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Betsy Steinberg: Keeping Illinois Alive on the Big Screen

April 13, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Benjamin van Loon

Besty Steinberg

What do the movies Public Enemies, Transformers 3, and the The Dark Knight all have in common? They’ve all been filmed in Illinois and they are just some of the films that have been brought here through Betsy Steinberg, the Managing Director at the hard-working control center of the Illinois Film Office (IFO).

Geography and architecture often have a somewhat perfunctory role in film. It is the IFO’s job to show that films made in or about Illinois have the ability to enliven the ‘world’ of a film, using the state’s distinct topography to compliment, shape and define a film’s mise-en-scène. Think of how works like Road to Perdition, High Fidelity, The Breakup, and even Wayne’s World wouldn’t be what they are if they were made anywhere else.

Iterating the artistic relevance of Illinoisan scenery is one of the many things Betsy Steinberg has done a daily basis with the IFO since her appointment to the position in 2007. However, for her job, there is no simple job description. Steinberg says, “One of the great aspects of this job is that there is no ‘typical’ work week.” On a given day, Steinberg might be found spearheading a new marketing initiative, scouting locations with local or national producers, processing location requests, managing legislative issues or working directly with any number of filmmakers on all types of independent, studio and commercial projects.

From "The Dark Knight"

After graduating with a degree in English from the University of Colorado in 1987, Steinberg got a job answering phones at a small production company. Establishing her connections early on in her career, she became a production assistant for a PBS documentary and eventually worked towards becoming their Senior Producer of the firm’s commercial production arm. After a few years in that position, using her production experience as a launching pad, she came to Chicago in 1998. Though she knew it had a vibrant film community, the driving reason for the move “wanting to live in this great city.”

She soon found work with Towers Productions, a consistently active and award-winning local production company.  Steinberg’s hard-working, executive approach to the production process led her to a Vice President’s position within the company. The commixture of her agency and freelance experience, paired with the development work she had done with The History Channel, National Geographic, MSNBC and others, were assets for this position.

In analyzing the demands of her work with the IFO, Steinberg says, “The skills I learned producing, directing and writing come into play every day.  Working in film and television teaches creative problem solving, firm decision making, adhering to strict budgets and, generally, managing chaos.” For those in the film and television world, chaos often seems to be part of the job and needs figures like Steinberg and the IFO to keep things in balance.

Aside from being a production resource, one of the primary ways the IFO provides balance is by providing tax breaks and incentives of 30% for ‘qualified Illinois Production Spending’ for filmmakers choosing to shoot in the state. Productions generate jobs and income for local crews and companies and get significant tax breaks for bringing their work into Illinois. Everyone wins. For example, aside from generating their own profits, films like Public Enemies and The Dark Knight created over $80 million of revenue for the state economy.

The IFO falls under the umbra of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO). As a state organization, Steinberg says that the IFO’s “main mission is economic development for the state.” The IFO generates a lot of income and job opportunity, and even in the midst of a shaky federal economic climate, “Governor Pat Quinn remains very supportive of [the IFO’s] efforts.”

While ‘economic development’ might not sound easy in times like these, Steinberg and the IFO have done well invigorating Illinois’ filmmaking community. In fact, Steinberg says that the public service side of her role at the IFO is one of the things she enjoys the most, aside from continuing to work with creative groups and individuals. “Whether in TV, film or advertising, this industry attracts talented, innovative, thinkers.”

Another major and enviable facet of Steinberg’s job involves helping both local and out-of-state filmmakers scout locations for filming. This brings Steinberg everywhere from the bustling streets of downtown Chicago to the rich, Cypress Forests surrounding Metropolis, in far southern Illinois, and even more obscure locations like the ominous Amstutz Highway in Waukegan or the antiquated Railroad Museum in Union.

As for some of Steinberg’s personal favorite ‘Illinois,’ movies, she says it’s a tough call to make, though the ones of at the top of the list include 2008’s The Informant, which was filmed in Decatur and The Promotion, a 2006 comedy filmed in Chicago. Topping Steinberg’s list is the inimitable John Hughes staple and, as Steinberg says, “the seminal film of my generation, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Other independent organizations and events with which the IFO is often involved include the Independent Film Project, the Midwest Independent Film Festival, Chicago Filmmakers, Women in Film.  The Shortcuts Competition, which is a short film competition in its fourth year, is sponsored by the IFO. The winner of the contest receives a cash prize and is screened at the Chicago International Film Festival.

All of these factors – legislation, development, production, community involvement – work for strengthening the vitality and diversity of the Illinois filmmaking scene. People like Betsy Steinberg and the supporting staff at Illinois Film Office are the ones making these things happen and keeping the landscape of Illinois relevant in an increasingly mutable filmmaking world.


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