in a creative industry like gaming. He also pointed out some of the major differences between working in gaming on a mass scale at large companies and at a smaller one with indie gaming. The larger companies tend to have much more specialized jobs like being “the bat swinging” or “dust kicking guy” of animations, while independent productions tend to be broader.

Schwartz encouraged students to muster up the courage to contact influential people in their areas of interest through tools like LinkdIn, Twitter and Facebook. He landed his first job at MTV after randomly contacting a man his girlfriend’s aunt rode with on a bus in New York. This man happened to be the president of development at MTV and wound up becoming his boss. “There are people out there and for every person that is willing to talk there will be tons of emails that go into the black hole but you have to be resilient and not take things personal. These people are very accessible now days,” he said.

MSLCE program director, Pablo Boczkowski, hosted the event and Northwestern University professor, Eric Patrick, was the moderator. The next talk in the Speaker Series will feature Martha Lavey, artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre since 1995. That event will take place on January 7th. For more information or to RSVP, click here.

Oscar Torres Survived a Civil War and Became a Film Producer

By Amy Ross

It is hard to imagine Oscar Torres as anything but a successful writer and film producer, but the heart-wrenching story of children recruited as soldiers that inspired his first screenplay, Voces Inocentes (Innocent Voices) offers a glimpse into his past. The movie allowed Torres to cope with and process the trauma he lived as a child in the Salvadoran civil war. He said the film not only helped him work his way into the film industry, but have also allowed him to advocate for peace around the world.

“Innocent Voices is by far the most fulfilling not only because it is so personal and has the most feeling but also because of the feedback and trajectory. Ten years after it was made, I’m still travelling to speak at universities all over the world,” said the Los Angeles-based producer. For Torres, the movie that came out in 2004 was as much therapeutic as it was a career launching project.However, he didn’t always know he wanted to work in Hollywood. Before pursuing his film career, he studied Latin American studies at the University of California at Berkeley and worked as an English teacher at a small school. Virtually every night he would try to find someone willing to go to the movies with him. “I felt that I was teaching 30 people at a time and I wanted to teach millions as a time,” said Torres, who fled El Salvador during the conflict.

He started out delivering packages in 1994 at a movie agency where he later became an actor. There he started to get some commercial jobs and opportunities working behind the camera, doing lots of free work as a production assistant. “I learned a lot and met a lot of people,” he said. With nothing more than the scripts of five of his favorite movies in hand, in 2001 Torres set out to write his first script: the story of his life. Although he had never taken a film class in his life, he said he simply understood the language of cinema.

“I read the scripts one page at a time and learned how the flashbacks, transitions and cuts were done. That is how I did it,” said Torres. Cinema Paraíso, Forrest Gump and Before Night Falls were among those screenplays he studied. Since then, Torres has been the involved in productions like Máncora, which was in the official selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (writer); Pulling Strings, directed by Pedro Pablo Ibarra (screenplay and producer); and more recently Bravetown, a project that is still in post-production and is starring María Bello, Laura Dern and Josh Duhamel (screenplay and producer).

As for choosing which films to pursue, Torres said he always makes his decisions out of genuine love for the projects, focusing on stories that are inspiring or fun to him. “I know that as long as I respect that I can achieve the quality that will let me connect with audiences and that allow me to be financially free as well,” said Torres. With four other major productions on the way, including his directing debut and a television series, his goal is to continue taking movies from all the way from their inception to the big screen. The key to success, said Torres, is to be your own biggest ally.

“There is a process that you can’t do out of money, but out of love and desperation. You do it as much as you want to breathe. I don’t think I could live without making movies and the sense of creating and sharing, the giving, the receiving: thats my life,” he said. Stay current with all things MSLCE, click here to join our mailing list!

Video Game Designer to Speak at Northwestern on Wednesday

By Jacob Nelson

Before he pursued video games as a career, Matthew Schwartz became a devoted player. He brought an SNES back to his senior year apartment in Evanston, and a video game fan was born.

Then, he graduated and looked for work in the film industry.

“I didn’t think of games as a career possibility,” Schwartz said during an interview. “Now you can study game making, but the only game knowledge I had was as a player.”

