CFO’s Yolanda Arias retires after 32-year career

Yolanda Arias

Yolanda Arias

“The Chicago crews,
they’re awesome,” she says.
“Working with them
has been
the most enjoyable
part of the job.”

Yolanda Arias has been an integral part of the Chicago film industry for the past 32 years.

As Assistant to the Director of the Chicago Film Office (CFO) — a position from which she retires today — Arias and Director Rich Moskal have helped make blockbuster improvements to a city that now ranks among the best and busiest locations for TV and movie production in the country.

“Oh my God, it’s so different! It really, really is,” she exclaims. “We have streamlined the process to be so much easier and quicker for productions.”

When Arias started on the job, filmmakers would “pretty much spend the whole day at City Hall trying to get a permit.”

“They would see us, then see the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) people to get approval on their permit request,” she explains. “Once it was approved, they would go in line where CDOT had clerks who would type up their permits. From there, they’d have to go to the cashier, get in line, and pay for it.”

Today, the entire process — request, review, and approval — can be handled online. “They don’t have to ever leave their office,” says Arias.

Arias began her career with WMAQ Channel 5, where she was hired as an intern while studying Communications at the University of Illinois – Chicago. When the internship ended, she was hired on as an associate producer in the community programs department.

“It was a wonderful time,” she recalls. “We had half hour documentaries and a talk show that discussed various topics.”

When WMAQ decided to make cutbacks and the department’s focus shifted to mostly PSAs, one of Arias’ contacts told her that Chicago was setting up a film office. She pursued the lead, got the job, and has remained at the CFO ever since.

Her early projects included producing a show called Music Alive on cable channel 25 that ran for “about three or four years.”

“At the time, the city was changing — they wanted the film office to also include entertainment,” she recalls. “The best part about it was giving these local groups the opportunity to be seen and heard.”

Among the films that she helped coordinate during her tenure, she considers The Untouchables to be not only one of the most exciting, but also one of the most groundbreaking.

“With the period cars all lined up on LaSalle St., I thought, ‘wow, Chicago is really making it,” she recalls. “We were doing it!”

As far as complexity is concerned, she does not hesitate to name The Transformers as the most intense.

“At the time, our office consisted of (CFO Director) Rich Moskal and myself,” she says. “There was so much work.”

Besides blowing up the Michigan Ave. bridge, the movie’s action sequences included the human flyers known as the Birdmen leaping into a scene from a perch on top of the Trump Tower. They were made possible largely through a group effort between several city departments and the Mayor’s office that was coordinated by the CFO.

In her characteristic modesty, Arias credits Moskal for the film’s resulting success. “He is so dedicated and hard working and, yeah, he puts everything into it,” she says. “You really can’t help but want to do the same thing.”

Moskal — who estimates that Arias has “probably helped make the production of at least 3,000 films, television series, commercials, documentaries and student projects, and probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 permits” — holds a similar amount of respect and gratitude for his assistant.

“The fact that she did that with such dedication with exceptional patience, it’s really pretty remarkable,” he says. “We’re on the front line of what can be a very anxious process, and Yolanda being on the forefront of taking those calls and reassuring people that it’s going to work out and be possible and holding their hands and troubleshooting and community outreach — not to mention answering to city officials and the public — is remarkable. There are few people who have been able to survive and navigate any film office in the country with such grace.”

Of course, Arias as well as Moskal give the city major credit for helping to create Chicago’s current production boom.

“You can find pretty much anything here,” Arias explains. “It has its beautiful areas and it has its areas that are not quite as beautiful but are also good for film. And directors can’t get enough of Lower Wacker. And our bridges. It goes on and on.”

Exciting, no doubt. But the thing that Yolanda Arias will miss the most are the people she got to know along the way.

“The Chicago crews, they’re awesome,” she says. “A tight knit family that cares about each other. Working with them for me has been the most enjoyable part of the job.”