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Why Is Chicago A Popular Filming Location?

Mar 8th, 2023

Chicago has played host to many a film and television series in its time, and for good reason!

Aside from the iconic city views, the abundance of urban green space, the shores of Michigan Lake, the scenic suburbs and other aesthetic values that make filming in the city so desirable, Chicago’s film history actually goes back to before Hollywood’s rise to fame!

Chicago’s century-old film industry history

Chicago’s early film industry

The first film company in Chicago was established in 1907 and was called Essanay Studios, named after the two owners, George K. Spoor and Broncho Billy Anderson (“S and A”). This studio was the first to develop a projector that could project films onto a flat surface, rather than having to look through a little window like on Edison’s Kinetoscope. This new Magniscope, as it was called, changed the film industry forever. 

Fun fact: Essanay Studios was also where Charlie Chaplin starred in “His New Job” in 1915, though he left Chicago just a month after working with the studios because he didn’t like the weather. Whatever — his loss.

Because of this small studio’s success in both filmmaking and innovation, Chicago soon became the scene for strategic growth in the film industry. Film companies began developing their own versions of the Kinetoscope, which caused the Edison Manufacturing Company (also based in Chicago) to fight back with lawsuits, patent violations and so forth, leading to a messy system of black market film projector suppliers and illegal motion picture viewings. Eventually, the Motion Picture Patents Company was formed in 1909 to deal with the mess, creating a stable structure upon which the many burgeoning film studios could lean on.

Of course, there are always two sides to every decision, and some filmmakers pushed back against the rules outlined by the Motion Picture Patents Company. Another company was formed just 48 hours after the M.P.P.C. was formed — the International Projecting and Production Company — and the competition continued.

With a highly interested public and plenty of business competition around, Chicago became a hotspot for film production, and within the first decade of the 20th century, Chicago filmmakers and producers controlled nearly 80% of the film distribution market in the entire nation!

Chicago’s film production revival

Although the film industry moved west and settled in Southern California in the 1920s, Chicago still remained a steadfast player in the game. Chicago was full of movie theaters and the enthusiastic public devoured anything that came their way, making overall film reception remarkably steady in Chicago throughout the mid 1900s.

If you’ve ever spent time walking through Chicago’s historic business districts, then you’ve undoubtedly seen the famous Balaban and Katz Uptown Theatre, the Chicago Theater and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre, resplendent in their historical architecture and decorated to the nines inside. These famous theaters were all owned and managed by film theater chain Balaban and Katz who, during the golden age of the studio era from the 1920s to the 1950s, were the largest theater chain in the country. 

The city was ripe for the picking, figuratively speaking, by the time major film companies established offices in Chicago — the likes of which included MGM, Warner Brothers, Universal and Paramount. All through the 20th century, Chicago residents flocked to the theaters and kept the region very much present in the booming film industry. 

In fact, by the 1980s, Illinois had become one of the biggest leaders in spending on film production, proving that Chicago itself still had plenty more the give to the industry. This brought a revival of film production to Chicago, and locally-produced movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Untouchables,” and “When Harry Met Sally” made waves in the industry. The state of Illinois also became a leader in film production spending, drawing more and more productions back to the city. 

By 2009, Illinois had established a bill that provides a 30% tax credit on all costs spent on production, creating further incentive to bring more production  to the city. Just three years after that, the Cinespace Chicago Film Studios was established on a massive piece of land in North Lawndale neighborhood, making it the second-largest film production studio in the United States. 

Chicago’s film industry today

Today, Chicago ranks among the likes of Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York City when it comes to film production — and not just the filming part, either!

Cinespace’s studios alone have 36 stages spread over 1.6 million square feet of studio space, as well as production facilities for everything from animation to post-production editing to casting, equipment, lighting and beyond. Their impressive list of movie and television credits filmed include "Divergent," "Transformers: Age of Extinction," "The Shape of Water," "Nightmare Alley," "Black Mirror," "Fargo," "Chicago PD," "American Gods" and much, much more. 

Constant evaluation of the state’s tax credits toward movie production means that Chicago is only becoming more and more attractive to producers, and that the likelihood of the film industry leaving the city any time soon is pretty darn low. Of course, who knows what the film world will look like in a decade or two, but there’s a good chance that Chicago will continue to feature prominently on screens, TVs and on old-timey projectors in historic movie theaters for a long time to come. 

And who knows? Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of our luxury Chicago apartments in the background of some future blockbuster!

How fun!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/MemoryCatcher

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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