How Illinois Is Training Future Generations of Filmmakers
In “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner’s Iowa farmer, haunted by mysterious whispered intonations of, “If you build it, he will come,” plows under part of his property to construct a baseball field.
In the real world, though, infrastructure is somewhat meaningless without skilled workers. That’s why Illinois is so intent on strengthening its development and education programs, to both boost local economic numbers and help create a trained crew base that will entice productions to commit to the state.
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“If you don’t have a workforce you don’t have an industry,” says Ashley Rice, co-managing partner and president of Cinespace. “So it’s all about workforce development, and creating jobs and pipelines for more crew to be available to be hired locally.”
Of course, ambitious plans take a village. So it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to creating more visible pathways of entrance. In 2019, Illinois Film Office director Peter Hawley persuaded the Illinois General Assembly to set aside $500,000 for a pilot film and TV workforce training program for 2020. The schedule for that grant was set back for two years by COVID, but it proved a success, upskilling approximately 90 students — more than 70% of whom landed paying industry jobs. Rolled over for 2023, it added 125 more students in training this winter and spring, and starting in July there will be an ongoing training program tied to Illinois’ expanded production tax credit through 2032.
Along with government efforts, there are also industry training programs working hand-in-hand with labor organizations.
“Our program, I think, is blossoming,” says Michael Scott Jr., director of industry and community relations at Cinespace Studios, which sponsors a workforce development program called CineCares, pairing young people with below-the-line professionals to help them learn the business from the ground up. Since 2017, more than 70 trainees have gone through the program, and over 50% of those trained in union positions have been invited to join the union.
“Tony Barracca has been a stalwart and champion for this program,” Scott says. “This is something that is really helping to diversify and bring folks from underrepresented communities into this industry.” The growth is everywhere, reflective of a holistic approach to answering the industry’s call for an expanded workforce. According to Barracca, business manager secretary treasurer of IATSE Local 476, union membership has grown from 750 in 2009 to 2,050 in 2022, with 40% of that total now under 34 years of age.
Meanwhile, institutes of higher education offer their own strong industry pathways. Schools including DePaul University and Columbia College Chicago, of course, boast established and highly rated film programs. Second City Film School also has a variety of programs specializing in the development of comedic content and production.
Additionally, Augustana College in northwest Illinois is in the process of establishing an undergraduate film program that will focus on training industry professionals informed on film and TV history, as well as production in multiple forms. “Students will graduate with a robust production portfolio in hand that will represent their own aesthetic and creative vision and skill level as a member of a team,” says Stacy Barton, associate professor and film program director.
As for the future, while touting colleges as a great springboard for talent, various community stakeholders are also eyeing peer-to-peer mentorship programs and even a potential film production class curriculum in high schools to further solidify community relationships and the local pipeline to union positions. “The membership is strong and we’re ready for more,” Barracca says.
“Our industry is not a 9-to-5 regular job — we are unique in the hours that we work, the locations, the conditions,” says Cinespace’s Rice. “But at the same time we can offer an incredibly enriching job experience for people.”
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