Chicago is continuing to boom as a center for film and television production. Last summer alone, some 15 productions added nearly $700 million to the city’s local economy. This was due to filmmakers, studios, and networks taking advantage of tax incentives making it cost-effective to shoot in the area.
But with the uptick in productions, there is also an uptick in demand for skilled workers. So Chicago Made, a workforce development initiative launched in 2021, has been linking Chicagoans to many of those positions.
“We’re specifically targeting groups of people that have skill-sets already in place that make them viable for the workforce in the film-production community,” said Kwame Amoaku, director of the Chicago Film Office at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE).
Twenty-five individuals were selected across 12 disciplines for the first cohort of workers. The program received about 500 applications.
“We’ve been looking for people between the ages of 24-50 who have skill sets in the trades that lend themselves to working in production,” added Amoaku, who suggested that persons with experience in carpentry, student film crew work or hair styling, among other fields, might benefit from Chicago Made.
“We’re looking for people who might have that experience who are missing the interpersonal connections that lead to employment in the film industry,” said Amoaku. “We have that deficit in the work force and we’re looking to fill that the fastest way possible, and we thought that using the talent that was already here in the city that lent itself to film production would be the fastest route to do that.”
Chicago Made is also geared towards reframing the public image of film and television production as an economic driver benefitting residents and neighborhoods, not a means for usurpers from Los Angeles or New York to “swoop in” and inconvenience locals with closed streets and lost parking spaces.
“We want people to understand that [many film crews] are blue collar workers,” added Amoaku. “These are neighbors and residents of the city of Chicago. Some of these jobs have been transformative in terms of diversity—our diversity numbers are much higher than in some other areas of the country.”
The State of Illinois administers a 30% rebate on money productions spend in the state; filmmakers can increase that rebate even more significantly if they work at hiring a diverse crew.
“It’s huge for these companies, especially in episodic television, where—as opposed to a movie, where you get one tax credit for the movie—you get a tax credit for every episode,” Amoaku explained. “So, for shows like the Chicago [Fire, P.D., etc.], shows where you do 22 or 23 episodes a year, it’s extremely beneficial for them and it’s why so many have taken up residence in the city.”
Amoaku was pleased that the local industry rebounded quickly after production shutdowns all across the industry that came early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We met with industry stakeholders and the Department of Public Health and came up with COVID guidelines that allowed film production to continue to operate as an essential economic industry,” he explained, adding that Chicago was one of the first cities to resume issuing film permits in June 2020. “It kind of showed the world that we were ‘open for business’ during this time.”
Beyond marketing Chicago as a viable film location and connecting locals with productions, another goal for the Chicago Film Office is bringing film screenings to neighborhoods throughout the city, Amoaku said.
“There used to be a lot of cinema houses where people could go and look at films in their neighborhoods,” he added. “A lot of that doesn’t exist anymore.”
In partnership with some of their partners, like the Park District and the Chicago Public Library, he hopes to do screenings to bring back cinema to those neighborhoods.
Launched in late 2021— with a second round of applications opening this summer— the Chicago Made workforce development program offers job training and placement to Chicago residents ages 24-50, primarily from underserved areas, to help meet the industry’s increasing demand for skilled workers. The program is an initiative by the Chicago Film Office at the Department of Current Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) and the XD-TECH consultancy.
NBC Universal, Netflix, The Walt Disney Company, and Warner Media provide on-set training for the program. A number of local firms and organizations, as well as unions IATSE Local 476 and Local 600, have provided support as well.
A record 15 productions filmed in Chicago in summer 2021, bringing with them nearly $700 million in economic impact. The Chicago Made program links projects such as those with workers from across the city.
This series, from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), asks Chicagoans in the film industry to share their experiences. Learn more at ChicagoMade.us and join the conversation on social media using #ChicagoMade.