Interview with former IFO Director Christine Dudley

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Dudley

The woman who
helped Illinois make
hundreds of TV shows
and generate $2.5 billion
in revenue talks about
the ever-changing
Midwestern filmscape

Christine Dudley joined the Illinois Film Office at the exact time when the Illinois Film Office needed Christine Dudley. Combining exceptional legislative knowledge with a “modest background in production,” she helped guide the state through four-and-a-half years of unprecedented disruption, adaptation, and growth.

Her emergence onto the scene was something of a disruption in and of itself. Occurring together with the installation of a new government in Springfield, it marked the end of a legendary run led by the previous director, Betsy Steinberg, who had generated enormous success over the previous eight years.

Five hundred TV shows later, the people who worked with Dudley are beyond satisfied with her performance.

“She learned on the fly and did a great job and finished in really strong fashion,” says Mark Degnen, CFO of Cinespace Chicago.

“She always knew exactly how to sell our great production companies and actors from Illinois,” recalls IATSE Local 476 Business Agent Mark Hogan. “She’s smart. She jumps right in there. She’s not shy. I look forward to working with her in her future endeavors.”

“She was born to do that job and she excelled right out of the gate and was a great member of the team,” adds the union’s President, Bradley Matthys. “She’s got this industry in her blood. She is truly one-of-a-kind. She’s become a very good friend. And I will miss working with her.”

“Christine Dudley was like, ‘I’m calling the Governor right now, let’s get this done’,” remembers Cinespace President Alex Pissios. “She’s solid. She’s tough. She’s aggressive. She’s strong, and she’s liked. A great voice for Illinois.”

Now, with the installation of a new administration in Springfield, Dudley has made way for a new Illinois Film Office Director, Peter Hawley, who assumed the office last week.

With nods to both her predecessor and her successor, she offers a first-hand glimpse of life at the IFO, describes the challenges of the future, and explains how she helped grow the industry while generating $2.5 billion in revenue during the time she led the state’s film activity.

 
AT THE CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
CHRISTINE DUDLEY TALKS ABOUT THE ILLINOIS FILM OFFICE

 

 
How would you describe the state of the Illinois film industry when you arrived? When I started in 2015, the industry was on the next wave of growth with an explosion in the industry of original content production by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. The focus really began to move in a different direction. It was an industry disruption that seemed to evolve a daily basis, but importantly it offered a lot of opportunity for Illinois.
 
 

How would you describe the state of the Illinois Film Office? Obviously my predecessor, Betsy Steinberg, had done a remarkably good job. The seeds had been planted with regard to episodic production with the ten-year film tax credit passed by legislature during her tenure. In addition, no studio was a stranger to the value of Illinois. I was fortunate to follow her. Besides offering great counsel to me, Betsy has become a friend, and I’ve offered the same to (incoming Director) Peter Hawley.

Of course, we had to open some new doors when the opportunities came along — Betsy would have done it too, it’s just that I was there, so we continued build, adapt, and analyze the incentive program and production services that best served our constituency. Illinois was poised to move to the next level as a comprehensive production center for film, television and commercial productions.
 
 

How did the film industry evolve over your time in office? As we discussed, the evolution was primarily in the disruption created with the onset of the streaming services producing original content. The general rhythms of studio production were no longer the norm. And in the last two years the mergers and acquisitions of Disney/Fox, AT & T /Time Warner (i.e. Warner Bros. HBO) we have seen, and continue to see the announcement of new decision makers and the formulation of additional streaming content producers and providers. All of this has resulted in a reduction in the number of studio produced feature films.

In Illinois, we also saw and realized new interest for production from the cable channels. HBO produced for the first time in Illinois. Showtime, already a longtime partner with their production of Shameless, added The Chi (which is entirely shot in Illinois) to their schedule. AMC, Comedy Central, and FX and many others all whom have recognized Illinois as great place for production.

It was part of my job to understand the moving parts and trends locally and nationally, — who’s coming, who’s going — and make sure that Illinois was positioned properly to continue or initiate relationships to promote all of our assets. When I said there’s a daily disruption, I wasn’t kidding.

The data that the IFO gathers and maintains clearly underscores that the growth of episodic television and streaming content were/are the best ways to generate revenue and employment, not only for crew, but also for actors.

I also have to give kudos to Mayor Emmanuel for his support of the industry. He not only championed film, but he also understood it, which was really important.

How does this help Illinois? Simply put, jobs, economic development and new revenue. Currently, Fox is here doing Mixtape for Netflix. Gillian Flynn — one of the best creative minds in the industry — is show-running Utopia, an Amazon production. Empire has been renewed and so have all of Dick Wolf’s Chicago shows. It really is quite wonderful to see the establishment of the film industry as a sustainable and growth business. It’s also helped the students in film programs at Northwestern, DePaul, Columbia and Northwestern, Harold Ramis and so forth. A plethora of new vendors and companies like The Mill, Framestore, and Nice Shoes have also planted flags here.
 
 

How many productions occurred during your time there? I don’t know the exact number of productions off the top of my head. Keep in mind in addition to TV/film, Illinois has a very robust commercial production industry. I do recall one day in the summer of 2018, I was looking at the white board in my office where I tracked current and potential productions. On that particular day we had 12 TV/film productions being shot at the same time, setting a record. And that did not include all the commercials that were being filmed.
 
