Judy Baar Topinka: Film industry’s great friend

topinkaWhen she held the office  of State Treasurer, Judy Baar Topinka, who died Tuesday of a stroke,  was the Illinois film industry’s great financial friend. 

In looking for new, efficient  ways to benefit the state, in 2001 she set up “Lights, Camera, Illinois!”  (LCI) the only state-sponsored loan program for filmmakers in the U.S.

  “I believe strongly in all the great talent here,” Topinka  said when she launched LCI, “and I’m hoping our program will be  the seed that inspires growth in the industry throughout the state. 

“We want to build a  base to increase production through the financial institutions, filmmakers  and the film offices,” she said. 

In its six years of operation,  LCI loaned production funds to 16 locally-made features, with budgets  ranging from $300,000 to the cap of $10 million.

From 2001 through 2007,  Lights, Camera, Illinois! loaned an approved amount to a participating  state bank at 1.5% interest.  The bank was allowed to charge no more  than 3% additional interest on its loan, thus guaranteeing the filmmaker  a maximum 4.5% interest rate.  The borrower had a maximum of five years  to repay the loan.

Applicants were required to make 75% of below-the-line hires and 75%  of purchases within the state, and could only apply for projects “free  of gratuitous sex and violence.”

The Treasurer visibly  and enthusiastically promoted the program.  She often attended  industry events and her Chicago office was a regular meeting place for  producers, legislators and the film offices to discuss ways to expand  the business.

By 2005, LCI was going  strong.  “We’re here to provide independent filmmakers the  opportunity to make their films,” said program administrator Chuck  Hagopian, speaking at an SRO workshop to familiarize indie filmmakers  with the program and encourage their use of it.

At the workshop, Stephen  Collins, president of Los Angeles-based Billian Entertainment, said  that the $10 million loan his company had been awarded was instrumental,  along with the tax credit, in attracting Billian’s feature, “Realms  Beyond,” to shoot in the state that summer.

If Topinka, a Republican,  had not lost her office in the 2007 election when she unsuccessfully  ran for governor, LCI that year would have loaned production funds to  six more approved films.

LCI was put on hold for  a few months until the new treasurer had could review it and similar  loan programs.  While it was never revived, the program demonstrated  Topinka’s determination to make a relatively simple program work for  the benefit of the film industry and the state.

 

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By Ruth L. Ratny   -   Ruth L Ratny's ReelChicago   -   December 11, 2014