How Michael Kutza built an international film festival

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Michael Kutza (photo: Timothy M Schmidt)

Michael Kutza (photo: Timothy M Schmidt)

The founder of the
Chicago International
Film Festival
has made it possible for
millions of moviegoers
to enjoy nearly
11,000 films since 1964

 
It is impossible to appreciate Chicago cinema without acknowledging the impact of Michael Kutza — founder of both the Chicago International Film Festival and the Chicago Television Festival — who announced in May that he would be retiring at the end of the year.

Born and raised in the Austin neighborhood on the city’s west side, Kutza has helped roughly a million moviegoers enjoy nearly 11,000 films in the Windy City since 1964.

Luckily for cinema fans, he did not pursue the career path favored by his parents.

“I come from a family of doctors: mother, father, aunt, uncle.” he explains. “They wanted me to be a doctor.”

Kutza stuck with his parents’ preference all the way to the pre-med program at Loyola University, where he attempted to simultaneously study and hold down a freelance gig doing camera work at WGN.

It soon became apparent which of the two he preferred.

“As I was quietly being thrown out of Loyola,” he recalls, “my dad said ‘you’re still going to be a doctor, aren’t you?’”

In many ways, his parents had been driving him to the movies all along. His father collected classic 16 mm films — Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplain — while his mother often took a Bolex camera on the medical conventions she attended around the world.

“She’d bring back this film and say, ‘develop it and make it into something,’” he recalls. “So I started putting these movies together: editor, music, the whole thing.”

Mrs. Kutza had also helped her son gain entry into one of the city’s most exclusive social cliques.

“Since an early age, I was already hanging around with older people,” he recalls. “My mother would introduce me, and this one lady, one of her patients, said ‘well, we’ll take you to this place called the Chez Paree.’”

Located in a warehouse at Fairbanks and Ontario, Chez Paree was “Chicago’s first major full blown-out nightclub,” recalls Kutza.

Regular attendees included movie stars like Jimmy Durante and Sophie Tucker, writers like the Sun Times columnist Irv Kupcinet, and media personalities like WMAQ radio host Jack Eigen, who broadcast his show from the club.

Kutza, who “must have been nine-years-old” the first time he visited the venue, got to know them all.

When he was a college-bound teenager, Kutza’s father took him on a tour through Europe. Besides bonding with his son, the elder hoped to reinforce the younger’s commitment to the medical profession.

That’s not necessarily how it worked out.

“I saw this whole world and saw films in those countries too and started to see, you know, Chicago’s really this hick town,” he recalls. “I can change something here … with (my father’s) help, of course, while I was still becoming a doctor, you know. I had to lie.”

Four years and two colleges later (he attended Northwestern after leaving Loyola), Kutza stepped onto the path that he would follow for the next 50 years.

“I would say there were about five founders back then,” he says. “We all sat down figured out how to put the formula together for the very first Chicago International Film Festival.”

They brought loads of enthusiasm and a commitment to work hard, but not much more.

“We couldn’t find money and we didn’t really have any connections,” he continues. “So I went to a Irv Kupcinet, my mentor.”

Kupcinet put Kutza in touch with actor Colleen Moore, one of the most successful stars to transition from silent films to talkies.

Moore hosted a salon of sorts in her apartment just a few blocks away from the Ambassador East, where celebrities from New York to Los Angeles would often sojourn before continuing on.

“I’d go Colleen’s house for lunch, and you’d have Myrna Loy or Joan Crawford,” he recalls. “She became my new mother, and I was tagging along, this cute kid learning it all.”

Under Moore’s guidance, he began to fashion the Chicago International Film Festival. Along the way, she also introduced him to Chicago advertising leaders like Fairfax Cone, who later became the “C” in “FCB,” and Leo Burnett (yes, the Leo Burnett) who offered advice that widened his vision.

“Mr. Burnett said, ‘you’re going to honor all these films, and you should also honor television commercials because they’re the hardest things to make in the world,” Kutza remembers. “Our little movies take just as long as your fancy feature films and they’re more complicated, and we tell better stories in sixty seconds than you do in two hours.”

Kutza has honored television commercials as part of the Chicago Television Festival, founded concurrently with the Film Festival, ever since.

 
REEL CHICAGO VISITS THE CHICAGO TELEVISION FESTIVAL

 

The inaugural Chicago International Film Festival and Chicago International Television Festivals took place at the Carnegie Theater in 1964. Guests included Betty Davis, Stanley Kramer, and King Vidor. Over the next half-century, the annual celebrations would host directors and actors like Martin Scorsese and Willem Dafoe, collaborate with writers like Roger Ebert, and premiere films from all over the world.

The Chicago International Film Festival’s Summer Gala at the Loews Hotel tomorrow night is dedicated to “the 55-year career and upcoming retirement of Founder and CEO, Michael Kutza.”

The evening’s Honorary Chairs are Governor Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. Special guests include Kathleen Turner, Andrew Davis, and Paula Wagner. Terrence Howard, Steve James, Jack Newell, and Joe and Kris Swanberg are also slated to attend.

For more information about the festival and the gala, click here.

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