It’s a typically warm July evening and the chairs at the South Side Community Arts Center are filled with strange bedfellows. Sixty-year-old former gang members.Â Twenty-something film geeks from the North Side. A state senator. Given a casual glance, this is the kind of scene that improv games and creative writing prompts are made of. For organizer Michael W. Phillips Jr., though, this ragtag attendance is validation for his latest endeavor, a roving film series called South Side Projections.
“This is what I want to do,” he says excitedly. “Bring these really interesting groups together in a situation where they might never [have] come together before.” Phillips has years of experience working in the nonprofit world, but his quirky graphic tee and worn jeans place him firmly in a younger demographic. Phillips is thoughtful and amiable–two traits that easily explain his ability to drop the names of dozens of connections in the Chicago arts and nonprofit scenes.
Before starting South Side Projections, Phillips spent six years working at the Bank of America Cinema on the North Side. When the theater unwound its final reel in December of last year, he decided to turn his gaze towards his home neighborhood of Hyde Park. Working with the Hyde Park Alliance for Jazz and Culture, Phillips projected jazz films from neighborhood spaces. He remembers, “It was really fun to sit in a storefront with this clattering projector and show 70-year-old movies. I decided I wanted to expand that, so without any idea what the hell I was doing, I started a nonprofit.” The initial events engaged attendees and reimaging of an ordinary space impassioned Phillips into starting South Side Projections, spurring him to commit the next six months of his life into showing great films in unexpected places.
South Side Projections has all of the trappings of a typical movie theater–except, of course, the theater itself. This isn’t an accident–it is how the organization was designed to work. In its day-to-day operations, South Side Projections is a one-man show. While the organization has a small board of directors, Phillips does most of the work: booking speakers, managing press, setting up the screen and projector. The series banks on the existence of other enthusiastic but tight-budgeted non-profit organizations willing to give its screenings a home. So far, South Side Projections hasn’t been lacking for willing hosts. Phillips describes the process with elegant simplicity: “I find an interesting film that I want to show, and then I find an organization with space.”
Previous collaborations have included screening a film about the Chicago Vice Lords street gang at the aforementioned South Side Community Arts Center and showing a series of documentary shorts about the civil rights movement on the site of the historic Pullman railcar factory. Phillips argues that while these venues occasionally pose technological challenges, the viewing experience is brought to life by the meaningful spaces and company. Recalling a friend’s reaction to an event, Phillip says, “Being there with people who lived through it was so much more effective than just watching something on your TV.”
Others seem to agree, as the turnout has steadily increased. Each of the organization’s events has managed to do what plenty of other community groups struggle to achieve: bring together an audience that is representative of the diverse heritage of the South Side.
The heterogeneous crowd that attends South Side Projections screenings is no doubt due–at least in part–to Phillips’ keen eye for selecting films. While a film buff at heart, Phillips’ taste in movies has more in common with that of “Transformers” director Michael Bay than any be-tweeded professor. “I’m not going to show Ken Burns-style documentaries with people sitting in front of, like, bookcases. Slow pans across photographs–I hate that so much,” he explains with passion. “If your title has a colon in it, rethink it. I’m not interested in watching someone’s dissertation.”
Admission to all of South Side Projections’ events is currently give-what-you-want, and while the organization has low operating costs, money can still be an issue. Currently, Phillips is using proceeds from a city arts grant to submit South Side Projections for federal 501(c)(3) non-profit status. This recognition, he hopes, will allow the organization to apply for grants and to accept corporate sponsorships. “But I don’t want like ‘Nike presents,’” he clarifies.
Phillips’ ultimate vision for South Side Projections isn’t too far from what he already has. “I wouldn’t build a theater,” he says. After a pause he adds, “I don’t think I’d expand beyond what I’m already doing. More of a budget would mean that I could do this more often. That I could pay people to help me do it. And maybe pay myself.”
Though a personal paycheck isn’t off the table, it really does appear that Phillips is sincere in his simple goal to bring good film events to the South Side. “I’ve got a movie and I’ve got people to come and speak and I’ll handle press and I’ll bring my own projector and I’ll bring my own screen, and all you have to do is unlock the door,” he says, mimicking the pitch he provides to the non-profits with which South Side Projections collaborates.