As Bitter Jester Creative celebrates its 10th anniversary, the Highland Park production company has rebounded from a tough year, with a major new client, a TV pilot in the can, a fiscal sponsor for their documentary, and a successful live sketch comedy show.
“This anniversary is hugely significant to us on a multitude of levels,” creative director Nicolas DeGrazia says.
“It’s at the ten-year mark when people really start to sit up and take notice.”
DeGrazia founded Bitter Jester in January, 2001 with Charles Turck as the production company for the comedy troupe, The Comic Thread, in which they’re both members.
The “Bitter Jester” is a character Turck portrayed for Comic Thread.
In 2003, DP Daniel Kullman bought out Turck’s share (Turck remains a board member) and became a full partner with DeGrazia. Bitter Jester increasingly expanded into full-service video production for North Shore businesses and nonprofits.
During their first two years in business, Kullman and DeGrazia supplemented their income delivering newspapers to offices on Wacker Drive.
Cinematographer/editor Josh Tallo
“We’d get up at midnight,” DeGrazia says, “work until 6 a.m., come back to Highland Park, sleep a couple hours, work from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. in Bitter Jester, sleep for a couple hours, then deliver papers.”
Working out of the first floor of a rental house — DeGrazia lives upstairs — the partners gradually built their client base to become a viable venture, with a focus on networking, perfectionism, and a humorous touch.
While many more established production companies struggled, Bitter Jester flourished in 2008 and early ’09. “Many of the big companies that still needed video production were hiring smaller firms like ours to save money,” DeGrazia says. “Less cost for them, more work for us. I know a lot of freelancers who experienced the same boost.”
While they were flush, they traveled to Angola to shoot a demo for their in-progress documentary “Pools of Light” about nonprofit shareCIRCLE’s development of a university in central Angola.
They also co-hosted the new Port Clinton Film Festival with Amdur Productions.
Then later in ’09, the recession finally hit them. “We laid off our editor, we let our sales person go, we canceled magazine subscriptions and personal outings, and we tried to save money as much as possible,” DeGrazia says.
Business turned back around late last year, particularly as Bitter Jester signed the Ravinia Festival as a client. Cinematographer/editor Josh Tallo, with whom they’d worked occasionally since 2006, signed on as a “creative collaborator.”
“He has basically increased not only our exposure but also our ability to produce work by about 35 per cent,” DeGrazia says.
Bitter Jester is the Chicago production company for L.A.-based Pooka Productions’ TV recently completed pilot, “Ambush Comedy,” in which local comedian Patti Vasquez “ambushes” stand-ups about to go onstage.
“Pools of Light,” the 15-minute demo for the shareCIRCLE doc, won a 2010 Silver Telly, a Gold Communicator Award, and a Platinum Hermes Creative Award.
Chicago Filmmakers became the nonprofit fiscal sponsor for the doc, opening up grants previously unavailable to the for-profit Bitter Jester. They plan to return to Angola at least once during the remaining three years of the project.
“Next stop — fame and fortune!” DeGrazia jokes. “But for now, we’re building a strong foundation, great business relationships, and solid work samples to get us there. Exciting things to come, I have no doubt.”
Bitter Jester Creative is at 838 Central Ave., Rear, Highland Park. Call 847/433-8660 or see bitterjester.com. —Ed M. Koziarski