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Bringing together mediamakers from around the country with engaged citizens who collectively support the creation and distribution of media that will trigger social change.

CMP Blog - thought-provoking articles

Chicago Group Leaves Mark on Sundance Film Festival

Paula Froehle

Maya Miller | January 19th, 2017

Los Angeles is known for its movie magic, New York City for bringing Central Park and Gotham into our homes. And Chicago?

“We have the Chicago charm,” Chicago Media Project co-founder Paula Froehle said from Park City, Utah, while gearing up for the start of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Froehle and fellow co-founder Steve Cohen flew to the festival to watch, among others, the seven films Chicago Media Project has supported through various grants and programs. This marks the third year CMP has had involvement in films screened at the venerable film festival. One of the films, a documentary showcasing the response to the Michael Brown shooting entitled “Whose Streets?” is debuting on Thursday’s opening night.  

The film captures the mission of the three-year-old organization: to back films that address social justice by providing fiscal resources and programmatic support. Froehle and Cohen, who each had roles on the back end of more than a dozen films prior to starting the project, find film to be an instrumental medium in affecting change.

“A really well-crafted documentary or film can reach a lot of people,” Froehle said. “They have a unique ability to impact a broad constituency in a fixed period of time.”

The two are hoping CMP will follow a similar trajectory and eventually help put their hometown on the map as the hub of impact media, an industry defined by its goal of using media platforms to reach and move audiences.

The city has stagnated in terms of the number of motion pictures filmed in its streets. The Chicago Film Office lists seven in all of 2016 compared to 28 in 2008. However, there has been momentum and renewed cohesion in other areas of film throughout the city, reflected in Chicago Media Project's growth. 

Since its inception in early 2014 the group's members, responsible for raising and donating funds to prospective films, have ballooned from 20 individuals to more than 50. While Froehle and Cohen expect to cap membership at around 70, they’ve been working to broaden the number of public-facing events in an effort to bring more film projects to Chicago. 

Last April the nonprofit sector of the group brought the documentary film festival DOC10 to the Music Box Theater in Lakeview. The festival saw 10 documentaries debuted over three days alongside panel discussions and musical guests.  

Cohen confirmed that the festival is set to return to Chicago from March 30 to April 2 at the newly renovated Davis Theater in Lincoln Square.

“We want to connect the city to the rest of the impact media world,” Cohen said. “Chicago has the Midwest characteristics of giving what you can, of wanting to help others ... that puts it in a prime position to become a hub of impact media.”

Chicago documentary-funding group will be prominent Sundance player

Paula Froehle


Nina Metz | January 12th, 2017

When the Sundance Film Festival kicks off next week, one of the films getting a high-profile opening night slot is "Whose Streets?" — a nonfiction account of the grass-roots protests in Ferguson that emerged after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in August 2014.

Also at the fest: "Trophy" (examining the business behind big game hunting and poaching) and "Icarus" (an investigation into Russia's Olympic doping scheme).

All three documentaries (plus four more) owe their existence, in part, to a local group established a couple years ago with the goal of helping non-fiction films get made — and be seen. The organization has two separate arms and they function independently of each other.

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The Chicago Media Project is strictly nonprofit. It pools money from its membership — mostly high-net-worth individuals, as well as those with less cash at their disposal but an interest in supporting documentary films that can affect social change — and offers grants to filmmakers (anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000) that are essentially no-strings donations. It's a relatively small group, with just 52 members.

Paula Froehle founded the group with Steve Cohen, and it includes people who Froehle said come from a variety of professions — politics, law, startups — who have the ability to get these films in front of the right people, i.e., decision-makers in the public or private sector. So it's not just about donating money to a worthy film. It's not just a faceless transaction. Members form an emotional connection with the projects they back, often bringing filmmakers to Chicago for intimate dinners.

(It's worth noting that the group does not restrict their work to Chicago projects, and the majority of filmmakers and their subjects are not local.)

The Chicago Media Project Invest/Impact is the sister organization and works a little differently. Funding is treated not as a donation but an equity investment. "The average return that we look for is 115 percent of what we put in," said Froehle. They invest between $10,000 and $450,000 per project. Rather than pocketing that (hoped for) 15 percent profit, the money is then funneled back into a fund to support yet more films in the coming year.

This is a radical idea, to an extent. Independent films — let alone documentaries — rarely break even. Turning a profit is even harder. With that in mind, the group specifically looks to invest in movies that have a good shot at getting theatrical distribution. Or bought by a television network or streaming service.

