Chicago TV: Hollywood Shooting Blows Into the Windy City

2012-38 BKLOT Chicago Fire H

“It’s easier being the mayor than playing the mayor,” said Rahm Emanuel (right), with producer Dick Wolf on the "Chicago Fire" set.

After "The Dark Knight" gave it new cachet, series like "Chicago Fire," "Boss" and "Shameless" rushed in, boosting production spending in Illinois.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Back in December, when Universal Television was debating whether to shoot NBC's new series Chicago Fire full time in Chicago or keep the studio work in Los Angeles, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn sprang to action, intervening and requesting a meeting with the studio's execs and the show's producers. As a result of that personal touch, says Chicago Fire executive producer and Wolf Films president Peter Jankowski, "we are able to film Chicago Fire where it ought to be: Chicago." The show was even rewarded with a cameo by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who swooped in to shake a fictional firefighter's hand in the pilot episode.

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These days, that type of hard push for Hollywood production dollars is not unusual in Chicago. "John Hughes put us on the map in the 1980s and '90s," says Illinois Film Office managing director Betsy Steinberg of the producer and director behind Ferris Bueller's Day Off. "But so much has happened since then." In 2011, boosted by the presence of the next Superman movie, Man of Steel, film and TV productions spent $154 million in the state.

In 2012, television auteurs have taken over. Aided by one of the mildest winters on record, three shows in addition to Chicago Fire shot full time on location in the Windy City: the Starz political drama Boss; the new Fox drama The Mob Doctor; and Underemployed, MTV's foray into high-quality hourlong dramedy. Those four shows alone contributed $92 million to the local economy. Additionally, Warner Bros. and Showtime's Shameless spent several weeks in Chicago for its second season, and the Denis Leary-driven USA Network comedy Sirens will begin shooting its pilot in late October.

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Why the city's sudden popularity? Aside from the political support, Chicago's reputation received a boost from Christopher Nolan's 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight, which transformed its image from that of Hughes-era suburban naivete to a site for darker, edgier allegories about our ethically murky world. "The Dark Knight definitely made the city cool again," says Mob Doctor producer Rob Wright. "It reinforced the notion of Chicago as a legitimate city."

Boss creator Farhad Safinia agrees, but he notes that generous Illinois production incentives, in place since 2008, haven't hurt either. The 30 percent across-the-board tax credit has steered enough projects to Chicago to develop the crews necessary for ambitious productions.

"It was really important for us to have a varied look," says Safinia. "We wanted to be able to go out into the street and shoot anywhere. You need people who are really bloody good to be able to do that. You don't want to blow your money on things that don't show up on screen. With the crews and location scouts in Chicago, it was like a kid in a candy store."

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"The city is gorgeous," adds Wright. "In a very small area, you've got fantastic architecture, the lake, the river, skyscrapers, bare industrial wasteland. Go out of town a bit, and you've got farmland. Michael Dinner, who shot our pilot, has said that there's not a bad angle in Chicago. And he's right."

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Chicago famously stood in for Batman's Gotham City in Chistopher Nolan's 2005 film Batman Begins and its 2008 follow-up The Dark Knight. Now another superhero has taken over the town: In the newest edition of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel, which Warner Bros. will release June 14, Chicago has been made over as Metropolis.

Steel location manager James McAllister says the production, which completed principal photography in March, required several "pretty sizable" street closures in downtown Chicago. At one point, while shooting exterior scenes of The Daily Planet, the crew had to contend with a massive convention at a nearby Hyatt hotel. "But it went flawlessly," he says. "The framework is there to accommodate projects of any size. It's definitely a film-friendly town."

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Most of the production was focused in Chicago's dense urban core. Lois Lane's exterior apartment scenes were shot in the luxurious, but largely unphotographed, lakefront neighborhood of Streeterville. But for Superman's hometown of Smallville, the production shifted to Plano, Ill.

"Downtown Chicago," says McAllister, "has got architecture that can take you from the teens and '20s up through the future. It has a constantly evolving urban feel."