Reel Women: Angie Gaffney, Executive Director at IFA Chicago, film producer

Angie Gaffney
Angie Gaffney

Editor’s Note: They are leaders. They are inspirational. They are mentors. They are visionaries. They are, quite frankly, badasses. They are our 2022 REEL WOMEN. During Women’s History Month, you will be able to meet these incredible personalities in Advertising, Entertainment, Media and Production. Women like Angie Gaffney are making “Herstory.”

Strong, confident, capable, Angie Gaffney is a true renaissance woman who happily shares her love of learning, exploring, and creating with the Chicago Indie film community.

As the Executive Director of the Independent Film Alliance of Chicago, Angie ensures that filmmakers and producers have the support they need to succeed and grow. She has worn many hats on a film crew and has produced numerous independent film and TV productions in the greater Chicago area. She is the founder of Black Apple Media, a professor at Second City’s Harold Ramis Film School, a certified Life & Leadership Coach, and has served as Executive Producer at The Onion, where she was instrumental in the development of Onion Labs, The Onion’s branded content agency, overseeing production and execution of all video content, web series, commercial initiatives, and client relationships.

What’s your origin story?
I’ll give you the short version. Always career driven, I lived a dual life as a kid: from ages 6-18, I would spend half the year performing in plays and musical theater and half the year playing competitive softball. I think the combination of both of those really shaped me into the person and producer I am today. I developed a deep, emotional connection with storytelling and performance (forcing my younger siblings to do plays in our basement, naturally), while simultaneously fine-tuning the discipline and team-building skills that go with training for competitive sports. I spent the majority of my childhood and teenage years in Boulder, Colorado and have always felt most at home in the mountains; skiing, hiking, biking, adventuring. While I did grow up with a sort of casual-liberal-Catholic religion, storytelling and mountains have remained the source of my spirituality in my adult life. At the age of 17, I promptly left the ‘Boulder Bubble’ and moved to Chicago to pursue a degree in Digital Cinema at DePaul University. I’ve been here ever since.

How did you get into film industry
When I originally came to DePaul, I knew I wanted to do something in storytelling or communication. I originally enrolled in their Broadcast Journalism program, but promptly switched to film after some friends at Columbia College invited me onto their sets. I give DePaul a lot of credit for my current career: they really empowered me to make my own projects, and supported me in doing so, while also encouraging me to go out and work in the actual industry. I had many mentors and professors who were gracious enough to accommodate me missing a class or two for a PA job or to script supervise a short film. As such, I graduated DePaul with a personal portfolio of short films I had produced, and a rich resume of paid on-set work: I built a community both with my college peers and within the greater film industry at the same time. It was this work in the industry that gathered me my first Unit Production Manager job with The Onion, which led to an Executive Producer offer prior to graduation. After that, myself and a producer named Matt Corrado worked tirelessly to build Onion Labs – the branded content division of The Onion – and I promptly got a crash-course in sales, pitching, and business skills. A year or so later, I returned to the freelance film space – working on feature films, most frequently as a 1st Assistant Director, throughout the region.

In late 2014, my relationship with then-President of Cinespace, Alex Pissios, had grown organically, and he offered me the opportunity to “start an incubator” on the lot. Now called IFA Chicago, our organization has nearly 200 members and is growing quickly.

Most recently, I took some time off from producing films and went through a three-year leadership and life coach certification program while working full time at IFA Chicago. I’m incredibly grateful for the training I received: my leadership, listening, conflict mediation, and communication skills have increased significantly, and the break from raising money for films (let’s be real, that shit is hard) has helped me fall in love with producing all over again. Now, in addition to the work at IFA, I’m looking forward to pursuing feature films in the years to come.

Who were your mentors?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have many mentors throughout my life. I’d say the single most impactful mentor to-date was my high school softball coach, Coach Tony Bruno. He is a beacon of integrity, teamwork, kindness, and compassion; he taught me how to be a leader, how to work hard, how to get up when I failed. He fundamentally shaped who I was during some really challenging years in my teens. I think I would be a very different person without his mentorship: to this day, he still receives a “Special Thanks” in the credits of every film I’ve ever made. Additional mentors close to my heart include my manager at The Onion – Kurt Mueller, Rosie Burke, Alex Pissios, Betsy Steinberg, and my parents.

While there will be others, what do you consider your biggest achievement to date?
In addition to my two most recent feature film releases (Killing Eleanor and Monuments), I’m most proud of the community organizing work I’ve done at IFA Chicago. I’m really excited for the upcoming slate of programming we’ve put together for our members: it’s all the stuff I wish I had gotten more of in film school, in addition to some tangible development opportunities. To make a real, economic impact in the local Chicago film industry is the goal: where writers, directors, and producers don’t have to relocate to the coasts to pursue the mentorship and business resources they need to advance their careers.

What drives you to create?
Empathy and curiosity. I’m fascinated by the human experience: the diversity of it, the possibilities of it, the nuance and layers of it. To me, making movies is the ultimate adventure – and you never run out of places to go. I also believe that stories directly influence our societal and cultural values – now more than ever. To have an impact on changing the narrative, on challenging beliefs, and to be able to showcase a wide variety of people and backgrounds in service of spreading empathy is, to me, an incredible honor.

What shows are doing the best job of portraying strong women on TV?
To me, strength means allowing space for flaws. To that end, I enjoyed the first season of The Morning Show and the layers of intricacies within the leading women – not all pretty and kind and perfectly packaged, which I appreciated. Big fan of Fleabag, Insecure, and Killing Eve. My partner and I also watch a lot of British and European detective series: Unforgotten is a favorite and actor Nicola Walker brings an incredible combination of strength and vulnerability to her role.

Coffee, Lunch or Happy Hour. Name a famous woman you would like to attend each function with.

Coffee: Chloé Zhao

Lunch: Ava DuVernay

Dinner: Brené Brown

What is the biggest challenge to women in your industry?
Speaking personally, the biggest challenge for me is not always being able to see myself, or my gender identity, in professions I aspire(d) to be in. “See it, be it” is a very true statement: and I aspire to hold positions of power and leadership that are still predominantly held by males. I’m fully confident that I’ll get there, but paving my own way and navigating different rooms and business situations has been a challenge. I write a bit about this in my latest blog post.

If being a woman is your superpower, what is your kryptonite?
Dark chocolate, puppies, and broken nails will always bring me to my knees.

How has having the superpower helped you?
I wouldn’t have it any other way: it’s made me resilient and highly socially and emotionally intuitive – I can read a room and body language in a matter of seconds, and can likely pick up on the thing you’re not saying before you fully know what it is. While this skillset was originally formed to analyze good vs. bad intentions in a room full of older professionals and colleagues (and protect myself in the process), it’s made me an incredible leader, partner, friend, and professional.

When you’re not creating, what do you do in your off time?
I have two dogs that I walk and play with regularly. I’m a huge foodie and will gladly spend a ridiculous amount of money on delicious cuisine, and am also an avid reader of mystery novels. Live blues music is the way to my soul: I do my best to incorporate that regularly, usually followed by a rousing game of hearts or Yahtzee with those closest to me. I travel back to Colorado and to the mountains every chance I get.

Predict your future! Where are you in 5 years?
In addition to continuing to support the Chicago film community and IFA Chicago, I’m running my own film fund and production company, investing in and creating the stories that build a more conscious, empathetic, and progessive society.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest film, TV, advertising, entertainment and production news! Sign up for our free elert here.