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Taking stock of Chicago TV, film

A good year for TV, not so much for film

Nina Metz

Chicago Closeup

5:59 PM EST, December 20, 2012

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It was a notable year for Chicago's film and TV industry, both for projects that came — and those that didn't. First, the good news. The city was home to four television series in 2012. That is an unprecedented number.

TV, however, is a fickle industry. We know that at least two of these Chicago-based shows ("Boss" on Starz and "The Mob Doctor" on Fox) will not be returning in the new year.

That leaves MTV's "Underemployed" (among the lowest-rated cable shows in its time slot and unlikely to return) and NBC's "Chicago Fire," which has had uneven ratings but appears to be the last man standing as we head into 2013, earning enough confidence from network executives to get a full season order through the spring. On a TV schedule that offers very little in the way of quality meat-and-potatoes drama, "Chicago Fire" is doing a nice job filling that niche. Let's hope it sticks around for a few years.

Looking ahead, the city could use another series or two to land here in 2013. Last year, more than 150 broadcast and cable pilots were produced; roughly a quarter of those were picked up for series. The odds are daunting. But the first step is simply landing the pilot (92 were made in Los Angeles last year, compared to the handful that came to Chicago.) Betsy Steinberg and Rich Moskal, who head up the state and city film offices respectively, were in LA last week meeting with network heads. Chicago, they both tell me, has a good shot at snagging a few pilots come March and April.

On the film side, work was slower. The Bollywood action film "Dhoom 3," which filmed for several weeks in the fall, was the one major movie project in town this year, although we also had small independent films, including Joe Swanberg's "Drinking Buddies" with Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston and "New Girl's" Jake Johnson.

Why didn't a big Hollywood movie franchise come to town? Or even a midsize film? Some of it has to do with the Illinois incentive, which offers a healthy 30 percent tax credit but only applies to money spent on Illinois vendors and Illinois workers (i.e. local crews). The big ticket out-of-town salaries (actors, directors, writers and producers: "above the line" expenses) are not covered, which puts Illinois at a disadvantage against states such as Georgia (where 24 features shot in 2012). Just the perception that we don't offer an above-the-line incentive is enough to turn off certain producers.

That said, it looks likely that Chicago will land a certain highly anticipated film project in the next few weeks, one that (like "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games") is being adapted from a multipart book series.

If the deal goes through, the film will shoot everything here — which means studios still consider Chicago a desirable location, even when other states are cheaper. There's another strong argument to let our incentive stand as is: A June report from the Illinois auditor general deemed our state budget deficit the worst in the nation. But don't be surprised over the coming months if you start hearing rumblings about making the incentive more competitive.

Which makes you wonder if there might be other ways for Chicago to grab a bigger piece of the filmmaking pie. Peter Jackson built an entire visual effects industry in New Zealand from scratch. Could that happen here? The short answer: Probably not.

According to Moskal, a perfect storm of events would have to take place. "Chicago right now doesn't have all of the expertise to be able to do this. A firm would have to bring people in from LA to grow the industry. And out-of-state workers are not covered under the current Illinois incentive, which is geared toward ensuring local crews get hired first."

Just as important: "You need the commitment of an established filmmaker. Peter Jackson wanted to stay in New Zealand to make his 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy and now his 'Hobbit' films. It helped that New Zealand had the landscape and the scenery that he needed. But what you really had was a creative mastermind saying, New Zealand is where I want to do this. He himself committed to growing the visual effects industry there, in terms of facilities and human expertise and technicians. And it had a government incentive that rewarded that particular industry, so it was very cost-effective to do it. That's what it took to cement that industry in New Zealand."

Other than the Tolkien films, is New Zealand really a hub for visual effects? You bet. Jackson's company (Weta Digital) has worked on everything from "Avatar" to "X-Men: First Class" to "Prometheus" to "Iron Man 3."

"You need a filmmaker who can drive some of the decision-making," Moskal said. "Somebody with some clout has to be advocating for Chicago to be 'the place.' You can't just create it because you want it to happen." Locally, it would seem Andy and Lana Wachowski are positioned to do just that (especially because their films are so heavily based in visual effects), though neither has publicly indicated they intend to follow Peter Jackson's lead here in Chicago.

Maybe we shouldn't want them to anyway. Last month the New York Times took an in-depth look at Jackson's influence and found that "in New Zealand, the business of running a country goes hand in hand with the business of making movies," a venture that has generated a certain amount of controversy.

When labor disputes threatened to derail production on the "Hobbit" movies, Parliament changed its national labor laws (diminishing union bargaining power) and added an incentive package in which "the government agreed to contribute $99 million in production costs and add $10 million to the studio's marketing budget. And its tourism office will spend about $8 million in its current fiscal year, and probably more in the future, as part of a promotional campaign with Time Warner that is marketing the country as a film-friendly fantasy land."

Yet another reason why this venture might not be a good fit for Illinois: An incentive arms race has ensued. Northern Ireland, Serbia and China are all wading into the world of visual effects as well.

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews