Chicago’s production trends from the big screen to the little one

The Esquire Theater, at 58 E. Oak St., closed its doors in 2006 after 68 years of business. It’s now home to a Christian Louboutin store and Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant. (Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel, 1994/WikiCommons)

By MacKenzie Coffman
Medill Reports

The next time you venture out to the movie theater, don’t expect Chicago to make an appearance on the big screen.

For decades, iconic Chicago landmarks from the “L” to LaSalle Street speckled their way throughout movie after movie. Although audiences today can spot the city masquerading as Gotham once more, the Chicago landscape is popping up less often. But city scenes are alive and well — simply turn on your television and you’ll spot the city in major successes like “Chicago Med,” “Station Eleven” and “Fargo.”

“The (television) market is huge because of streaming,” said Kwame Amoaku, the director of the Chicago Film Office. “It’s just up to us to grab as much of that market share as we can.”

The film office recently announced its “Chicago Made” initiative to do just this. The city hopes to buy more soundstages to increase production and will partner with management consulting firm XD-TECH to create a workforce development program.

The initiative came in the wake of another industry-altering event – Cinespace Chicago Film Studios was sold to TPG Real Estate, a Texas- and California-based firm, in the hopes of expanding production here.

Yet, before this television boom, Chicago had a rich movie history. The city was home to Essanay Studios at the start of the 20th century. The studio produced classics such as  Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Tramp.” In 1979, long after most of the film industry had moved to Hollywood, Chicago Studio City opened and dominated the local industry.

The studio is currently owned by John Crededio Jr., whose mother was a hair and makeup artist and whose father was a gaffer before starting the company. In its heyday, Chicago Studio City worked on films like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Untouchables” and “Home Alone.” The attack on Sept. 11 decreased business dramatically since air travel declined, so the studio sold off much of its land and moved productions to California. Yet, over time the com began to rebuild. It landed hits like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” and picked up some television shows like “Shameless.”

Then, Cinespace opened in 2010. The Toronto-based company received several grants over the next few years totaling $27.3 million from the state, and Crededio said it nearly destroyed Chicago Studio City.

“We were the only studio here for 30 years. We created business here, and they went and gave a company from Toronto $30 million,” Crededio said. “It almost closed our business.”

As television boomed worldwide thanks to the advent of streaming, Cinespace worked on many popular shows such as “Empire” and “Chicago Fire.” This led Chicago Studio City to sue the state in 2015, claiming Cinespace was given preferential treatment and Studio City was never given the opportunity to bid for such projects. Shortly after, a Sun-Times investigation revealed that former Gov. Pat Quinn had promised land that wasn’t for sale, and Cinespace had to return $10 million in grants. The judge for Chicago Studio City’s case, however, did not rule in its favor.

Despite the local off-stage drama, Chicago’s television production grew. In 2019, the film office reported local productions had an estimated $560 million economic impact; and it was not just from the four movies that had been shot here that year.

“What companies come here to do is to set up shop and do series, instead of coming to do movies,” Amoaku said.

But whether the Windy City is portrayed on a 65-foot-wide screen or the 6-inch one in your pocket, it has something unique to offer the industry and consumers alike.

“New York City or another metropolis can’t give the level of access that we do,” Amoaku said. “You can’t flip a helicopter and blow up a Batmobile just anywhere.”
Photo above: Chicago Studio City’s main lot at 5660 W. Taylor St. in 2000 and 2021. The studio has built several additional soundstages over the years and hopes to further expand.

MacKenzie Coffman is a video and broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Mac_coffman.