Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker was the first to report last week that Brenda Sexton is leaving her high-profile job as head of the Illinois Film Office at the end of the month and that her successor is Betsy Steinberg, a vice president at Towers Productions who “worked on the governor’s re-election TV commercials.” The purported political connection didn’t exactly come as a shock, but at least Steinberg has chops in the film industry–when Sexton got the job four years ago there was a fuss over what looked like Illinois politics as usual. A real estate broker, she’d been married to entrepreneur Blair Hull, a major Blagojevich backer at the time. But the next day Zwecker tucked a correction into the middle of his column: “While Steinberg’s impressive 18-year filmmaking career does include producing, writing and directing a ton of award-winning documentaries for everyone from A&E to the History Channel to PBS and MSNBC, she did not (as I incorrectly reported) have anything to do with Gov. Blagojevich’s TV commercials for his re-election campaign.”
OK, so how was Steinberg selected? Andrew Ross, a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (which includes the film office), told me Zwecker’s original statement was a “complete mistake.” According to Ross, Steinberg was chosen for the plum $90,000-a-year gig strictly because “her background and experience match the demands of the film office” and she was “in a top position in one of the top production companies in Chicago.” The governor’s office “reached out” to her, he says; no one else was interviewed. When I asked Steinberg how she came to the governor’s attention during a phone interview that was chaperoned by Ross, he jumped in to answer: “We’re always on the lookout for the right people for the right positions.” (He didn’t say how it serves the public interest to have one state employee monitor the statements of another. But I digress.)
Though Steinberg may in fact be the perfect person for the job, her experience prior to her arrival in Chicago in 1998 couldn’t have hurt. A Saint Louis native, she was hired by legendary Democratic political consultant Bob Squier after graduating from the University of Colorado in 1987. The father of the televised political campaign, Squier was an important image maker in seven presidential election bids, starting with Hubert Humphrey and ending with Al Gore. Originally a documentary filmmaker, he quickly turned his expertise to political use; President Clinton eulogized Squier at his funeral in 2000, and Bill Daley was among the Democratic leaders who attended. Steinberg was hired in part to research a documentary Squier was making on Ernest Hemingway, but she was also a producer for his media consulting firm for a decade and worked on the Clinton/Gore campaigns in 1992 and 1996. She says she never worked on any campaigns for Illinois candidates and doesn’t know Bill Daley. But it wouldn’t be surprising if someone in local Democratic circles thought she’d be a good choice for the state film office.
For the last eight years Steinberg’s been working for Towers Productions, the successful film company launched in 1989 by former CNN correspondent Jonathan Towers from a bedroom in his Chicago apartment. Towers saw that there’d be a market in TV, especially among burgeoning cable stations, for material from independent documentary makers. He developed a working alliance with former news anchor Bill Kurtis and has been producing series and specials for the likes of A&E, the History Channel, National Geographic, and PBS ever since. (His work with Kurtis includes the long-running A&E series American Justice and The Unexplained.) Towers Productions, which also does fact-based dramas, now employs 120 people in a sprawling facility on Randolph. Steinberg joined Towers in 1998 as a producer and rose to the position of vice president of development. Responsible for bringing in business, she’s done everything from brainstorming new ideas to selling them to the networks. As director of the film office she’s looking forward to “coming up with new ideas for marketing the state” and says she’s “really excited about building on the tremendous work that’s already been done.”
For all the initial griping about Sexton’s appointment, she’s credited with getting the legislature to approve a financial incentive intended to put Illinois back on the playing field in the highly competitive film-production industry. The so-called tax credit, passed in 2003 and beefed up when it was renewed last summer, has succeeded in rejuvenating television ad production here, underwriting 20 percent of the costs of commercials for companies like Sears. But so far it’s failed to attract many feature films, which are courted with direct rebates in some other states and Canada. No one from Hollywood has rushed in to film during a Chicago winter except for actor Vince Vaughn, who’s here now shooting Fred Claus. And so far there are only two other films slated for 2007.
When Blair Hull lost his bid in a senatorial race two years ago (after divorce papers, including Sexton’s restraining order against him, became public), there may have been a drop in Sexton’s political clout. She says she and the governor’s people had a talk about her future in mid-December, and when she told them she’d be leaving in ’07, the response was that “sooner would be better than later.” Now she’s headed for Hollywood–after meeting “a gazillion people,” she’ll try her luck as an executive producer. “My career previous to this was putting major deals together,” she says. “And out there, they’re deal people.”
You Get What You Pay For
Last week word came from a west-coast public relations firm that the Chicago Public Library has been “rebranded,” a job done pro bono by San Francisco-based Landor Associates at the request of a member of the Chicago Public Library Foundation. Ed Keller, who heads Landor’s Chicago office, says the rebranding was handled by staff members here and in Cincinnati, where the design work was done.
The “revitalized identity” consists primarily of a redesign of the library’s elegant old logo, a filigreed round seal that looks like it might have come from the hand of Louis Sullivan. The new logo, currently being phased in, looks like it could button your jeans or get you a ride on the subway. Landor values labor on the project at $90,000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.