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  • Writer's pictureChinyere Ibeh

The independent film community continues to grow in Chicago

Originally published: February 19, 2020

​Throughout the city of Chicago there are plenty of theaters, organizations and festivals that support independent film.

​Organizations like the Independent Film Project and Stage 18 of Chicago aim to help the growing community of Independent Filmmakers. These two organizations teamed up to form the Independent Film Alliance, which is meant to provide the community and resources needed to bring together the art and commerce of independent filmmaking.

The Independent Fire Project began 30 years ago with a bunch of filmmakers drinking beer in the backroom of the Red Lion Pub. These filmmakers felt cut off from the larger mainstream film industry, so they built a community and offered each support and knowledge.

Much has changed in the last 30 years in the independent film community. Karen Durham, Assistant Director of PR and Marketing for the Gene Siskel Film Center at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), explains that the community was more fragmented when she first arrived to Chicago. The community has become more cohesive, since she’s first arrived here.

Student independent filmmakers are a group of their own in the community. Durham explains that the Gene Siskel Film Center serves more as a resource for students.

“The school…they offer film lecture course in the fall semester and in the spring semester,” explains Durham.

Currently, they’re offering a lecture series called “From Asia With Love.” A different film is explored each week with a lecture and screening on Tuesdays. Students can take the lecture for credit and the general public can also come to the screening and lecture.

Another series that’s offered during the fall and spring would be “Conversations of the Edge.” Faculty in the department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation would recommend that students go meet up with media makers featured in the series.

Like many independent film theaters around the city, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts many film festivals. One being the Black Harvest Film Festival, which occurs every August. Since 1994, this festival served as a celebration of independent films that explore “the images, heritage, and history of the worldwide Black experience.”

Similarly, the Music Box Theatre holds its own festivals including the 70MM Film Festival. This year, the festival will begin with a 35 millimeter (mm) presentation of “The Big Trail”, which is John Wayne’s first starring role and the only surviving feature film shot in Fox’s 70mm Fox Grandeur System.

According to Ryan Oestreich, the General Manager of the Music Box Theatre, explains that Music Box Theatre also holds its own film festivals in order to help films gain exposure.

The Music Box Theatre can also serve as a screening venue for independent films. Oestreich describes that the Music Box Theatre strives to help the independent film community here in Chicago by “giving people a place to go.”

The Director of Special Events and Marketing for the Logan Theatre, Jennifer Zacarias, shares a similar sentiment about the Logan Theatre’s involvement with independent film.

Zacarias explains that the Logan Theatre also holds many film festivals that focus solely on independent film. One would be the Chicago Underground Film Festival, which is presented by the Independent Film Project.

“Anytime we have a one off showtime we try to assist with creating an event around the screening by opening up our private lounge for meet & greets and after parties to additional promotional support to spread the word,” describes Zacarias.

Logan Theatre invests in independent films in the city so that all of the talented people involved within the independent film community can shine. Zacarias notes that “independent films are just as phenomenal as the big studio outputs.”

Zacarias continues, “So much can be learned about our city from the film that is produced here and not by just the big hitters either. Independents tell stories and the city is their backdrop.”

Oestreich has a similar sentiment when it comes to the importance of independent film in the city of Chicago. He explains that the story told by independent film can be universal as Chicago can be the backdrop for any story. Oestreich believes that independent film is important to Chicago as it is a representation to the city.

Durham describes that with independent film, filmmakers have more freedom to show what they want. With the Gene Siskel Film Center, its downtown location allows it be at the film scene in the city.

The student independent film community in Chicago goes beyond the Gene Siskel Film Center at the School at the Art Institute. University of Chicago is home to Documentary Film Group, popularly known as Doc Films, is student-run film society. Doc Films host daily screenings, one day following a particular theme. Doc Films also host events such as conversations with directors, critics, or any other film experts.

At DePaul University, the Indie Studio serves as a way for students make independent films a reality. As discussed in my DePaulia article and DePaul's Newsline Debuzz article, “Sun King” is a student-made independent film that will premiere at the Beloit International Film Festival.

Independent film has grown beyond the group of filmmakers meeting for drinks three decades ago at the Red Lion Pub. It has become a more comprehensive and in Karen Durham’s words, cohesive.

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