After working for three years in New York as a location scout and a manager on small independent films, Schwartz was ready for something new. He ended up landing a job at Cartoon Network, and moved to Atlanta to work on the television channel’s flash game development.

“All of the sudden I learned that when you waste your life playing video games, all of the sudden I had this huge wealth of knowledge of games that was hugely valuable,” Schwartz said.

The job taught Schwartz that “making games was something fun and you could make a living doing it,” two lessons that have stuck with him through a career of games development. He worked at Cartoon Network for four years before joining a unique project based around providing internet users with retro video games.

“It was a Netflix for games,” Schwartz said, “just not current ones.”

The company didn’t last long, but the experience was a fun and valuable one for Schwartz, who then returned to Cartoon Network’s digital group to work on a huge MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game. Because it was so big, it took three years for the game to finally launch. Schwartz enjoyed seeing a game through from beginning to end on such a large scale, but decided that he preferred working on smaller projects. He’s worked on small games and large ones in different capacities, and his experiences have given him valuable perspective on the gaming industry.

“The Matt Schwartz perspective has always been the business interests fuel my ability to do the cool content and the cool content drives the revenue,” he said. “I really like the indie space I think it’s where interesting stuff happens.”

Schwartz has noticed that while the work available for game designers has increased dramatically since he was an undergraduate, the path for obtaining those jobs is as unclear as ever.

“It unnerves me how unequipped some students feel for… if their dream job is to work on Sky Rim… there’s no clue of what that path is and part of that is because the industry is just a younger industry and also technology changes so many things and changes so quickly,” Schwartz said.

He hopes to take on this uncertainty when he speaks at Northwestern this Wednesday. Schwartz will be speaking at the Masters of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises’ speaker series event this Wednesday at 5 p.m.

“What I learned about movies,” Schwartz said, “is that the things you like to consume as a customer is not always what you’ll love to do as a profession. If you love Madden you may not love making Madden.”

Chicago Director Uses His Bold Style to Stand Out in the Film Industry

By Amy Ross

Chicago film director Jason Knade sees his name as a brand. And as with any brand, success is all about standing out: having a clear identity, consistency and boldness. “As for building brand awareness, my manager and I put a lot of time into my social media presence, and I’m always reaching out to new people and making new connections,” Knade said in an email.

This year, he was voted Best Filmmaker of Chicago by the Chicago Reader, a title he had earned once before in 2011. For Knade, attending events and investing time in face-to-face networking are crucial components to a successful career in the film industry. The efforts of this young director appear to be paying off. His narrative films have screened at over 50 festivals around the world, winning multiple awards. Aside from receiving attention from local news outlets, Knade’s work has also made it under the radar of prominent national media such as The Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times, who have described it as “intelligent” and “heartbreaking.” In July of 2013, Knade got the most unforgettable telephone call of his career from an Associated Press reporter.

“He wanted to talk about a music video that I directed. The most exciting part was how excited he was; he told me the video was going to be huge and to expect lots of news coverage and success,” Knade said. The journalist’s comments were referring to the “All American Boy” video clip Knade directed for artist Steve Grand, which has been viewed more than 3.5 million times on Youtube. Other successful projects include the short “Cyclicity”, and Knade’s first narrative feature with an upcoming release, Searching for Venice. Striking a balance Although he has done work as a cinematographer and a producer, Knade identifies the most with directing, which he also feels is the most difficult to sustain financially. “Prolific narrative film directors are lucky if they do a project or two a year, just because of the massive time commitment required during the development stage all the way through the film’s release,” Knade said.

Knade doesn’t live entirely off of his artistic endeavors. While narrative film may be his biggest passion, much of his paycheck comes from his long list of commercial clients, including the Joffrey Ballet, Subway and Jos-Cacciatore & Co. Striking a balance between the two is an enormous challenge, as they both require large amounts of time and energy. However, in his view, they aren’t as distant as they may seem at first glance. “Actually, it’s that storytelling background and passion that sets me apart and makes me so good at other types of projects. I also just enjoy fast-paced, dynamic commercial environments.

