Chicago is NOT a Steppingstone City for Filmmakers

I've lived in Chicago for about a year and a half now. I decided to move here after graduating with a B.A. and M.A. in Media Arts and Technology from Michigan State University, two degrees which I consider mostly decorative in my chosen field.* When I made the decision to move here, there was no specific reason to do so, but several small ones: It was an easy move, I didn't need a car, I was close to family, etc. Furthermore, I always loved this city. I have fond memories from my childhood visiting my grandparents in Elmhurst or going on a class field trip to a Cubs game at Wrigley with my father (the school made up some rationalization about batting averages teaching statistics or what not...needless to say I didn't learn much about statistics and still don't know much about batting averages, but I did learn about the wonders of Chicago food, another motivation to move here). 

Perhaps the biggest reason for the move, and what I've told many people, is that I simply didn't want to live in Los Angeles. As someone interested in film, the go to assumption is still that you will go to LA. I mean, that's where movies are made, right? This was not to say that I was not ready to move there. I simply didn't want to. After visiting there for over a month, I didn't find it particularly interesting, stereotypical perception of "fakeness" aside. Of course, you have to be in a city for an extended amount of time to really appreciate it but something just didn't gel with me.

After college, many of my classmates moved to LA. Almost all of them are working and doing well. Being the non-conformist that I am, however, this didn't seem appealing to me. I didn't want to do what everyone else was doing. I'm confident I could've gotten work out there, but what work? Likely a title that had the word "assistant" attached to the end of it. A word that would likely be attached to my job title for the next several years as I work to pay my $2000+ monthly expenses. I don't judge my friends who have made this decision. In fact, I have great admiration for their accomplishments and work ethic. But this was simply not my story.

As you can ask any unknown actor trying to make it in Los Angeles, you are never further away from your dream than when you watch someone else do it outside your front door. I didn't want to go to the west coast and be burned out after a couple years working in the industry, a trend I have seen happen to many others. I wanted to live in different cities while I'm still in my twenties. I wanted to begin creating a network all over the country. I wanted to do my own work. I wanted to create my own projects and tell my own stories in whatever way possible, whether it be through directing, freelance videography, writing, etc. I wanted it to be my own story.

But this isn't a post about LA, it's about Chicago.

When I told people that I was moving here, I got a lot of "Oh" or "Chicago's a great steppingstone city." If there's anything I've learned living here this past year, it's that Chicago is not a steppingstone city.

In the past year, I've created more content than I ever have in my career as a filmmaker. I've connected with other filmmakers and artists. I've learned from exciting programs, festivals, and institutions such as Second City, Chicago Filmmakers, The Midwest Independent Film Fest, Kartemquin, CIMMFest, Chicago Screenwriters Network, and IFP/Chicago (of which I am a member). I've even gotten some good press. Unlike LA or other cities I've visited, Chicago has the energy that I had been looking for. In order to take full advantage of this environment, you have to seek it out. I am often surprised when I meet with people who do not. Filmmaking is a business but it is also a community. The community that exists here is far greater than any that I experienced during my short time in LA.

As much as I love Chicago, I will likely end up in LA at some point. That has always been the assumption. But this is not an assumption based on any preconceived notion of how movies are made. I want to be successful before I go there. I want to explore different aspects of life and stories that should be told, not trapped in a microcosmic echo chamber. I want to be established, at least in my own way, with my own experiences, and not be a small fish in a big pond. I want to first prove myself outside of someone else's shadow. 

Fifty years ago, there was only one path to becoming a filmmaker. A very singular path that was centered around a location: Hollywood. That is not the case anymore. Anyone can make a film and you can make a film anywhere. This is a career, a lifestyle, that should not be dependent on where you live, but rather by your voice as an artist. Everyone has a unique story and journey to getting that voice heard. I have chosen mine and, so far, I do not regret it.

"Okay, so you want to be a filmmaker? Wong. You ARE a filmmaker. The moment you think about that you want to be a filmmaker you're that. Make yourself a business card that says you're a filmmaker, pass them out to your friends, soon as you get that over with and you've got it in your mind that you're one you'll be one, you'll start thinking like one. Don't dream about being a filmmaker, you are a filmmaker." -- Robert Rodriguez


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