crain's article

tv producer walter barnett article in crain's chicago business

Cashing in big on funny money

To many, local sitcom means business

Star power will soon add some spark to the local economy.

As the cameras prepare to roll on the first television situation comedy ever produced in Chicago, members of the area's film, tourism and trade union communities are hoping the show will beat the odds and become a hit. An established show, they say, will generate millions of dollars in local economic activity, raise the city's profile nationwide and possibly act as a magnet to draw more television series production here.

The series, a mid-season replacement show for ABC still identified by its working title, "The Joan Cusack Project," has budgeted about $20 million in start-up and production costs for the initial 13 episodes.

In addition to starring local resident and two-time Oscar nominee Ms. Cusack, the sitcom is being produced by Sony Corp.'s television unit, Columbia TriStar, in conjunction with veteran producer James L. Brooks, whose successful series include "Taxi" and "The Simpsons." Ms. Cusack made shooting in Chicago a condition of her participation, and the show's producer sees her talent, Mr. Brooks' involvement and the show's mid-season slot as positive harbingers.

"The percentage of shows that succeed is very small, but with these contributors, I like our chances," says Walter Barnett, the project's supervising producer. This year in particular, when the Olympics and the presidential elections are expected to draw attention away from the new fall shows, he is happy with a winter launch.

If the series — which will shoot its first episode early next month — is a hit, it has the potential to pump millions more into the local economy over a five- or even 10-year life span. It could also have a healthy impact on local tourism, showcasing Chicago locations to millions weekly and giving visitors the unique experience of being audience members for show tapings.

But most significant, local industry leaders say it could serve as a catalyst to bring other series to town, creating a new and more stable niche for the local film economy, which goes on a roller-coaster ride from year to year as movie work ebbs and flows.

More film work

To date, officials who promote local film production have been more successful luring feature film work than TV series here. Of the $124 million in local spending tied to filmmaking last year, more than 60% came from feature films. Before 1999, television usually amounted to less than 20% of the take.

But television work offers benefits to the local economy, says Ron Ver Kuilen, managing director of the Illinois Film Office.

"The budgets are impressive, but the question is, how much stays behind?" He points to the CBS drama series "Early Edition," which filmed here for four years before being canceled this spring. "With that series, about 70% of the budget stayed here, vs. about 50% for a feature."

For the Joan Cusack show, that would mean $14 million staying locally. The $14 million amounts to the annual revenues of a small company, but it also translates into $35 million to $50 million in economic activity, according to several commonly used economic impact models.

Vendors and unions that deal with film companies also see advantages to television. "Sitcoms can be very profitable for us," says Zoe Iltsopoulos, a marketing executive for Panavision Inc., which supplies the cameras leased to film companies for most feature film and television work shot on 35-millimeter film. Compared with the two-to-three-month rental for an average film shoot, a series can generate far more income, with a three-camera setup traditionally used to film sitcoms renting for up to $25,000 a week.

Actors hoping to land roles on the series — a character comedy about a commitment-averse high school English teacher — see advantages, too. "Television schedules level out the work so actors aren't waiting around for the local movie shooting season," says Eileen Willenborg, executive director of Chicago's office of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

The desire to lure TV work here is leading many suppliers to cut deals with Ms. Cusack's producers.

Break on rent

John Crededio, CEO of Chicago Studio City Corp., the sound stage on West Taylor Street where the show will be filmed, says that because television productions lose money early on in hope of cleaning up in syndication, he gave the show a break on the 33,000 square feet of performance and office space he is leasing. "We're being lenient to help them get off the ground, in the hope of making a few more dollars as the years go on," he says.

The Panavision distributor is also pitching in, training camera operators on the specific skills necessary to shoot a sitcom in a studio so the producers won't be tempted to bring in out-of-town operators. And contract concessions for episodic television work, which several unions agreed to for "Early Edition," will also help keep costs down on Ms. Cusack's project.

But even with the concessions, it is more expensive to film in Chicago, says Mr. Barnett. Travel and hotel expenses for out-of-town crew members add to the costs. But it is the inability to share crew costs with other shows that adds the most expense, he says.

That imbalance could be offset if more sitcoms come to town, a phenomenon Mr. Barnett witnessed firsthand in New York. When he launched ABC's "Spin City" in 1995, it was the only sitcom filming there. By this season, another four had come to town.

He adds that filming outside Los Angeles provides a fresh perspective from less jaded cast and crew members. "In Los Angeles, you are just another show. Here, you are something special," he says. "The passion that individual craft people bring to the project is just at a higher level."

©2000 by Crain Communications Inc.