 

What are some of the achievements that you’re most proud of? Film is such a relationship driven business…

In addition to always striving to improve our customer service by being responsive to the needs and changes in the industry, I would say hiring Louis Ferrara as the Assistant Deputy Director was one of the smartest things I was able to do. Louis’ wide -ranging experience in LA gave us the opportunity to initiate new production services and expand our reach/relationships in every aspect of business development.

Over the last couple of years our office worked with Representative Mussman and Senator Don Harmon to create a “Coogan’s Law” in IL. It protects children and young adults who are working actors, preventing parents from ripping off their children’s wages (i.e. McCauley Caulkin). Louis took the lead on researching and outreach on this project.

Illinois has long been the only state to have a diversity component as part of the tax credit program. That has caught the eye of “Hollywood” and other states with programs that looked to us for guidance. In 2017, the IFO reported over 50% of job hires were women and minorities. That was a record we can be proud of.

Making government accessible and understandable and was always a priority. Maintaining a balance of benefits for the film industry and the Illinois taxpayer.
 
 

How was the job different than what you expected? There were quite a few more reports and compliance issues that were required and necessary to maintain and ensure the integrity of the program. Although government by its nature moves on a slower speed than I was used to, I learned a lot and actually enjoyed every minute of it.
 
 

Coolest thing you heard about IL during your time? It was always great to see the respect that the LA industry has for people from the Chicago. I’d meet studio executives with (IATSE, Local 476 Business Manager) Mark Hogan, and he’s so warmly greeted because he’s been around, worked on so many legendary projects. The work ethic of our crews was always highlighted Mark and IATSE President Bradley Matthys exemplify why our crews are the best in the country. I also got many nice compliments about our tax credit program — which is easy, efficient, and offers a value second to none — a lot of the credit goes to Cesar Lopez and Michele McGee who handle the day –to- day aspects of the program for the Film Office.
 
 

What’s going on with the tax credit? The program sunset date is 2021, but there’s a bill making its way through the legislature this session, and it is absolutely bi-partisan. With so many changes in the industry in the last ten years, it is important to review what is working and what might provide new opportunities. In my opinion, there is no denying the economic benefits of the credit as demonstrated by the data. Since 2012, the Film Office has recorded $2.5 billion in Illinois with nearly half of that in wages. But the real number is much bigger than that. Every person working on a production multiplies the value of the incentive. Everyone hired is also a taxpayer, has housing, buys groceries, etc.
 
 

What else motivates people to shoot here? We’re really on the map as a stable, full-service production center. Our trade unions — Local 476 and SAG — are the best in the country, and you cannot underestimate the value of all the soundstages that have been developed in the last ten years. We also have an awesome acting community that I think is better than New York because these are people who come from, and are working theatrical actors the theater, and that training is second to none.

Bottom line: people like working and living here.
 
 

How does the Film Office help productions? The Film Office is the gateway to government. We’re there to be a partner to filmmakers and eliminate the barriers of bureaucracy while maintaining the integrity of the film tax credit program. It’s important to offer good client service and always try to find solutions.

There were many times where people would call and ask for our guidance on various issues related to locations, regulations, etc. I would tell them don’t stop your production, let me go and find the answer or resolution. They might not always you like the answer, but we will get you an answer. There are a lot of fun stories I could tell you but I don’t want to go on the record with those.

We also helped establish and nurture a lot of relationships. When a production is interested in filming in Illinois, we would respond as if the project were getting ready to start principal photography and provide whatever information they needed. Even if they ended up going somewhere else, we made sure they had a good experience. The film community is very small, word gets around and the value of our services makes a positive impression for future productions.
 
 

What did you enjoy most about the position? It was the great convergence of everything I knew in life — government and politics combined with my modest background in production. I really loved the public policy, the legislation, and problem solving.

I always tried to stay away from “hot” sets, but I did make one request, and that was to meet Kelsey Grammar when he was filming Fox’s, Proven Innocent. UPM James McAllister, God bless him, made that happen. Kelsey and I had a wonderful conversation — he couldn’t have been lovelier — and I sent a picture of the two of us to my mother, because she’s a huge Kelsey fan too.
 
 

What’s next for Christine Dudley? I’m looking forward to the next chapter, but first I’m taking a breather after four-and-a-half intense, go-getting years. I’m grateful for the time I was at the IFO, including the time with the current administration. We put together great opportunities. The industry is solidified. It’s strong. But it’s also good to have fresh eyes.
 
 

What is the greatest challenge for the office moving forward? Competition. Keeping an eye on the competition, putting our best foot forward, and making adjustments when necessary. There are lots of wonderful things happening out there, but we’ve got to keep an eye on that pipeline — states like New Jersey and elsewhere are trying to increase their incentives.

We also need to increase financial support for indie film developers. The Illinois tech community put itself on the map — and a lot of that credit goes to the current Governor — but indie film still struggles to find access to capital. We explored a lot of different things, and there are a lot of good people examining opportunities, but the investor mindset is not necessarily there. I wish I could wave that magic wand and find the solution. And we’d also love to see more actual writers rooms.

The good news — people are continuing to try. Brian and Jan Hieggelke are doing great work on this front. Most recently, they produced Jennifer Reeder’s movie, Knives and Skin. The film is getting great buzz and reviews on festival circuit.

Film is the ultimate innovative and entrepreneurial industry. It creates jobs, and requires thousands of vendors. In Illinois, it represents the shift from an agrarian commodities based economy to a service and innovation economy. We very much still have room to grow. But I don’t call it a challenge, I call it an opportunity.

 
Send your film updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.

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