Little company, big movies

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.


It’s not a business plan a banker would approve. “Essentially, right now as a company, the four of us are doing this for free,” says John Klein ’06 of the associates running Glass City Films, the Chicago-based production house he and his former Toledo, Ohio, high-school classmate Cole Simon formed in 2007.

“We believe that we as a company can make movies that stand up to the bigger films,” the 26-year-old says of Glass City’s feature work. Along with such movies, the firm also produces short films and music videos, and is edging into commercial work.

MGM, DreamWorks or Warner Bros. probably have nothing to fear from a little company trying to make some big films, but that’s not the point. Instead, the Glass City Films associates want the creative freedom to produce narrative cinema on their own terms. “We’re just going to make the best movies that we possibly can,” Klein says.

That “we” includes company members Klein as producer, Simon as artistic director, Kiana Harris as marketing director and Mike Molenda ’06 as post-production supervisor.

The idea for the company started when Klein took a movie script he’d written to Simon, who was then a graduate student in Columbus, Ohio, and asked for his help in shooting the film, called Glass City. It was based on an amateur theater company the two had been involved with in Toledo, which is known as Glass City because for decades companies there supplied glass for car windshields, dinnerware and buildings.

The two fine-tuned Klein’s script, opened a limited liability company under the Glass City name, gained some investors, and shot the film in summer 2007 for about $40,000. It premiered eight months later in Toledo and then won the Best Drama award at the 2009 Trail Dance Film Festival in Oklahoma.

In the following years, Klein and Simon, then both in Chicago, partnered with Harris, Molenda and 15 investors to continue the work of Glass City Films. “We had the drive to make other movies under the same name,” says Klein.

Like any decent business, the company members also hammered out goals and put together a mission statement: “We are a professional, Midwest-based film production house that attracts, promotes, and fosters regional artists through powerful narrative cinema.”

Staying in the Midwest was key for a couple of reasons. All four Glass City associates live and work in the Chicago area. They also have friends and relatives in the Midwest who help with various projects. That includes Bill Donaruma ’89, who teaches in the Notre Dame Department of Film, Television and Theatre. Donaruma was director and co-editor of the Bengal Bouts documentary Strong Bodies Fight, on which Klein was the cinematographer.

“There is so much potential for artistic growth and artistic achievement in the Midwest,” says Klein. And in Chicago, he adds, “Everyone wants to help everyone else.”

Since its early days, the company has produced two more feature films. Happily After — “a twisted take on romantic comedies” — was shot in August and September of 2009 in Chicago, with Klein directing. In an amazing turn-around, Separation Anxiety, directed by Simon from a screenplay by Jeremy Sony ’01, was shot in October and November of 2009 entirely in Ohio. In that movie, two childhood friends come to terms with the sudden loss of their best friend. Both were shown last fall in Illinois and in Ohio.

“We just did two features back to back, says Klein with justifiable pride. “What’s going to top that?”

Since the premiers of the two films, Klein says the company’s focus is now to enter them in various festivals and to do a lot of networking. “We hope to sell them, but the main thing right now is just exposure.” As part of that, he adds, “we’re planning on attending any film festival we get into.”

That’s particularly important because these days “the opportunities for low-budget filmmaking are off the charts,” he says. “The big challenge is to distinguish ourselves from the glut of independent movies that are out there now.”

The other big challenge is for the company members to manage the time they give Glass City Films while keeping up with their paying work.

For Klein, 2010 was “a very good year.” Along with financial success in his day job as a freelance cinematographer, that good year included getting married to Kathleen Sullivan ’08.

For Molenda, 26, who moved to Chicago in 2007 and works as a freelance editor, lighting electrician and graphic designer, last year was a “long journey” of doing post-production on the two Glass City feature films. That editing essentially became his regular, though nonpaying, work. At times, he says, he felt like he was “picking up odd jobs on the side to pay the bills.”

Today, Molenda says, “We are teetering on the brink of what is hopefully going to be one heck of a ride.”

If Glass City Films goes as they all hope, Klein says, “Our end game: make it our full-time job.”

Carol Schaal is managing editor of this magazine.
See to order the company’s movies.