The film and television industry has been good to Chicago but not so much for African-Americans trying to get acting and production jobs.
In 2013, the film and television industry poured $358 million into the state’s coffers. That’s nearly double 2012’s $184 million tally. And that increase is owed to a record number of blockbuster films and TV series shooting in Chicago including Chicago Fire (NBC) and its spin-off Chicago PD and Transformers 4.
Chicago is becoming more attractive to production companies thanks largely to a sweet tax break. The Illinois Film Production Tax Credit Act offers producers a 30-percent credit for all qualified expenditures, including salaries, products and services from Illinois vendors. It also gives another 15 percent for hiring individuals from economically-depressed areas.
But those in attendance at a forum on diversity in the film industry Sept. 6, in Chicago insist the law’s provisions are being circumvented by production companies. Now, a proposed amendment to that law, originally passed in 2003, could limit work for Illinois actors.
Senate Bill 1816 would amend the act to allow production companies to get tax breaks on performing artists who are not Illinois residents. The current law allows a 30-percent tax break on qualified in-state production cost. The proposed revision is just the latest one the law has undergone since it passed.
The bill has been stuck in committee since 2013. West Side state Sen. Patricia Van Pelt (5th) is among the sponsors. Saturday’s forum took place at DuSable Museum.
Hairstylist Lun Ye Marsh said the amendment could open a hole for production companies to get tax breaks for using out of state vendors and production crews. Marsh has worked on such films such as Love Jones, Flags of Our Fathers and the TV series Prison Break.
“That is a clear path to put Illinois production people out of business,” Marsh, who worked on the original 2003 bill, said.
Delvin Molden, of E.N.D Production and the event’s co-sponsor, recalled that the state’s film industry was either “feast or famine.” When a film would come in, everyone would try to get on that one production, he said.
That changed in 2011 when Toronto-based Cinespace Film Studios opened an affiliate studio/production center in North Lawndale. That brought the number of production studios in the city to two, the other being Chicago Studio City at 5660 W. Taylor.
“That created a hub for films,” said Molden, whose business partner includes former 28th Ward alderman Ed Smith. “Now you have an influx of productions that are coming and then the tax credits. Everyone is looking at Chicago differently now.”
But blacks in the city’s film industry must leverage those dollars to bring jobs and training programs to their community, Molden said. People can’t work in the industry, he said, unless they have the skills and experience to land union jobs on production sets. He noted that none of that $358 million in film revenue the state got came to North Lawndale, Englewood or Roseland.
“We don’t want to stop the bill, but if they are going to amend the bill to use taxpayer dollars, we want to make sure some of that work, and some of that money, is coming toward indigenous areas of people of color,” Molden said.
Also hindering black participation is the state’s diversity hiring plan, which requires production companies to make a “good-faith effort” to hire minorities. That “effort,” however, is left open to interpretation, according to industry experts.
Michele McGhee, a tax credit specialist with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said the good faith effort is one of the things not working with the law.
“People think you have to hire people of color. You do not. You can interview 50 minorities and you don’t have to hire any of them. You can just say you did,” said McGhee, who wasn’t part of the panel but spoke after the event to “correct some misinformation” mentioned at the event.
Companies, she added, can make a good faith effort by calling or interviewing someone but that doesn’t translate into actual hires. While the department reviews diversity plans for compliance, McGhee noted that there is no set hiring percentage for minorities.
“They have a system but it’s not like it has to be 25 percent, because that is illegal — to set-aside monies like that,” McGhee said.
According to North Lawndale Black Chamber of Commerce’s Rev. M.G. Hunter, more stringent language is needed for the good faith effort clause, similar to what’s stated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The language should also stress parity — the hiring of people based on the demographics of the area — when it comes to using state dollars to fund projects, Hunter insists.
“What the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that if you use $1 of federal money then the workforce has to come from the indigenous population,” Hunter said. “If they would do this, it would create jobs. It would create businesses. It would create housing.”
But according to Hunter, that’s not happening, even though the city has two production studios located in minority neighborhoods, which are not benefiting economically, especial North Lawndale where Cinespace Chicago is located.
“It has not impacted the economy or the local businesses on any level in Lawndale,” said Hunter, 48, the chamber’s founder and North Lawndale resident. Most residents, he added, don’t know Cinespace exists in their community.
Joe Black, of Joe Black Production, operates out of Cinespace Chicago. The studio is often unfairly targeted for not hiring from the community, he said, but he noted most people don’t understand what the facility does. The studio sells space to production companies that then hire their own vendors, cameramen, lighting equipment, crew or accountants, Black explained.
“We don’t do any of that. All we do is sell the space, like you rent an apartment and then that tenant comes in with their own crowd,” Black said. “They pick who they want to hire. They pick who they are going to outsource jobs to.”
To secure contracts, Black said individuals and companies must pitch their services to the production companies filming in the city.
Soul Food actor Mel Jackson said African-Americans must straddle both worlds — producing independent film projects and working within the film industry system. Jackson maintained he’s been able to stay viable by doing both.
“I may have my own personal feelings about bureaucracy and how people are taking money from the people and how it is distributed…but that is the system,” Jackson said. “If you want to go through that route to get your money, then you have to do what the system says you have to do.”