The Chicago Track Creates A Bridge To the Professional Media World

November 5, 2014

In 2013, Chicago set a new record with the largest increase in film and television production in the city’s history with estimated revenues of $358 million and 2,198 filming days—a 20% increase over 2012 1. Recent increases to tax incentives for production in 2009 have helped promote Illinois and Chicago’s resurgence as hubs for the motion picture industry, creating opportunities and employment for thousands working in the fields of film, television and commercial production 2. Beyond the motion picture screen, Chicago has long fostered a strong commercial advertising base, supporting post-production houses, as well as a dedicated documentary filmmaking community. While the Department of Labor projects that occupations in the film and media industry will grow 3% nationally by 2022, they estimate that the growth in Illinois could be as high as 9% 3. There’s no doubt about it—the industry is on the rise.

In a commitment to extend burgeoning opportunities in the industry to the next generation of media makers, The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), with support from The Chicago Community Trust, has partnered with youth media organization Free Spirit Media (FSM) and youth poetry and music organization Young Chicago Authors (YCA) to develop and produce The Chicago Track—a free professional development and networking series targeting aspiring media and music professionals from ethnically and geographically diverse backgrounds. The Chicago Track specifically zooms in on 18-25 year olds who have participated in teen arts programs and have a desire to continue developing in the field but may not have chosen the college track. The program is designed to bridge access to industry professionals in Film/TV and music, while giving a behind-the-scenes look at the growing industry and developing participants’ skills to promote themselves as artists, engineers, and producers.

The Chicago Film Track, led by Free Spirit Media, is a natural extension of the organization’s emerging pathways initiative to “enhance opportunities for college and career readiness” 4.  The Chicago Track is the most recent advanced program that FSM offers to bridge the gap from its scaffolded in-school and after-school programs, to a potential career in the industry. Since 2000, FSM has been helping young people develop their skills and build their authentic voice through advancing education and digital learning through hands-on and project-based media production. FSM has long valued the importance of career development by creating opportunities through its social enterprise, Free Spirit PRO, and its internship program, Flash Forward. Free Spirit PRO, a commercial production company that employs both advanced media students and adult media professionals to create high quality products, provides training and economic opportunity for youth who want to take the next step. Flash Forward places young people into internships at professional media outlets, film sets, and production houses and provides professional development training. The Chicago Track is the next step, targeting a wider range of young adults beyond FSM alumni, to help make connections that emerging media makers need in order to launch their careers.

The Chicago Track program focuses on three key areas critical to success: knowledge, skills, and access. Many young people who dream of a career in the industry imagine themselves as directors or actors and may not realize the vast scope of careers and employment in the industry. The Chicago Track is designed to expose young adults to the diversity of opportunities in the film and television world—from professional unions to commercial production houses to entrepreneurial endeavors. The Track’s workshop format utilizes small group breakouts to pair media professionals with participants to share their background, experiences, and advice around specific topics like brand development, producing independent films, or preparing to be on set. In these spaces, young people engage with seasoned creatives and build relationships that create pathways into an industry traditionally known for its exclusivity.

At The Chicago Track’s first workshop, hosted in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) offices in downtown Chicago, it was clear that the young people who showed up on an unusually sunny Saturday represent the most committed and driven of their peer group. Track participant Mark, shared, “I’m 18 years old and I’m hungry for success.” Another noted, “Just being next to people who are a part of so many great movies made me feel like the job was more possible for me.” The industry professionals who came out hailed from a range of backgrounds and offered their own personal experiences as testaments to the adage that there is no one right way to make it. One guest gave his business card to specific participants, telling them that he expected their phone calls. Another, who has produced films from half-million dollar budgets to 3.5 million dollar budgets, told his captivated listeners, “If you have a strong story, there is no reason why you can’t be producing content right now. If you have a phone, you can make a movie.” Another reminded youth participants of the value of collaboration, reminding participants that their peers are as much a resource as the mentors who were presenting.

By the end of the workshop, during the open networking part of the event, mentors and young people were exchanging emails and ideas and making plans for next steps. Participants shared their “Aha” moments from the day: “You can make it happen if you have the right tools and persevere.” “Networking and collaborating is essential.” “When talking to investors, I need to speak from a business perspective, and not a purely creative one. Investors want to know how to make their money back, not how great of a story I have.” Though it was just the beginning, the immediate influence of perspective, skills, and advice from the other side of the curtain promised to help bridge the gap from passion to purpose for Chicago’s next generation of media makers.

The Chicago Track initiative has flourished due largely to the breadth and strength of its partnerships. Working with Young Chicago Authors (YCA)—a reputable youth arts organization known for its Louder than a Bomb youth poetry festival—has magnified the impact of engagement within the youth adult community. The City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events has offered increased exposure and a connection to a greater vision for the city. An advisory committee, formed in collaboration with Rich Moskal, the Director of Chicago’s Film Office, represents leaders and industry professionals in the unions, education, commercial, and documentary fields that make up the city’s rich media ecosystem. Their support has leveraged relationships and resources that directly benefit the young adults participating in The Chicago Track. Finally, support from The Chicago Community Trust, one of the oldest and more reputable funders in the city, has provided much needed organizational capacity to allow YCA and FSM to invest in the success of the program.

In its first year, program and leadership staff have spent much time discussing the pedagogical and strategic approach of the program. What is the right concoction of soft skills and hard skills? What is the right dosage for sustained impact? What type of mentorship model is most likely to help young adults succeed? How can the program serve both the young person who lacks experience in the field and the young person just launching their new production company? These questions, reminiscent of any youth development program model, will continue to shape the Track’s ongoing development, as well as participants’ continuous feedback. Fundamentally, The Chicago Track is a bold leap into the uncharted territory of alternative, post-secondary pathways—a simple inquiry that high school graduates ask themselves daily: What’s next?

  1. “Chicago Sets New Record for Film, TV Production in 2013.” The Chicago Tribune, January 21, 2014.
  2. “Welcome to The Illinois Film Office.” Film:. January 1, 2013. Accessed November 5, 2014.
  3. “Film and Video Editors and Camera Operators Summary.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. January 8, 2014. Accessed November 5, 2014.
  4. “Zoom.” Free Spirit Media, Accessed January 20th, 2015.