There's a visual-media sea change happening in Chicago right now. A growing crop of local production companies—focused on creating webseries, short films, and even commercials—is providing new opportunities for people of diverse races, sexualities, and genders.
Open TV, launched in December 2014, has excelled with its latest slate of programming. Brown Girls, the subject of a recent Reader feature story, is a series featuring a cast that consists entirely of minorities and has been called "revolutionary" by Elle magazine and the "next binge-worthy web series" by BET. Brujos, a show focused on four gay, Latino doctoral candidates—who are also witches—was recently applauded by Vice for its ability to combine politics and horror.
And Open TV has demonstrated that it's possible to promote intersectional voices without lots of money. It provides some funding for a limited amount of projects through its partner production company, Under the Spell Productions, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization tasked with advancing diversity in the arts. However, none of Open TV's in-house production budgets have exceeded $5,000, and most are less than $3,000. The projects it chooses are scaled for a low budget: small crews, minimal locations, and few special effects. It relies on collaborators for music, art direction, sets, and costume design to keep costs down. And its crews tend to be made up of people who are more focused on telling diverse stories than on profiting from them.
The success of Open TV has cleared a path for Women of the Now, a new production and event company that according to its Facebook page is "committed to creating content with female driven narratives and strong, complex female characters." It's committed to change behind the camera as well: the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film reports that women made up only 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers who worked on the 250 top-grossing domestic films of 2016.
WOTN is hosting a series of workshops and initiatives this spring intended to help women develop their production skills and strengthen their voices in a male-dominated industry. "There's a camera workshop where we're going to encourage a bunch of femmes to sit down and learn more of the technical end of the camera," says Laura Day, WOTN's creative producer. "The industry can be intimidating to, kind of, talk shop with boys. There's a lot of patronizing, and I don't even think people realize it." To encourage women to take on production roles, WOTN conducts social outreach and creates safe spaces for women to learn more about the film industry's typically male-filled tech positions.
WOTN is focused on intersectional feminism and is open to all femme-identified, nonbinary cis and trans people. The group's founder and creative director, Layne Marie Williams, moved to Chicago almost two years ago and brought WOTN with her. Prior to that she lived in Philadelphia, where she studied acting and founded the Women's Film Festival.
"I'm originally from Alabama, and then I moved to Philly and studied acting," Williams says. "I really fell into the film world entirely by accident. I made movies when I was 15, but, you know, I was like hiding in a closet with my best friend making movies with Barbie dolls. Nobody ever told me, 'Hey, you could be a filmmaker someday, or you could be a director, or you could create platforms for people like you someday.' That was never presented to me as an option."
The lack of encouragement for women interested in the technical aspects of film production is what motivated Williams to create WOTN. When she made the move to Chicago is was with the intention of doing something more with it.
"Chicago is such a great place to manifest this renaissance of intersectional platforms and media work for me," she says. "I had heard that there were solid opportunities for filmmakers here. Moving to Chicago was a spontaneous and organic decision."
So what is it about Chicago that engenders such distinct storytelling and production methods? "I think every city has people who want intersectional programming, it's just that Chicago has some institutions that will actually support it and make space for it as well," says Aymar Jean Christian, founder of Open TV. Unlike the large and competitive atmospheres of New York and LA, there's a communal sense of support across Chicago. "Open TV's done probably 30 events in the city, and we've never really had a difficult time getting organizations to give us that space so we can program," Christian says.
Open TV recently started its first writers' workshop to help incubate scripts created by queer people of color. Its members meet biweekly at the Chicago Cultural Center, where artist Aram Han Sifuentes agreed to share her space with the group. "If we were in New York or LA or a space that was more competitive, another artist wouldn't have let us use their studio for a writers' workshop," Christian says. "We would've had to find our own space. The Cultural Center was pretty cool about that, and it's a pretty laid-back space. . . . The more space you have the more programming you can do, and the more ways you can try and combat other difficulties like segregation."
Chicago is criticized, fairly, for its segregation; Open TV and WOTN hope to act as bridges between neighborhoods in the city. Day says she hopes WOTN tears down Chicago's north side-south side division. "I come from this really conservative advertising background of being like, 'No, we're stronger if we pull these people in,'" she says. "There are a bunch of people who would never know what's going on at this random artist loft on a Thursday, but they're missing some really good shit. Let's give them the avenues they need to support us. We want to encourage people to get in touch with us." Williams agrees. "There's a lot of beauty and range in what's happening all around the city," she says. "I've certainly been very impressed with the authenticity and wide range of possibilities for the community to get involved."
Reaching across neighborhoods still presents challenges. Even though Chicago has communities that have helped Open TV and WOTN thrive, both production companies have still run into their fair share of issues. "The magical thing about the Women's Film Festival in Philadelphia that I think is kind of different from Chicago is that it just inherently was intersectional," Williams says. "We didn't have to go searching for [diversity], it just was within our network. With [WOTN], we've had to make sure in our mission statement that it is inclusive, it is intersectional, it is all-encompassing. It's bigger than just a video and event production company, it's a movement that femmes can identify with."
Of course, funding and space are constant issues. Intersectional communities are often faced with difficult socioeconomic circumstances and are inordinately affected by gentrification. Yet according to a 2015 report on gentrification in America by the magazine Governing Data, cities like New York, LA, and Philadelphia are gentrifying at nearly twice the rate Chicago is. Christian credits the slow pace of gentrification in Chicago with incubating long-term artistic communities, but he points out that artists often leave for the coasts once they hit a creative ceiling in the city. In the end, Chicago simply doesn't have the same creative professional or financial opportunities that other locales can offer.
How does Christian hope to address this? "I want to see folks who have left for the coasts coming back, and funders to realize that the coasts are saturated and very difficult for artists to live in and for intersectional communities to live in," he says. "So they need to start looking outside of those cities to support innovative and community-minded work. And I think Chicago is really the perfect place to start that. I think if you're interested in doing community-based work, come to Chicago. Fund Chicago." v