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 Erica Duffy are making “Herstory.”
Erica Duffy is the sole owner of Camera Ambassador, the only woman-owned rental house in the Midwest and she is the mama bear of the whole operation. Erica loves connecting with clients, collaborators, and people alike. She is very active in the Chicago film community and recently accepted the role as Executive Director of The Midwest Film Festival.
Erica also funds, and is the host of the annual Community Builders Grant. They are in their third year now and it’s been incredible to see each winner’s project come to life and find success.
Along with being an aerial yoga enthusiast, she is an incredible trip planner and was likely a world renowned travel agent in a former life.
What’s your origin story?
I grew up in New Hampshire where production companies and film sets were not around every corner. I didn’t really even think about how a movie or commercial was made. I ended up actually going into the medical field though, as it seemed like an obvious choice because I really love caring for people. After graduation, I quickly became bored with the nuances of working in the same office and essentially doing the same thing day in and day out. I went through an “early-life-crisis” and sold everything but what would fit into my Volkswagon Golf and moved out to San Francisco. I had no idea what my plan was, but looking back everything was exactly as it was supposed to be.
How did you get into the film business?
I saw this incredible movie, Samsara, that was the first movie that really made me curious about how it was made. From there, my partner and I started buying and selling used camera equipment through e-commerce, as there was a market there for it, but also as a way for us to learn and gain access to lots of different types of equipment very quickly. We ended up relocating to Chicago about a year after we had started that and we were fortunate to have met a lot of local filmmakers. At that point though, I didn’t even know rental houses existed so when my friends started asking to borrow cameras I had in stock if they weren’t sold by the time their shoot dates came around, I was again curious! I learned about the market from them and decided that I wanted to marry all my skillsets and passions from helping people to business into one big endeavor. We launched the Camera Ambassador rentals division in 2014 and always focused on designing it from the perspective of the filmmaker.
While there will be others, what do you consider your biggest achievement to date?
I am really proud to be the sole owner of Camera Ambassador and proud of the female filmmaker, leader, and business owner I have grown to be.
In addition, I was in my role at Midwest Film Festival as Executive Director for just over 4 months before we went into full quarantine lockdown. The biggest blessing looking back was that in those four months we had an extremely accelerated schedule to re-brand and re-launch the fest. At the end of February, we hosted a sold-out Film Fair with the Chicago Film Office that really introduced the community to what they could expect from us going forward.
What drives you to create?
It’s so inspiring for me personally to see so many women around me kicking ass in so many different industry roles. Something as little as seeing another woman in a role that you aspire to have gives you hope and confidence that it’s achievable.
Coffee, Lunch or Happy Hour. Name a famous woman you would like to attend each function with.
Coffee: Kim Kardashian
Lunch: Oprah Winfrey
Happy Hour: Beyonce Knowles
What is the biggest challenge to women in your industry?
In most of my experiences, the Chicago film community does a great job of helping and supporting women-run companies. There are so many organizations such as Mezcla Media Collective and Women in Film Chicago that are uplighting and elevating women just like me. I’ve also had so many organizations and filmmakers reach out and highlight me on podcasts, blogs, articles, etc. All of these helps to elevate me and the fact women can have successful and vibrant careers in the film industry.
If being a woman is your superpower, what is your kryptonite?
Daufenbach Camera …. haha no, only joking! I’d say that my kryptonite is sometimes wanting to do too much. If an incredible project or something I see a vision in comes my way, I have a hard time saying “no” or setting boundaries. It’s something I’ve definitely gotten better about over the years and I think in some ways it has served me and allowed me to grow very quickly, but I know it’s not sustainable long term.
How has having the superpower helped you?
I hope that Camera Ambassador as a woman-owned rental house allows other women and especially younger filmmakers to see themselves. Also, the rental house can be an intimidating space, but it doesn’t have to be and one of the most effective ways to achieve this is to offer things like free gear demos and preps, have a diverse group of people working in the space such as women and BIPOC, and create a culture that fosters community.
When you’re not creating, what do you do in your off time?
I love spending time with the people I love – family and friends, and my fiance. I love being outdoors, planning unique and authentic trips, traveling, playing with my mini golden doodle cashew, decorating, shopping, going out to dinner, seeing live entertainment such as magic shows and burlesque, and sleeping!
Predict your future! Where are you in 5 years?
In five years I hope to have some little munchkins running around. I’ve focused for a long time on my career and I really yearn to be a mom. I also hope to be bi-city and permanently escape Chicago winters. Otherwise, though, I hope and think my life will be pretty similar. I plan to run Camera Ambassador for a long time and continue my work as a woman creator, pushing boundaries, creating industry norms, and supporting other under-represented filmmakers.
BONUS QUESTION for Erica Duffy:
As someone so involved in the Chicago film scene, what do you feel makes Chicago special as a film city and what do you hope to see grow within the Chicago film industry in the future?
It’s absolutely the people and their passion that make Chicago special as a film city. Chicago isn’t always considered the easiest place to work. Obviously, snowpocalypse and frigid temperatures aren’t for the faint of heart, but I think if you have the drive and hustle the opportunities are endless. Cities like New York and Los Angeles are already so defined by industry culture and who’s who. Chicago is a huge incubator that allows creators to discover their craft and learn how to rise to the top. I don’t think I could have ever accomplished what I have in another city, and for that, I’ll always be indebted to give back to the filmmakers and community here. There are a number of ways that I hope to see Chicago grow. I always look at the industry eco-system here from the top-down, because if there’s money and growth at the top, then everything else trickles down. We need more investors and film funders here, more studio space, and an expanded tax credit. We also need more resources for indie production like grants and mentorship. From where we were 8 years ago when I started working in the Chicago film industry until now we have already come so far, and I fully believe we’re just getting started!