History of Chicago Film and Movies


“When a movie character is really working, we become that character. That’s what the movies offer: Escapism into lives other than our own.” ~ Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times film critic from 1967-2013 

Although Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was home to the world’s first movie screening, the storied history of the Chicago film industry officially dates back to the early 1900s. At that time, Chicago was a world leader in the rental of moving picture films and general patronage of motion pictures. By 1907 more than 15 film exchanges were in operation in Chicago, controlling 80% of the film distribution market for the entire country. Even after Chicago studios departed for Hollywood, Chicago remained an important distribution market. The 800 to 1500 blocks of South Wabash in the Loop housed high-profile distribution offices for MGM, Columbia, Warner Brothers, Republic, Universal, RKO, and Paramount. 

During the early 1900s, Chicago also had more film theaters per capita than any other city in the U.S., with five-cent theaters or nickelodeons playing a significant role in commercial development throughout its neighborhoods. The Balaban and Katz chain was the largest theater chain in the studio era (1919-1952), with 50 theaters in Chicago alone. They were known for building beautiful movie palaces to show movies and present popular stage shows. Among these are the still thriving Chicago Theatre (formerly Balaban and Katz Chicago Theatre) which opened in 1921 and the James M. Nederlander Theatre built-in 1926 (formerly Oriental). 

Early Chicago Movie Studios 

Based in Uptown, Essanay Studios (originally The Peerless Film Manufacturing Company) was founded in 1907 by George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson. The studio released more than 2,000 shorts and feature films in their 10 years in Chicago, most notably 15 comedy shorts starring Charlie Chaplin. The studio produced silent films by other great stars such as Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson, who won honorary Academy Awards for his time at the studio. While Essanay packed up and moved to Hollywood in 1917, the building at 1345 Argyle Street was designated a landmark in 1996. The original Essanay lettering and terra cotta Indian head Essanay trademarks still greet visitors. 

In 1907, William Selig, a former magician and theatrical troupe manager founded the Selig Polyscope Company at 3900 N. Claremont. Bordered by Irving Park Road and Western Avenue, the studio covered three acres, employed more than 200 people, and specialized in animal productions. When Thomas Edison’s motion picture patents became a barrier, Selig “borrowed” technology from the competing Lumiere Brothers. In 1909 when legal issues caught up with him, Selig moved to Los Angeles, where he created the first Hollywood movie studio. Selig stopped film production in 1918, transitioning from an animal and prop supplier to other studios and a zoo and amusement park operator. 

The Windy City is Home to Many Film Productions 

The Chicago Film Office, a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, has been instrumental in attracting the production of feature films, television series, commercials, and documentaries. Since 1980, more than 1,100 feature films and television productions have been shot in Chicago, including the popular and award-winning films Ordinary People, Risky Business, Sixteen Candles, The Color of Money, The Untouchables, Home Alone, A League of Their Own, Groundhog Day, Chicago, and The Dark Knight. Together, these 10 films won 14 Oscars. Recent television programs filmed partially or entirely in Chicago include Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, Empire, and the fourth season of Fargo

Famous Chicago Movie Locations 

A beautiful lakefront, Lake Shore Drive, the Loop and “L”, landmark architecture, attractive suburbs, and more offer enticing backdrops for movies and television shows. Here are a few locations you’ll likely recognize if you’re a movie buff who calls Chicago home. 

  • The Dark Knight: Lower Wacker Drive, LaSalle Street
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Chicago Board of Trade, Wrigley Field, Art Institute of Chicago
  • High Fidelity: Wicker Park
  • Home Alone: Winnetka, Oak Park
  • My Best Friend’s Wedding: Lake Shore Drive, Comiskey Park, Union Station
  • Public Enemies: Biograph Theater
  • The Untouchables: Union Station, Chicago Cultural Center, Blackstone Hotel, Chicago Theater, etc. 

In the long tradition of movies and filmmaking in Chicago, ScanCafe is proud to offer film digitizing services in the Windy City. Converting old movies is the best way to preserve celluloid memories for posterity.

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