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Chicago International Film Festival spins reels but few deals

Al Pacino enters Harris Theater for 48th Chicago International Film Festival Thursday October 11 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media

Al Pacino enters the Harris Theater for the 48th Chicago International Film Festival on Thursday, October 11, 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 23, 2012 6:05AM

The Chicago International Film Festival has a red carpet. It has premieres and parties. Its two weeks of programs are a gift to Chicago hoteliers and cabdrivers.

In other words, it has the trappings of a major film industry event. But the industry doesn’t come en masse. For a lot of people, that’s just fine.

It’s a matter of expectations. The festival, which runs through Thursday and is presented by the nonprofit group Cinema/Chicago, doesn’t mean a Spielberg will be spotted at Water Tower Place or a Streep will slip into a Steppenwolf show. Don’t look for producers and distributors commandeering dark corners at the best restaurants.

“It’s not the feeding frenzy that Sundance is,” said Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office. “Everything at Sundance is all about buzz and bidding wars.”

Film industry experts said Utah’s Sundance Film Festival, the springtime party in Cannes, France, and the Toronto International Film Festival are examples of events central to cinematic dealmaking. Chicago, they said, operates on a different orbit and should be proud of it.

“The Chicago film festival is a pure festival. It’s not a market,” said Hollywood producer and former Chicagoan Tom Rosenberg. “It shouldn’t even think about [going commercial]. What it does, it does well.”

While commercial festivals attract films in search of a distributor, the Chicago bookings, many of them foreign, often have that channel lined up. They need an airing and a favorable reception to gain momentum in the United States.

This year, Rosenberg chose the festival to host a world premiere for one of his movies, the action comedy “Stand Up Guys” starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. Rosenberg believes the festival “is a great platform” to introduce a movie.

Under Cinema/Chicago founder and artistic director Michael Kutza, the festival relies on a couple of mainstream releases to generate interest but fills out its schedule with independent and foreign fare. Kutza said the non-commercial focus works best for Chicago, but that the festival should not be undersold for its financial impact.

Festival staff said about two-thirds of the 175 films on this year’s program have no distribution contracts for the United States. Kutza said at least 12 distributors are attending the screenings in search of inventory.

“We’ve also got about 180 directors visiting Chicago. They’re taking the boat tours and admiring the beautiful city,” Kutza said. His hope is that some will use Chicago scenes or studios for a project.

On average each year, 30 features that do not have a distribution contract going into the festival get it afterward, said Mimi Plauche, the event’s head of programming.

An offshoot of the Chicago approach is that the festival can be more audience-friendly, said Bruce Sheridan, chairman of the film and video department at Columbia College Chicago, a lead sponsor of the event. Many of the festival’s screenings are followed by audience discussions with the director and cast members.

“If this were the Cannes Film Festival in Chicago, we couldn’t do that,” Sheridan said. The festival gives his students unusual access to those in the industry. “It’s a chance to see the professionals early in their careers before the celebrity culture kicks in,” he said.

Founded in 1965, the festival has laid claim to championing directors and performers before they became household names. About 60,000 people are expected to attend this year.

William Schopf, president of Music Box Films in Chicago, a distributor of mostly international releases such as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2010, the Swedish version), doesn’t argue with the fest’s success or its place in the hearts of film buffs. But he believes it’s missing a commercial opportunity.

Chicago, he said, should carve a niche for foreign films that need investors, although to do that it probably has to alter its schedule to run in July or August, ahead of Toronto, which occurs in September. “We acquire films mainly through sales agents in England, France and Germany, and they don’t come to Chicago,” said Schopf, who’s also owner of the Music Box Theatre at 3733 N. Southport. “It’s too bad because, if anything, Chicago is a commercial city. There are a lot of risk-takers in Chicago.”

This year, Schopf is using the festival to promote a U.S.-based film, “Keep the Lights On,” about the relationship of two gay men.

Sheridan, however, said the festival would be unwise to bend to industry demands. “The business of making films is changing so fast, you could find yourself going in the wrong direction,” he said.

Chicago’s real and psychological distance from Hollywood lets its festival be unique and cutting-edge: “Whenever you have an industry that gets so big and successful, it gets conservative,” he said. “That’s why you see the same blockbusters and sequels from Hollywood. But in Chicago, the focus can be on new work and changing the industry.”

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