CHICAGO — In the fall, Netflix acquired a major soundstage complex in Albuquerque. Last month came news that the streaming service is opening a new production hub in Brooklyn, as well. Peter Hawley, who now heads up the Illinois Film Office under Gov. J.B. Pritzker, says one of his goals is to persuade Netflix to consider the same for Chicago.
"They've committed money to New Mexico, they've committed money to New York. We're a nice spot between those two places," he said when we met at his office in the Thompson Center. "I've not yet spoken to Netflix, but that is the goal. You've seen the numbers they're talking about spending on production over the coming years, it's something like $8 billion, and they can't do it all in Los Angeles, they've got to spread it around. And to do that, they need to have their own studio space. And they can't expand in Los Angeles, there's no space. So why not Chicago?"
So far, Netflix has had a minimal presence in Chicago, including the Joe Swanberg series "Easy" (the third and final season premiered earlier this month); the upcoming movie "Beats" starring Anthony Anderson (from "Barbershop" producer Bob Teitel); and the series "Mixtape," a musical drama starring Jenna Dewan that is currently filming. If the streaming service had a dedicated production hub in town, the number of projects shot locally would increase substantially.
That would also require more experienced crew, which is another of Hawley's goals: Building up the available workforce.
Overall in Chicago, feature films have taken a backseat as of late; 80% of what was shot here last year was for TV. No broadcast network shot their pilots locally this spring, which means NBC remains the strongest player in town with Dick Wolf's "Chicago Fire," "Chicago P.D." and "Chicago Med" all returning next season; followed by Showtime, which has "The Chi" and "Shameless" (the latter of which only shoots in Chicago two weeks out of every season).
"The broadcast shows strive to get to syndication, which is usually seven years, and Dick Wolf certainly knows how to create something with long legs," said Hawley. "But Netflix and Hulu and some of the other streaming services, yeah, they're doing a 10-episode season _ or even FX will follow that season length _ but they bring in a lot of money. Those budgets can be big. They're comparable to a large feature."
Hawley began on the job May 1, taking over the film office from Christine Dudley (who held the post since 2015 under Gov. Bruce Rauner) and unlike his predecessor, he does have a filmmaking background with extensive directing experience. "I will tell you, in talking to a lot of industry people, they are pleased that I speak filmmaking," he said.
"And that's not a knock on Christine or any of the other people who had that job, it's just who I am, right? It's just a shorthand. I know how films are made _ I know hard it is, how fun it is, how exhilarating it is. I love production and I always think of creativity as problem-solving and figuring how to put the puzzle together, I just love that."
(Charity Greene, communications director for the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity, was present during our interview.)
Hawley has lived in Chicago since 1979. "My family are New Englanders, then we lived in Kentucky for a long time and then came here. I went to Northwestern and then went away for a little bit but came back."
His first feature film, as both writer and director, is the Chicago-shot 1991 thriller "Victimless Crimes," about art world thievery starring Craig Bierko, who was Hawley's college roommate at Northwestern University.
I asked him about the film's premise: "Something I always come back to in my own career is the conflict between art and business. So, it's about a struggling artist and her husband, who is an art critic. And because she's not a successful artist, she starts robbing art galleries. So she actually broke into what was then the State of Illinois art gallery on the second floor of this building (the Thompson Center)."
I couldn't find any reviews of the film, which had a brief theatrical run. "Very small, like a week in Seattle or something like that. But it was back in the time when it was packaged with other films for home distribution. We made it on such a low budget that it made its money back. But it also showed people that I could tell a story and get work."
After "Victimless Crimes," Hawley shifted gears and became a director of commercials. He's also a longtime college instructor _ teaching filmmaking first at Columbia College, later at Tribeca Flashpoint (which eventually merged with Columbia) and currently at Loyola University. "They've offered me classes for the fall and I told them I would know by the Fourth of July if I can juggle it."
I asked what kinds film and television he watches. "I just saw 'Catch-22' on Amazon. I loved 'Dead to Me' on Netflix, which has twists all over the place. I love 'Barry' on HBO. Joe Swanberg's 'Easy.' I did not watch a frame of 'Game of Thrones,' but on the flip side I was on the 'Sopranos' bandwagon from the day it started. I am not a fantasy-type guy. I like documentaries and I really enjoy these limited series where you can get some really big name actors, like Billy Bob Thornton on Amazon's 'Goliath,' and other folks like that, to do eight or 10 episodes.
