Weather aside, Chicago offers many benefits to independent filmmakers

    Forget L.A. — Chicago is the place for independent filmmakers. Photo by 1′UP on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons

    Los Angeles has long been considered the place to be if you want to make movies. Conditioned by images of an idealized world with hard-working artists and enterprising studio executives, young filmmakers often set their hearts on Hollywood.

    However, with a competitive market and increasing costs of living, Los Angeles might not be the best place to live for many independent filmmakers. In fact, Northwestern students are lucky to have access to one of the great filmmaking cities in the world, the city of Chicago. In fact, MovieMaker Magazine recently named Chicago the number one city to live in as an independent filmmaker.

    The city of Chicago has many resources for the young filmmaker, including a convenient public transportation system and post-production resources, but as senior film students across the country prepare to graduate in a matter of months, only to enter the job market in a time of economic recession, there is a lot to consider as they choose where they want to live.

    Benefits of Chicago

    Communication junior Sara Katz-Scher said she does not agree with the magazine’s list. She said most of the independent filmmakers she knows live in New York, a city which has a lot to offer artists working in all mediums. New York has the added benefit of seeing film as “an extension of its tourism industry.”

    “Chicago doesn’t have that same kind of image as New York,” Katz-Scher said. “It’s developing one, but New York brings more to film than any other city in the country.”

    Although Chicago might not be as readily identified with filmmaking as Los Angeles and New York, the city has much to offer the independent filmmaker. According to Eric Patrick, assistant professor in the School of Communication, the city has “amazing energy” and a film community that is open to outsiders. Chicago also has its international film festival, the children’s film festival and the gay and lesbian film festival, just to name a few examples of outlets for filmmakers in the city.

    One independent filmmaker who has experienced some of the advantages of being in the city of Chicago is Joe Swanberg, director of the film Alexander the Last which will have its world premiere at the upcoming South by Southwest Film Festival. The affordable cost of living has allowed Swanberg to focus on his projects instead of having to take on additional jobs, and the friendliness of the city has made it easy for him to shoot without people giving him a difficult time.

    “Chicago happens to be a good fit for me,” Swanberg said. “I am thankful that I started out working in Chicago, where I had room to grow and find my own voice.”

    Northwestern students benefit from the resources of Chicago on a regular basis, going on field trips to see filmmaking taking place on a professional level. Alex Schwarm, a senior RTVF major, said Chicago’s advantages include film schools in the city and facilities like Filmworkers Club Chicago, where post-production, including color correction and compositing, takes place.

    “They really work with students in the different film schools in Chicago,” Schwarm said. “Filmmakers at the university level can make really good short films at a very manageable rate.”

    Student rates for post-production are crucial in a costly industry where every cent matters. Even New York, with all of its resources, can be a difficult place to live for independent filmmakers because of high rent costs, according to Spencer Parsons, a visiting assistant professor in the School of Communication.

    “Rent is important because your time is valuable, and your ability to travel is really valuable,” Parsons said. “If you don’t have money leftover at the end of the month, it’s hard to finish your projects and travel to film festivals where you promote your work.”

    Considering a Move to L.A.?

    While high apartment rents did not keep New York from landing at third place on MovieMaker Magazine’s list of the top 25 cities for independent filmmakers, factors such as high costs of living and unemployment likely contributed to Los Angeles not making the cut.

    Communication junior Brittany Jewel McPherson, originally from Suffolk, Virginia, disagrees with the exclusion. McPherson, who hopes to make a career in directing and screenwriting, said she plans to go to Los Angeles when she graduates, even if that means living in a “less than mediocre apartment for a few years.”

    “There are just a lot of things in Los Angeles, including the weather, that make it more accommodating for a filmmaker [than Chicago],” McPherson said. “I feel it’s the place where everyone can really ‘get in on the action.’”

    On the other hand, Schwarm, who plans to work in film in New York after he graduates this June, said Los Angeles is a difficult place to find work, in addition to the fact that it is more representative of the business rather than the creative side of filmmaking.

    “You want to go to a place where people are going to value the voice of an independent filmmaker,” said Schwarm. “It can be discouraging when you tell someone you’re an actor or screenwriter, they say, ‘Join the club.’”

    Chuck Kleinhans, an associate professor in the School of Communication, said that although Los Angeles is a necessary place to go for those who want to be involved with big budget television and film, it is not a great place for independent filmmaking.

    For an independent filmmaker, it all depends on the individual and what he or she values in terms of lifestyle, climate and community, said associate professor Patrick. Filmmakers have to make living choices based on what they want to do.

    For Joe Swanberg, this meant being in Chicago where he could benefit from the advantages of the big city without being overwhelmed by the industry of Los Angeles.

    For Schwarm, it means going to New York and taking advantage of the contacts he established through an internship, while also realizing that in these difficult economic times, being completely established in a particular niche is not the first priority.

    “I’m more interested in finding a job than starting a career,” he said. “Everyone’s on a hiring freeze, and I’m hoping that turns around come June.”


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