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Newcity Pushes Its Indie Cred Into Filmmaking

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 1, 2015 9:00PM

"Signature Move" star and co-writer Fawzia Mirza (far right) in the CIFF promo short featuring her character from the upcoming feature (courtesy of Newcity Communications, Inc.).

Although Newcity announced plans to produce an independent movie back in early 2014, until recently it looked more like an exploration than a production. Those following the Chicago Film Project blog read a lot about Newcity editor and co-publisher Brian Hieggelke attending film festivals and talking to filmmakers and industry professionals ... but not a lot about actually making a movie.

That all changed very quickly this fall.

In October, Hieggelke announced Signature Move—an ethnically diverse lesbian romantic comedy starring and co-written by recent honoree Fawzia Mirza—as Newcity's inaugural film. In November, award-winning local filmmaker Jennifer Reeder was announced as the movie's director. And shooting is scheduled to begin this summer.

So yes, Signature Move is happening. With an estimated budget under $200,000, the feature is a modest, low-risk first step into the business, but it's not a micro-budgeted DIY affair either.

Independently owned and operated Newcity Communications, Inc. has sources of income beyond its longstanding alternative weekly publication and website (they publish the Music Box Theatre's bimonthly film calendar and the University of Chicago's quarterly UChicago Arts magazine, among other endeavors). But though Newcity remains very respected for its roster of writers and the freedom Hieggelke and his wife and co-publisher Jan give them, both the website and print edition (slim and sometimes hard to find) often fly well under the radar in a competitive local media scene.

So does the dive into filmmaking mean the Hieggelkes might be stepping away from journalism? Brian Hieggelke told Chicagoist that's not the case.

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'Newcity' editor and co-publisher Brian Hieggelke. (Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux, courtesy of Newcity Communications, Inc.)
"It's definitely not an abandonment [of the publication and website]," he said. "We're putting a lot of work into different aspects of Newcity as well. My wife and I started Newcity 30 years ago and we're still the owners. That makes us a little unique, in that our personal lives and personal interests are intertwined with what Newcity does in a way that, if this was some sort of corporate thing, it [making a movie] would be a little harder to justify.

"We're just interested in doing this. We're not as young as we used to be and we just want to do it. That's what it comes down to. Now, that being said, sure we want to make this a viable business enterprise. We're taking it very seriously—it's not just kind of a hobby."

Hieggelke believes the creative and business goals of the project go hand-in-hand. Newcity wanted to make a Chicago-centric movie for audiences overlooked in mainstream cinema. Mirza is Pakistani and Muslim and has been involved with many projects aimed at LGBT audiences. The romance between Mirza's character and a Latino woman further expands the movie's potential reach into an untapped blend of demographics.

"It's got a very strong South Asian-American component, it's got a very strong Latino-American component, it's got the LGBT component ... so it has all these different elements that make it sort of stand out," Hieggelke explained. "The reaction people have when they hear the log line for this movie is, 'Wow, I haven't seen that before.' "

Making a movie for an underserved audience is one thing. Getting it seen by that audience is another. But by keeping the budget low and his options open, Hieggelke hopes to take advantage of today's multiple distribution avenues.

"It's a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C kind of thing. Plan A is that you go to Sundance and you win an award and you get a big distribution deal and you know—boom! Right? That's what everyone aspires to, but we're being very realistic in understanding that it's like one film every couple of years that has some kind of big, fancy finish like that. More realistically, we might do a combination of festivals, some sort of limited theatrical release and then video-on-demand, but probably partnering with some or many distributors.

Fawzia Mirza, seated, and co-producer Eugene Sun Park, far right, at work on the CIFF promotional trailer (courtesy of Newcity Communications, Inc.).

"The way the distribution world is working now, there are many ways to slice the cake. It's just gotten very complicated, which is not bad for me because I'm kind of a business-oriented person as well as creative. The ultimate Plan C would be to self-distribute, if we can't find the right partners to work with."

Hieggelke describes Signature Move as a very "accessible" narrative. A short film produced as one of several one-minute intros for the Chicago International Film Festival featuring Mirza as the character she will play in the feature certainly hints at rom-com conventions. Which makes the hiring of Reeder, a filmmaker with a more personal, less mainstream sensibility, an interesting choice. But Hieggelke points out it's not without precedent.

"There are other examples, like Steve McQueen [12 Years a Slave] who came out of the art / experimental film market," he said. "The only two criteria we had for a director were we wanted someone from Chicago and ideally we wanted a woman, because A) it's a film about women and B) women are so dramatically underrepresented in the director's chair in American cinema."

Hieggelke also noted that some of Reeder's recent films "have a much stronger sort of narrative cohesion to them, and she's actually working on a narrative film of her own."

So as long as Signature Move doesn't lose money in a significant way, another film is probably in the Hieggelkes' future.

"Yeah, but one at time," laughs the editor-turned-movie producer. "It's not a 'one and done' thing, but it's also not something where we have five projects in development right now."