Treasurer boosts Lights, Camera, Illinois! loan program with six new films on tap

The Lights, Camera, Illinois! program is poised within the next two months to add as many as six films to the roster of eight that have been awarded the low interest loan.

Program administrator Chuck Hagopian described the increase in loan awards as part of an overall effort by State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka’s office to aggressively promote Illinois production through the program.

Hagopian was speaking at the Low Down on Low Interest Loans workshop co-sponsored by IFP/Chicago and, moderated by Ruth L Ratny of ReelChicago and held July 20 at Columbia College.

Many attendees in the near-capacity audience indicated they had films ready to go with budgets up to $20 million.

“We’re here to provide independent filmmakers the opportunity to make their films,” Hagopian said. “We want to build a base [to increase production] through the financial institutions, filmmakers and the film offices.”

Hagopian said Topinka’s commitment to the program extended beyond the loan awards, and that Topinka would work alongside Mayor Richard Daley’s office to provide PR opportunities and other forms of support to make productions possible.

Stephen Collins, president of Los Angeles-based Billian Entertainment, said at the workshop that the $10 million loan that the treasurer’s office had awarded his company was instrumental, along with the state’s recently renewed tax credit, in attracting Billian to shoot their film “Realms Beyond” here this summer.

“We see this as an extraordinary opportunity,” Collins said. “We’re hoping to roll on our second project almost immediately [after ?Realms Beyond’]. We have the capacity to bring five to seven productions to shoot here. We can have 1,000 to 1,500 union employees working at any given time.”

Neil Luspo of Urban Entertainment, whose “My Phamily BBQ 2” started shooting July 20 with a $300,000 loan from Lights, Camera, Illinois!, said at the workshop that he already had another project in the pipeline for a loan.

Hagopian said the treasurer’s office was considering lifting the $10 million cap currently placed on loans from the program, as well as adding a requirement that qualifying projects must spend 75% of their rental costs in Illinois. Applicants are currently required to make 75% of below-the-line hires and 75% of purchases within the state, and can only apply for projects “free of gratuitous sex and violence.”

Hagopian stressed that the treasurer’s office has relaxed the collateral requirements for loan eligibility. “You have to show some capacity to repay the loan,” he said. “But do you need $1 million in collateral to qualify for a $1 million loan? No.”

Billian was able to secure its loan thanks in part to the company’s massive library of 1,000 films. Luspo said Urban qualified thanks to stars BernNadette Stanis (“Good Times”) and Clifton Davis (“Amen”), and an advance video deal with York Entertainment, for whom “My Phamily BBQ” was the top-rented independent comedy title last year.

The only state-sponsored low-interest loan program for filmmakers in the U.S., Lights, Camera, Illinois! operates by lending the awarded amount to a participating bank at 1.5% interest, allowing the bank to charge no more than 3% additional interest, thus guaranteeing the filmmaker a maximum 4.5% interest rate.

Hagopian acknowledged that few local banks have experience in the entertainment business, and many of these financial institutions are hesitant to lend to inherently high-risk film productions. He said the treasurer’s office was reaching out to banks to promote the program, and was planning to fly in entertainment bankers from the coasts to educate local bankers about opportunities in the industry.

Once a filmmaker has a letter of credit from a bank and submits an application, budget, and screenplay or treatment, the treasurer’s office convenes a panel the first Monday of each month to approve or deny each application. The loan is awarded in one lump sum, and the filmmaker must begin making payments immediately. The loan period is two years for feature films, with three optional one-year renewals.

Past loans recipients have included D.A. Bullock’s “Dark” ($300,000), Pete Jones’ “Outing Riley” ($500,000).

While it has been awarded only to features so far, Lights, Camera, Illinois! also takes applications for TV and commercial productions, with a cap of $5 million and $2 million, and a loan period of 18 months and six months, respectively.