Judy Baar Topinka: The film industry’s great friend

When she held the office of State Treasurer, Judy Baar Topinka, who died Tuesday of a stroke, was the Illinois film industry’s great financial friend. 

In looking for new, efficient ways to benefit the state, in 2001 she set up “Lights, Camera, Illinois!” (LCI) the only state-sponsored loan program for filmmakers in the U.S.

  “I believe strongly in all the great talent here,” Topinka said when she launched LCI, “and I’m hoping our program will be the seed that inspires growth in the industry throughout the state. 

“We want to build a base to increase production through the financial institutions, filmmakers and the film offices,” she said. 

In its six years of operation, LCI loaned production funds to 16 locally-made features, with budgets ranging from $300,000 to the cap of $10 million.

From 2001 through 2007, Lights, Camera, Illinois! loaned an approved amount to a participating state bank at 1.5% interest. The bank was allowed to charge no more than 3% additional interest on its loan, thus guaranteeing the filmmaker a maximum 4.5% interest rate. The borrower had a maximum of five years to repay the loan.

Applicants were required to make 75% of below-the-line hires and 75% of purchases within the state, and could only apply for projects “free of gratuitous sex and violence.”

The Treasurer visibly and enthusiastically promoted the program.  She often attended industry events and her Chicago office was a regular meeting place for producers, legislators and the film offices to discuss ways to expand the business.

By 2005, LCI was going strong.  “We’re here to provide independent filmmakers the opportunity to make their films,” said program administrator Chuck Hagopian, speaking at an SRO workshop to familiarize indie filmmakers with the program and encourage their use of it.

At the workshop, Stephen Collins, president of Los Angeles-based Billian Entertainment, said that the $10 million loan his company had been awarded was instrumental, along with the tax credit, in attracting Billian’s feature, “Realms Beyond,” to shoot in the state that summer.

If Topinka, a Republican, had not lost her office in the 2007 election when she unsuccessfully ran for governor, LCI that year would have loaned production funds to six more approved films.

LCI was put on hold for a few months until the new treasurer had could review it and similar loan programs. While it was never revived, the program demonstrated Topinka’s determination to make a relatively simple program work for the benefit of the film industry and the state.