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Illinois film tax credit more about union jobs than movies

By   /   January 14, 2013  /   News  /   3 Comments

By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois is making a big deal about the state’s film tax credit bringing another Hollywood production to Chicago.

But one movie industry insider says Illinois’ film tax credit actually might prevent more movies and TV shows from being shot on the lakefront.

JOBS OR FILMS: Movie insider Steele says Illinois missed film hub by being focused on union jobs, not top talent.

Jeff Steele is a veteran film financier who moved to Chicago in August. He said Chicago should be on par with Los Angeles and New York when it comes to movie and television production. Instead, Steele said, Chicago is little more than a nice location.

“Chicago has all of the resources,” Steele said Monday. “World-class crews, great supporting actors, it has all the stages and equipment you could need. It’s a one-stop shop.”

But because Illinois’ film tax credit limits spending to Illinois labor, Chicago cannot attract top-notch behind-the-scenes players from Los Angeles or New York City, he said.

“You want the best costume designers, production managers and cinematographers,” Steele added, but the film tax credit does not open the door to them.

So if the film tax credit fails to benefit the film industry, who does it help? Unions, Steele said.

“My take away is that (Illinois tax credit) was blessed by the unions, for the unions,” he said.

The Chicago Federation of Labor, which calls itself an umbrella group for hundreds of unions in Chicago and Cook County, fully backs Illinois’ film tax credit.

KEY GRIPS TO COOKS: Union boss Ramierz says film tax credit helps lots of union workers in Illinois.

Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said in a statement the film tax credit has helped put thousands of union workers on the job.

“From actors to stage hands, scenic artists to electricians, camera operators, musicians, teamsters and others, Chicago’s union workers comprise a highly skilled workforce with a strong interest in a healthy, viable entertainment industry,” Ramirez said.

Betsy Steinberg, director of the Illinois Film Office, said Illinois is not a right-to-work state, so the jobs on many of the TV shows or movies are “under the jurisdiction” of the unions.

Since Illinois’ first film tax credit in 2004, Illinois has seen more than $1 billion in total revenue and 10,000 jobs. Steinberg estimates that since 2005, when the credits were first issued, Illinois has given out $163 million.

CANCELED: Illinois lauded the Chicago Code with praise and tax credits, until it was nixed from Fox’s TV schedule in 2011.

Illinois is working under its third film tax credit. The first, which ran between 2004 and 2006, gave a 20 percent credit to Illinois labor only. The second, from 2006 to 2008, gave a 20 percent credit on all spending.

The current tax credit, approved by lawmakers in late 2008, gives productions a 30 percent credit on state spending that includes labor, food, travel in the state, and even the wrap party. (But not the booze.)

Paradoxically, without any type of film tax credit, Steele said, Illinois might be competely ignored by TV and movies.

“A crew could shoot a Chicago show in New Orleans, and send a B-crew to Chicago for some building shots,” Steele added.

However, if lawmakers shifted the focus of Illinois’ film tax credit from union jobs in Chicago to building a full-fledged film industry, he said, the state would attract dozens of new shows or movies and millions of new dollars.

“It’s the union’s job to circle the wagons and protect their own,” Steele said. “But by doing so, they chased away the high-end talent to make Illinois self-sustaining.”

Illinois’ film office announced Monday that “Divergent” a sci-fi film set in a futuristic Chicago, will begin filming in April.

Contact Benjamin Yount at [email protected].


Ben formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • There’s a typo in the final quote that misrepresents my point: It was that the wage caps (coupled with resident restrictions), disincentivize high-end talent and key crews from staying here to foster a self-sustaining industry.

    In addition, when the state doesn’t allow credits for out of state key crew, then they’re (1) disincentivizing the flow of $2m – $20m budget mainstream independent films (which make of the bulk of the filmmaking industry) from coming to Illinois; and (2) they’re depriving their own union crews from learning from the best department heads and key crew-members that would come in (at the bond companies’ behest) from L.A. and NYC.

  • Dwight Cleveland
  • Jeff, your argument lacks any sort of coherent logic. How is a program that is paid for by the state of Illinois taxpayers, and designed to create work for Illinois residents, not doing its job simply because it doesn’t allow producers to bring in talent from from outside? That makes no sense. Surely someone who has been in the business as long as you have should have developed the basic ability to understand that state film incentives serve two purposes: create local jobs, and generate local tax revenues through increased business activity.

    If a film producer is “deincentivized” at the thought of using local crew to make their films, then maybe they don’t belong here. If you want to put up- your own money to attract those “B” movies, then go for it, but don’t complain just because taxpayer funds are not used to foster your own career.

    The reality is that there is a highly vibrant independent film community in Chicago and the Midwest that doesn’t need help from NYC or LA to make their films. They are subject to the same exact rules for state film incentives as the “A-list” projects, and they provide the primary training ground for those coming up in the business in Chicago. We don’t need small underfunded films to “come here”, we need financing for the independent projects that are already here. We need support for the talent that already calls Chicago home. You represent neither, and as a resident of Chicago, you should be ashamed of that.

    Finally, a word of advice: If your goal is to base your career in Chicago, it might be a good idea to avoid insulting the local crews. Insinuating that people from L.A. or NY who would consider working on these low-budget labors of love are somehow better than Chicago’s crews, is just screwing the pooch. The reality is that every low budget film I have worked on was under budgeted and poorly planned, and rescued by the capabilities of the very same people you are insulting. Furthermore, most department heads brought it from outside the state on larger films fail to meet Chicago’s high standards for film making. They are also unfamiliar with the local crews and local resources, putting them and the production at a huge disadvantage as a result.

    The word of your hijinks on this page and others are on the street now. You have some apologies to make.