It may seem like a slam dunk for a superstar theatre company to branch out into independent film. In the 32 years since starting in the basement of a church school in Highland Park, Steppenwolf has built a roster of actors and connections while burnishing a notable brand. But the decision to base the movie branch in Chicago, with its up-and-down film industry, is risky—as is the decision to enter the movie business at all. Still, the founders say they wouldn’t have it any other way. "We’re using Chicago talent and Chicago resources and hopefully Chicago content as well," says Tim Evans, the executive director of Northlight Theatre, who cofounded Steppenwolf Films alongside the theatre’s founding trio: Terry Kinney, Gary Sinise, and Jeff Perry. "We have our roots and our name here."
They also have their work cut out for them. "The big difference is you’re playing with, you know, millions as opposed to hundreds and thousands [of dollars]," says Kinney. And finding funding is a challenge, even in the sub-$5-million category where Steppenwolf plans to work.
July brings the release of the company’s first full-length feature, Diminished Capacity, starring Matthew Broderick, Alan Alda, and Virginia Madsen. The first production partner demanded the movie be shot in Louisiana. Evans demurred, and the deal fell through. Eventually, filming happened in New York—"The principals wanted to sleep in their own beds," Evans says—with a few Chicago locations, including Wrigley Field.
Diminished Capacity premiered at Sundance this year, to lukewarm reviews. But no matter how it does at the box office, the Steppenwolf cachet could help the city’s film industry blossom into more than small independents and location shooting. "They give the entire local filmmaking community a credibility bump," says Richard Moskal, head of the Chicago Film Office. You’ve got to start somewhere. "We want to drive [the Chicago film industry], but we have to get a foothold to do that," Kinney says. It’s a lofty goal for a mercurial business. "You’re only as good as your next project," Evans says.
Photograph: Courtesy of Steppenwolf Films