"The thing with equity investing in docs is, no one is going to get rich off of them," Froehle said. "Even though the films can make money, usually they can't make lots of money. This isn't like equity investing in entrepreneurial stuff. And like any other investment, it's still speculation. But we heavily vet each project ahead of time, from the experience of the film team to the subject matter."

(Last year, the investment group put in $814,000 across numerous projects.)

Phillip Glass appears in Trophy by Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, an official selection of the U.S. Doucmentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. 

Both "Trophy" and "Icarus" were funded with equity investments, which makes sense. Big game hunting and Russian Olympic doping are the kind of issues that are easy to grasp and marketable.

The investment in "Trophy" came fairly late in the process and was primarily used for post-production costs. "We turned around that investment commitment in a weekend," said Froehle. The film had already been accepted into Sundance by that point.

"The film looks at the issues of big game hunting, poaching and extinction from an alternative angle," she said, "so it's a film that's going to be talked about a lot.

"It's not preaching to the converted, which is oftentimes a concern when you look at documentaries: Are we just talking to ourselves? Are we just making ourselves feel better about our own perspective in the world? A film that can take a subject as potent as big game hunting and poaching and put a different lens on it, not only will it get a lot of press and get talked about, but it's a film people will want to see. So you could see cable channels like CNN or Discovery or Animal Planet being interested because of the subject matter."

One of the people profiled in "Trophy," she said, is a guy who runs a South African sanctuary for rhinos whose "whole perspective is, a rhino can regenerate its horn every two years. So rather than killing the animal for the horn, you can carve the horn and allow the animal to stay alive — and you can demonstrate to poachers that killing animals isn't viable anymore and there are better ways to manage that demand. Because there is a centuries-old belief in the medicinal powers of rhino horn and the idea of just saying, 'The trade is illegal,' that's not going to stop the black market, which is causing these animal to go extinct. Just saying it shouldn't happen isn't stopping anything and the film looks at the problem from a different angle."

Last year, the Chicago Media Project helped coordinate a festival of films it help fund called DOC10 at the Music Box, which will be returning with an all-new lineup this spring.

As for Sundance, Froehle and Cohen will be there with the films their group helped back, and plan to use their time in Park City, Utah, to meet with new filmmakers seeking a budget infusion.



Paula Froehle

Nick Allen | April 4th, 2017

On a cloudy but ever so lively Chicago Tuesday morning, a group of film enthusiasts, Chicago figures, charity leaders, and many others converged outside the Chicago Theatre. They were all united by being fans of film critic Roger Ebert, the man who has the only star outside that landmark of a building, where in 2005 Roger delivered his famous quote about movies functioning as machines that generate empathy. It’s a sentiment that I've heard countless people share, and it was brought back to the theater as a main event, as important as ever. 

With the word “Empathy” filing all sides of the Chicago Theatre’s famous marquee, it was the occasion for a commemoration of the four years that have passed since Roger took his “leave of presence." It was also a moment to celebrate the good that has been done in the world during that time, just as Roger had preached. This was more than a day to celebrate a man who loved the movies and knew how to talk about them, it was, as Chaz Ebert put it, “About shining a light on the people who exhibit empathy and inspire it in others.” 

Among the many Chicago figures that spoke, which included Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office and Christine Dudley, director of the Illinois Film Office, was Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church, who spoke about knowing Roger not as a film critic, but “as a person.” He remarked that Roger “never lost his commonness,” and that his criticism “allowed us to ask what movies mean to us and how they can make us better people.” He continued that through his work both as a critic and as a human being, “Roger taught us living, loving, and empathy.” 

That spirit was being celebrated with Chaz awarding 21 grants from the Ebert Foundation to various charities and  arts organizations who celebrate the values of the day: “Empathy, Kindness, Compassion and Forgiveness.” Che “Rhymefest” Smith, the Grammy and Oscar-winning rapper who co-wrote "Glory," for the movie "Selma," was there in his capacity as creative director of the nonprofit, Donda’s House with his wife Donnie Nicole Smith. His position at Donda House enables him to support Chicago youth in their endeavors in the arts. He spoke outside the theater about the significance of Chaz and Rogers’ support for such organizations. Rhymefest admired the example they provided for other philanthropic couples. He noted that they represent how to be “of service, and not just self-serving.” Rhymefest added that they are “pillars in how to make things better, and how to rebuild cities.” 

