"What's your favorite movie, Brian Hieggelke?"
"'Citizen Kane,'" he said.
"Oh, God," said his wife, Jan, standing nearby in the couple's book- and art- and sunlight-filled apartment in the Printers Row neighborhood in the South Loop.
Brian had just arrived home after spending some time at what functions as his office, and a finer, more lively office one would have a hard time finding: Hackney's, the bar/restaurant noted for its hamburgers and beer, just up the street.
It was there that he talked about Newcity, the self-proclaimed "only locally owned and operated cultural weekly" that he and his wife and younger brother Brent started in 1986 after abandoning careers in the investment banking world. He talked about surviving all manner of tremors and terrors and circulation dips that have done in any number of ink-on-paper publications over in the past decades. And he excitedly talked about making the publication's latest leap, into the precarious business of making movies.
Hieggelke announced his cinematic intentions in Newcity's Feb. 6 issue, writing: "Newcity is going to make a feature film. The plan is to have it finished by our thirtieth anniversary, two years from now. … This will be a film made in Chicago in every sense of the word. We plan to source the idea, secure the financing, hire the crew, cast the talent, and do all of the post-production here, using Chicagoans and Chicago ideas. Part of the inspiration for this project is to bring a journalistic aspect to the process: we will document the project, with as much transparency as possible, from inception to completion, in these pages and on a web site (ChicagoFilmProject.com) we've set up to do so."
He arrived last week at Hackney's with two of the 20-some scripts sent in so far. "There is a lot of quality so far," he said. "Some of the writers have decent pedigrees; some are kids. I haven't had a chance to fully digest them all, but maybe there is a (Quentin) Tarantino in the bunch. I am hoping, expecting, to get more than 100 manuscripts and find one great one."
Newcity Films, or whatever his new venture might eventually be called, is still a couple of years away from premiere night, but Newcity, the free bi-weekly newspaper, has defied a lot of odds in its 28 years.
"Last year was our best year ever," Hieggelke said. Without getting into specifics, he pegs the increase in circulation and advertising in the double-digits. "And during these first two months of 2014, we are doing even better than that." (Digital revenue from newcity.com was up a striking 75 percent, he said, but that remains a small part of the financial picture.)
He does admit to having lost a "considerable amount of money" when he tried an Internet venture a decade ago, and he said he takes no real pleasure in knowing his success was fueled in part by the death of other publications, notably Time Out Chicago, which ceased its print version in 2013. He is very enthusiastic about the future: "The economy has gotten better, and I think all that talk about the imminent death of print has quieted down a bit."
Over the last few years Newcity has expanded into what is called "custom publishing," providing official guides to such events and places as EXPO Chicago, Chicago Artists Month, Music Box Theatre and, most recently, UChicago Arts, focused on the University of Chicago. Newcity's special issues — Lit 50, Players, and Art 50 among them — now number seven and always cause conversation and debate.
The focus of Newcity is firmly on culture, with reviews, features and interviews. But it will, as it does in the current edition with the provocative story titled "Votes For Sale: How more money in politics might make Illinois — and America — a better place," take on politics and other matters.
Hieggelke wrote that cover story, but he and his publication, which reaches more than 75,000 readers every two weeks, have always been a welcoming home to young talents and helped nurture many writers, artists and editors. Two of the Tribune's brightest bylines are among this crowd.
Nina Metz says: "There's a real sense of style that undergirds Newcity's scrappy alt-weekly DNA, which I always found so distinctive and appealing. It doesn't hurt that Brian is a sharp writer himself. He wants it smart and maybe a little funny, but ultimately he wants it to be addictively readable. And for those of us who write for a living, that was a major draw."
Chris Jones says: "Who would possibly have guessed that publication would still be in print? Or that it would have survived as, in essence, a mom and pop publication, which is why it is still in print. Brian somehow has managed to float above and beyond the various crises and traverse different eras in journalism. Most of his peers in alternative journalism either sold out or packed it all in. Brian still is there, a survivor. I started there as the seventh-string critic, literally. Rose up to arts editor. Boy, did I see some crap. But I learned a bit."
Hieggelke shows a palpable, almost parental pride when talking about notable Newcity alums, which include the now world-famous artist Chris Ware. But he remains ever on the lookout for new voices.
A relatively recent discovery has been his lead columnist. He knew of Tony Fitzpatrick's work as an artist but became intrigued enough by Fitzpatrick's appealingly self-expressive blog to offer him the chance at a regular Page 3 column more than a year ago. Called "Dime Stories," it is accompanied by the writer's artful illustrations.
"Only Brian and Newcity are still standing for what we used to call the 'alternative press,'" Fitzpatrick says. "By dint of good stewardship, and Brian's instinct for what we were and what we were not as a city, it has thrived and grown. He has an astute sense of proportion for what his paper can speak to effectively."
Fitzpatrick has just inked a deal for a collection of his columns to be published by the increasingly productive local firm Curbside Splendor in early 2015. By that time the Hieggelkes should be up to their eyeballs in movie scripts. Making movies takes time, especially good movies.
"After Hours with Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.