Knight Moves: How Filmmakers Turned Chicago into Gotham City

FROM FEBRUARY 2009: With imagination, verve, and a hefty package of financial incentives, the makers of the latest Batman epic turned Chicago into Gotham City, giving our town a starring role in razzle-dazzle chases and heart-stopping stunts. Now, the movie stands as a contender for Academy Award hardware. What’s the payoff here?

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Even without the fascination surrounding Ledger’s death, anticipation for the opening of The Dark Knight, fueled by a viral marketing campaign and breathless hype, would have built to a frenzy. And in Chicago, the city’s starring role in the movie only added to the fever of expectation. At the movie’s premiere in Chicago, hundreds of die-hard fans waited for hours in the sweltering evening heat to glimpse three of the film’s stars—Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Chin Han—as they walked the red carpet en route to the Imax theatre at Navy Pier. The next night, the movie rolled out across the country, with midnight screenings in sold-out theatres packed with lucky fans—many sipping energy drinks to stay awake, others costumed as the Joker or other Dark Knight characters—who had snapped up tickets weeks in advance.

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CHICAGO AS GOTHAM CITY »
Photos and behind-the-scenes tidbits about scenes shot throughout the city

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With some theatres offering 72 straight hours of screenings, the movie shattered the box office record for an opening weekend, previously held by Spiderman III. In the coming months The Dark Knight would rake in about $1 billion in theatres worldwide—the fourth-highest sum of all time, and a figure that will climb when sales are tallied from a limited re-release on Imax screens in late January. Sales of the DVD, which hit stores in early December, will add many millions more to the movie’s total gross.

For its part, Chicago can count up its own Dark Knight bounty. The city film office proudly points out that the production poured $35.6 million into the local economy. Some $18 million of that money went to payroll for 900 crew members and 88 actors; $17 million more went to hundreds of Illinois vendors, covering everything from hotels and restaurants to space, equipment, and vehicle rentals to the services of caterers, construction companies, and off-duty Chicago police officers and firefighters.

Boosted by the haul from The Dark Knight, total spending on all film production in Illinois came to $155 million in 2007, the state’s best year ever. Clearly, making movies has become big business here. But it’s also important to other states, at least 40 of which now offer their own incentives in the cutthroat competition for Hollywood business. In May of last year, Michigan stormed ahead of its peers by upping its subsidy for film production work to about 40 percent. Not coincidentally, the number of movies shot in the state surged, generating total spending there of about $350 million—dwarfing Illinois’s record-breaking 2007 and prompting Lars Ullberg, president of the advocacy group Illinois Production Alliance, to complain in October to the Chicago Tribune that Illinois was “hemorrhaging dollars, literally, to Michigan.”

The following month, with Illinois’s 20-percent subsidy set to expire at the end of 2008, the Tribune opined that it was a “priority” to ensure Hollywood’s continued bounty by extending the state’s film production incentive. A few days later, state lawmakers voted almost unanimously to boost the state’s tax credit from 20 to 30 percent and to strike down the sunset provision that had required an annual vote to renew the credit. The day following the vote, the Sun-Times entertainment columnist Bill Zwecker offered his “kudos” for the passage of the legislation.

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But not everyone thinks it is wise public policy to use the state’s tax system to favor just one high-profile industry—especially when that industry is hardly hurting for money and when the state’s own finances are in such shambles. “I don’t think we should be subsidizing a very lucrative business at all,” says John Nothdurft, a legislative specialist in tax and budget issues at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that promotes free-market ideas. “What you’re doing is saying the film industry is more important than other industries or companies. Is that really a wise use of taxpayer money?”

Politicians are suckers for the “glitz and glamour of Hollywood,” he says, because, with a film like The Dark Knight, “they can say, ‘Look, I brought you this great movie.’ It’s a very visual thing they can show voters, constituents, and taxpayers—a real feather in their cap.” They can also tout the jobs they’re creating, the money they’re bringing in.

What’s missing from the discussion is a bottom-line analysis of the cost of those revenues. Nothdurft cites two studies—one from an economist in Louisiana’s Legislative Fiscal Office, the other by a public policy center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston—that conclude that the economic stimulus generated by taxpayer-subsidized film production is negligible, and an inefficient allocation of scarce state resources. The jobs they generate are temporary—hardly an effective way to build an economy, he says. And the money that moviemakers spend locally represents “fleeting moments of economic growth, not long-term sustainable economic growth.”

Such work would be fine, he says, if the state weren’t relinquishing 30 cents in tax revenue for every local dollar spent by filmmakers—especially when the state is “running a huge budget deficit. They should be tightening their belts rather than throwing more money at Hollywood.”

Rich Moskal responds that the tax incentive is intended to create jobs and boost business in Illinois. Subsidizing film production, he argues, “is no less legitimate than incentivizing the building of a factory or the relocation of a corporate headquarters.” And filmmakers bring benefits to the state in addition to economic punch. “By showcasing Chicago and Illinois on big screens all over the world, the industry offers publicity that generates tourism and attracts other businesses,” he says.

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The pros and cons of tax incentives were far from the minds of the crew on the set of The Dark Knight back on that evening in late July 2007 as they stared at the 18-wheeler lying supine on LaSalle Street. After the euphoria of flipping the truck had worn off and shooting had wrapped for the night, they still had to get that 40-foot behemoth out of there. The plan had been to hoist the mangled wreckage onto a flatbed truck and cart it to a warehouse, but it had never occurred to anyone that a truck sitting atop a truck might not fit under the el tracks surrounding the Loop. A moment of panic ensued as crew members pondered the repercussions of leaving the wreckage downtown. On a production that had operated all summer with the crisp precision of a military campaign, it was a rare moment of disarray.

Eventually they decided to go for it, hauling the wreck gingerly toward the underpass at Wells and Madison. Before attempting passage, though, crew members clambered on top and hammered down stray shards of steel—just enough, it turned out, to clear the underpass with barely an inch to spare. The night’s work was finally done. Tomorrow there would be Batmobiles to race and explosives to detonate and high-wire acting to perform—the hard work of making movie magic.

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