Another recipient of a grant from the Ebert Foundation was the Urban Prep Academy, an all-black male high school with a 100% graduation and college attendance rate. Tim King, president and CEO of Urban Prep Academies, was accompanied by two Urban Prep students who had already received acceptances from over twenty colleges. They received a big ovation from the crowd. King said that a gesture like giving goes beyond what a person thinks they’re initially doing, that we can’t see the full impact. “What they’re doing really does change the world,” King said. 

Before the commemoration headed inside to the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute for a luncheon, Chaz commented: "We’re not talking about movies today. The reason we talk about Roger four years later, the reason that I loved him so much, was because of his heart. Roger used the copyrighted phrase "Thumbs Up,' or "Two Thumbs Up' as a way to rate movies. But today we will give him a Thumbs Up for his empathy and caring for other people." Everyone responded by uniting in the two thumbs up gesture.

After a luncheon, the Commemoration Tribute continued with speeches at the Gene Siskel Film Center given by film industry stalwarts and leaders of charitable nonprofits chosen by Chaz for exemplifying the good works they do in the community. Before a list of incredible Chicagoans spoke about their organizations and how Roger’s values were the kind that motivated their selfless endeavors, Chaz spoke about the importance of kindness. She shared a story about what happened after Roger wrote a scathing review of “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” and based the title of his next book “Your Movie Sucks” on that very review. Years later, the film's star Rob Schneider sent Roger a set of flowers with a beautiful note when he was in the hospital. Roger was touched. “We could laugh about that review," Chaz said, "But not that day and not today. There are so many things that are ugly or negative, and for at least one day I don’t want to be a part of that. Let's celebrate the good things that came out of that interaction." 

A tribute video by director and editor Scott Dummler was shown with scenes of Roger walking along the streets and giving thumbs up to people like it was the peace sign. After the film, Chicago critic and president of the Chicago Film Critics Association, Dann Gire, spoke about spending endless hours in the dark and an illuminated screen with Ebert, and how Ebert “expanded the definition, the scope and the power of arts journalism.” Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune spoke about the good that Ebert did, and how Tuesday’s occasion was “A day where you can remember just how much good one person can do.” 

One of the next people to speak was filmmaker Steve James, who not only created one of Roger’s favorite documentaries, “Hoop Dreams,” but as a director of the documentary "Life Itself," crafted lasting images of Ebert.  Having known Roger when filming him for the documentary before the critic’s passing, James spoke about Roger’s ability as a critic and as a force. “He was so generous and knew how to use his power for good.” 

That generosity and that power continued today with the grants that were rewarded to 21 different charities and institutions, many of which had a representative there to speak about how their efforts are supported by those who share the values Roger loved in cinema. Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK), spoke about how empathy was why she started the organization that seeks to protect Chicago’s children and provide them communities that are safe from violence. Manasseh said, “We’re in this together. If you don’t speak up for me, who is going to speak up for you when it’s your turn?” 

Other institutions, including Mercy Home for Boys and Girls (which helps children escape abuse, poverty and neglect) and 21st Century Dads (which improves the lives of children by raising awareness of resources for greater father involvement), also talked about the way in which their organizations are fueled by empathy. Che “Rhymefest” Smith called today's commemoration “a revolution of love,” while talking about the importance of building a community when receiving your own success. “The only way to increase our bounty is to increase what we give,” he said. “It’s all a part of a village—who pours it back?” He said to Chaz, “What you’ve been doing, you’re still pouring. You’ve been doing this with your husband for decades.” 

Current students from Crane Medical Preparatory High School were also in attendance, representing a school that is Chaz’s alma mater, but at one time faced closure. With members of Chaz’s own graduating class in the audience, Chaz told of how the school was saved from closing by a rally of  the community and her class of 1969. They helped provide scholarships to the students and even took them on a trip to Springfield to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Prior to that trip, some of the students had never left Chicago. 

After a wealth of inspirational speeches and examples of empathy throughout Chicago, Quentin Love of the Love Foundation, which feeds and clothes the needy every week at his West Humboldt Park restaurant, united everyone in a random act of love. He asked the entire room of attendees, many of which had known Roger personally or spent years with his words and his values, to look the person next to them in the eye and tell them, “Hey, I love you.” With the room united, Love then said, “Chicago is all about the random act of love.” Attendees, including myself, smiled and took the opportunity to give a few more hugs to more than just one neighbor and to smile just a little bit bigger when telling a stranger that they loved them. It was a random act, and one that might have something to do with the sun emerging once we all left the event. But we know that such an act doesn’t have to be so random, especially with the presence of so much empathy around us. 

For a list of the 21 organizations receiving grants from the Ebert Foundation, click here.