The whole business atmosphere,” he said. Knade shoots in over a dozen cities a year, although most of his projects are developed in his hometown of Chicago, where he has built his career. He considers the film scene to be small and intimate in “The Windy City,” but recognizes that the opportunities are rapidly expanding. “It’s great and keeps getting better! We have Cinespace, up to a 30% tax credit, talented crews and actors, and great statewide locations,” Knade said. “I’m very excited about the future of Chicago filmmaking.” For more details on Jason Knade’s work or to keep up his career, you may visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

Speaker Series Continues Dec. 3 With Gaming Industry Talk

By Jacob Nelson

The Masters of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises’ (MSLCE) speaker series continues on Dec. 3 with Matthew Schwartz, who will speak about his career in the gaming industry.

Schwartz has worked as a games producer at Adult Swim Games, the game publishing arm of Adult Swim Digital, which is part of the late-night comedy programming block of the same name. He also worked as a content designer at Cartoon Network New Media. He’s worked with independent developers around the world.

Read about MSLCE’s last speaker series, which included a conversation with a successful television agent.

In a post about his job at Adult Swim that he wrote in February, Schwartz wrote that his job was “maintaining the vision of the game.” Before he started working in the gaming industry, Schwartz worked for MTV as an original animation developer.

I also spent a number of years as a location scout and manager for independent films in New York. And before that even, I was just like you, wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life,” Schwartz writes.

Schwartz graduated from Northwestern’s Radio, Television, and Film department in ’95, and writes that he is eager to offer his perspective and guidance, “especially to those willing to sign a liability waiver absolving me of any culpability when things go horribly awry.”

The event will takes place on Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 5 p.m. in Frances Searle Building, 3-417 on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. A networking reception will immediately follow. Click here to RSVP.

TV Agent Tells NU Crowd How to Make It In Hollywood

By Jacob Nelson

Hollywood is an a business of apprenticeships. If you want to make it as a writer, producer, or actor, then get a job working for someone who can teach you how it’s done.

That was the advice given by Kevin Crotty (WCAS92), a partner and board member at the major literary and talent agency ICM Partners, at the second speaker series event hosted by the Masters of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises (MSLCE) program on Nov. 5. Crotty spoke to a packed room during a talk moderated by RTVF senior lecturer and screenwriter Bill Bleich. MSCLE program director Pablo Boczkowski introduced the event.

After graduating from Northwestern in 1992, Crotty graduated moved to Los Angeles with no prospects. He found a job as a runner, taking scripts to people around the city. Eventually he got a job as a production assistant, and from there found his way to an agency, where he sold books and television.

“It was a great job I had material to sell… and I did it very well,” Crotty said.

Now, Crotty is a partner and board member at ICM Partners, one of the largest talent and literary agencies in the world. His company represents “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, “House of Lies” creator Matthew Carnahan and “The Blacklist” creator Jon Bokenkamp.

I don’t want to represent Coke, I want to represent writers, directors, producers, actors,” Crotty said. “We want to be known as the place an artist can go and spend their career.”

Corti said that his years in the business have taught him what works towards success and what works against it.

“My blanket advice… if you want to work in the entertainment business, you have to be in the entertainment business,” he said. “Get a job in the business, that’s the best way to learn.”

Crony explained that even good writers need years to improve their craft, and that often the first script from a writer is not the one that turns into a television show. The creator of the new character-drama “Kingdom,” for example, started as an assistant to Crotty. One day he handed him a script. Crotty said it was brilliant, and got him a job working on the Showtime program “Huff,” which Crotty said “got his career going.” Now “Kingdom” is airing on DirecTV.

Crony also encouraged people interested in working in Hollywood to work hard and, equally important, be unafraid to be themselves.

“I’ve been more successful the more authentic I’ve become,” Crotty said. “Work really hard be likable, be pleasant to deal with and have a point of view.”

The next event in the MSLCE Speaker Series will take place Dec. 3, featuring Adult Swim Games producer Matthew Schwartz (C95), at 5 p.m. in the Frances Searle Building, 3-417. It is open to the public. For more information, email or RSVP here.