Is city short of space to shoot?

Chicago natives Andy and Lana Wachowski say they want to shoot here, but there's not enough space

'Cloud Atlas' directors

"Cloud Atlas" directors Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski, at Kinowerks on Chicago's North side. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune / October 24, 2012)

According to Andy and Lana Wachowski, most of their films are set in Chicago — although none have actually shot here.

When my colleague Chris Borrelli asked about this for a piece that ran in the Tribune last week, Lana Wachowski replied, "There are no soundstages, not big enough ones anyway." And then to underscore her point, she instructed Borrelli: "Write that down."

This wasn't the first time the filmmakers expressed frustration with Chicago. A few weeks ago on WBEZ's Afternoon Shift, she talked about their initial desire to set the "Matrix" trilogy in Chicago. "But Chicago back then was not really a very film-friendly city. And it still isn't."

Chilling words for anyone who works in the local film industry. Particularly since the Wachowskis — who already have their base of operations in Chicago — are setting things in motion for their next project, a sci-fi trilogy called "Jupiter Ascending" (starring, per IMDB, Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum).

"We've been battling to try to get Chicago to build stages in order to create an industry," Lana Wachowski said in that radio interview. "We would do all our films there if there (were) good, proper stages, but they, you know, politics in Chicago ..."

At that point Andy Wachowski jumped in. "And Americans don't pay enough taxes, that's the problem. We need to subsidize our film industry, citizens."

It wasn't clear if he was being facetious (Illinois currently offers a mid-range 30 percent tax credit), and the Wachowskis have not responded to my requests to discuss their concerns in further detail.

But they've put the issue out there in blunt terms, and it raises the question of whether the city can accommodate big blockbuster films that want to shoot more than their exteriors in Chicago.

Cinespace, the sprawling new soundstage complex that opened last year in North Lawndale, has been touted as a facility that could do just that — though it remains unclear if it has enough stages that are built, ready and unoccupied to satisfy producers.

Marvel was in Chicago last summer scouting for "Iron Man 3" and the news was not encouraging. Before retiring this year after two decades on the job, Joe Amari was the senior location manager for the state film office, and he was the one who scouted with the studio representatives.

"Cinespace said to Marvel, if you come, we'll build it," he told me. "But does a film want to commit to something that's not there yet? Marvel didn't. The producer said there's just not enough space for something this big. And from what I understand, this next Wachowski thing is huge. It's a giant superhero kind of a movie; 'Iron Man' said the space here just wasn't enough, so that's what I'm gauging (the problem is) for the Wachowskis."

And in Amari's words, "That does limit us. At this point I don't think we're ready for the big, big, big special effects 3-D-type stuff — you need a lot of space and a lot of quiet. Cinespace is an excellent soundstage; they just don't have enough overall space. If they're in a position to build more, I bet they will. But that's a big investment. Is it profitable to build more space? I don't know. If you get a superhero movie and then you don't get anything for four years, that space is empty." ("Iron Man 3" ended up shooting in North Carolina and Florida.)

There is no question, however, that Cinespace has been wildly successful in terms of television. Four series shot here in 2012, three of which set up shop at Cinespace — including NBC's "Chicago Fire," which is still there. ("The Mob Doctor" on Fox shoots out of Chicago Studio City, a separate facility on the West Side.)

It's hard to know which of these series will last. But decisions will be based on ratings and have nothing to do with the quality of Chicago's crews or soundstages. Alex Pissios, who runs Cinespace, told me that networks have been calling him in recent weeks to discuss space availability for upcoming pilots. The possibility of yet more TV work in 2013 looks very real.

Cinespace's ability to fit the needs of bigger films appears to be improving, as well.

"We currently have five stages built out, and two stages under construction," Pissios said. "One of the five could handle a larger production, but 'Chicago Fire' is using it. They have become a very large production compared to other television shows. The two under construction could easily handle a 'Transformers' or 'G.I. Joe' type of production."

I asked Pissios to respond to Lana Wachowski's statements about the lack of space.

"All I would say is, come see the facility." I was under the impression they — or their producers — had toured the facility.

"Not everybody. One of them has. I don't think Lana has been here. And they came when we first bought this place, so over a year ago, when there really was nothing. Remember, this is a 58-acre site with 1.5 million-square-feet of buildings, so there is tons to cover, and we have been full blast since we opened."

Cinespace got an initial $5 million infusion from the state.

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