"I like indie films and documentaries. I love foreign films. I love good cinema. If I was to pick an era that I would like to have been a filmmaker, it would either be World War II-era noir Hollywood, or late '60s, early '70s American cinema. I like all of those movies from those two eras."
Hawley's duties as head of the state film office are distinct from that of Chicago Film Office, which handles more day-to-day logistics for TV and film projects, including access to street closure permits. (Mayor Lori Lightfoot has yet to name the head of that office.)
By contrast, Hawley's mandate is more big picture: "I work for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and at the end of the day, this job is about tax revenue _ which is bringing productions to this state _ and creating jobs and keeping jobs here."
A primary goal, he said, is to "get to a billion-dollar industry in the next couple of years." For 2018, money spent in-state by TV and film projects (including commercials) was $473 million.
He also wants to foster more of a film scene among filmmakers themselves. "Going back 30 years, when I started being a filmmaker here in Chicago, I really wanted there to be a Chicago community of filmmakers, and there's not as much as there could be. I think I have this romantic notion of New York in the '80s and you've got Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen and Scorsese, and somehow they all knew each other. You just felt that. And why don't we have that? I just emailed the chairs of film departments of all the local colleges of having some sort of battle of the bands-type film contest and that's hard enough to pull together."
Here are some other items we discussed:
_ Fox's "Empire" will shoot its sixth and final season next year.
Hawley: "I'm not really worried about 'Empire' going away. I believe that stage space is at a premium all over the country and in Canada as well (because 500 scripted series are being produced a year). And some of these shows take up stages for years, as with the Dick Wolf scenario. So I would not be surprised _ I don't have any inside knowledge on this _ but I would not be surprised if Fox does not give up those 'Empire' stages and just puts another show in there because the stage space itself it too valuable. Shows come and go, it's the nature if it. But stages, it's supply and demand and (studios or networks might think) if I've got it, I want to hold on to it. So I'm less concerned about filling those 'Empire' stages."
Bryshere Y. Gray, Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson and Jussie Smollett
The Lyon Family on Fox's "Empire" as played by, from left: Bryshere Y. Gray, Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson and Jussie Smollett. (Chuck Hodes/Fox)
_ The Illinois film incentive _ which is a 30% tax credit on all money spent in state, minus those hefty above-the-line-salaries (director, screenwriter, producers, and non-resident actors) _ is set to expire in 2021.
The incentive is a big reason productions _ including the Dick Wolf shows for NBC _ come to Chicago. Where do things stand on a renewal or extension?
Hawley: "We want to extend it. The industry definitely wants to extend it. We know that is a real catalyst for production to come to the state, so it's a critical piece of the puzzle. We have 11 days left in the session, the general assembly, right now, so we'll see if they bring the bill to vote on. There's a bill, with a bunch of other things attached to it as well. I think that everybody realizes the incentive is critical, so it's imperative to get it extended."
Under Gov. Rauner, the incentive (along with other programs) was suspended during the two-year state budget impasse in what was widely viewed as political strong-arming. Hawley said he wasn't concerned about the incentive being used as a pawn between the governor and the state legislature in the current administration.
_ In light of restrictive abortion laws recently passed in Georgia _ which is home base for a huge number of TV and film projects because of its lucrative film incentive _ at least two productions have pulled out of the state, a new Amazon series called "The Power" and the Kristen Wiig Lionsgate comedy "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar."
A lawmaker in California recently introduced a bill that would offer tax breaks to TV and film productions that relocate from states with "strict abortion bans."
In April, now-former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pritzker sent a letter to studios looking to exit Georgia and encouraging them to consider Chicago and Illinois a more "hospitable" location. Is there anything the Illinois film office _ or state legislature _ has planned specifically to take advantage of this circumstance and lure some of those projects here?
Hawley: "In the 3 weeks I have been on the job there have been no formal plans by this office, or the (general assembly) as best I know, to do something specific to attract production away from other states. This largely has to do with timing. That said, I have had conversations with industry representatives who have told me the time is now to bring over shows from other states, and ... we are scheduling meetings with industry executives to aggressively pursue new productions, and I am sure the Georgia law will come up in those conversations."