Michael Kutza, founder of the Chicago International Film Festival, is in his 49th year of entertaining the public. His film festival is one of the most renowned in the world, featuring up-and-coming directors as well as most accomplished and famous ones like Martin Scorsese.
You’ve a come a long way and should be very proud of yourself like Chicago is, me included. Interesting part is that I think we know each other all along that way. Isn’t that funny? Yes. Isn’t that strange? I was giving a talk today with the Arts Club and talking about the very beginning; going to the Arts Club back in the ’60s, trying to raise money and get the festival started. It has grown in so many ways. New directors always want to get to Chicago because they heard about Chicago for all the strangest reasons, and it wasn’t difficult to find people that wanted to come here. To discover new directors, that was different. That took a lot of friends around the world to help me get the Scorseses and the Herzogs and the Fassbenders, all those people. Then they just became a routine. They loved Chicago, fell in love with the city and came back for the festival over and over again. They would search us out with their new films. Then, in ’67, Roger Ebert started his career and the first thing he ever did was cover the Chicago Film Festival, so we all got back together.
How did you know that movies and films were your calling? I didn’t know, because I was studying to become a doctor. I come from a family of doctors – my mother, father, aunts and uncles are all doctors. It’s amazing.You have an Italian mother, a Polish father and you’re going to become a doctor whether you like it or not. But I wasn’t prone to be a doctor. I studied, as far as I felt I could, and made movies on the side. It was interesting because in the earliest years, probably when I was 7 or 8 years old, my mother always had a movie camera with her. She was a female doctor, (which is unusual) traveling the world, going to conventions and stuff with her lady doctor friend and she’d bring back movies. She’d bring a film and say, ‘Make this into something, my ladies are coming over.’ So every Sunday, whenever they came over, I made movies. I started getting hooked on making movies for these gals, who were all doctors, and then it just progressed. My dad collected movies in those times. I was always occupied with movies, whether they liked it or not. It’s interesting because they got me into it, even though they didn’t want me to be.
So they were your influence? Absolutely. Even though they didn’t want me to be a part of it. My dad (who helped pay for this thing way back in the early years) kept saying, ‘I’m doing this because I know this is just a passing fancy, right?’
I bet you shocked him. I kept saying, ‘Yes, Dad.’
So it’s amazing to me, how you started and where you came from and what it has developed into. I mean, it’s major. It’s a very big enterprise. We have six permanent staff year-round. We do the International Film Fest in October. It takes us about seven months to do it. We do a Television Festival in April (TV productions and commercials), which is equally large and successful, I must say. Then we do educational things every month in the public school system and then we do free screenings at the Cultural Center for five months for free on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
I didn’t know that. That’s fantastic. So it’s a year-round thing, and the toughest part is finding sponsors; it’s a tough city and a climate. Yeah, it’s really tough. That’s the hardest part, finding the money.
But there’s lots of films being shot here now, relatively speaking. Yes, there are, but there are still other factors. I think we need a bank. We don’t have a bank, a credit card or a law firm; those are things that we really should have.
You think you’ll get that sooner or later? We try. You need contacts, like board members who can help you find contacts. People help you find contacts, that’s how it works in the arts here.
Well, would you say that fundraising is one of your main obstacles that you face? It’s not an obstacle, it’s a challenge. Nothing’s an obstacle; there are no obstacles in this world, they’re just challenges.
But the supporters will continue growing and raising money? Exactly. Audiences are very loyal. So you have a consistency in your audiences. You have a consistency with foundations like American Airlines has been for instance, sponsor-wise, they’ve been with me for 35 years, so you have some loyalty there. Columbia College has been with us for at least 10 years. They like what they get from us and what we give them. That’s loyalty. City and states, sometimes they come through, Mayor Daley was never that interested, but Jane Byrne loved us.
Yes, she did. She understood the whole deal. She understood tourism and she understood how to make it work. Mayor Emanuel talks like he does and I hope he does. Daley didn’t. It remains to be seen. I’m not sure. The state has understood us. Governor Thompson, for 15 years, always helped fund the festival. Governor Quinn helps us when he can. I mean, he’s in a situation, but he helps. They see the tourism angle. The film office sees it. We will continue to plug away and grow our business as we have for the past 49 years.
This is a very exciting time for you, Mike, especially opening night. What’s your opening film? I’ll start by saying that the opening night is dedicated to the great Roger Ebert. The film for the opening night is The Immigrant. The film stars Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. It’s directed, produced and written by James Gray. See you at the premiere!