Reel Women: Brenda Webb, Chicago Filmmakers Exec Dir


Editor’s Note: They are leaders. They are inspirational. They are mentors. They are visionaries. They are, quite frankly, badasses. They are our 2020 Reel Women During Women’s History Month, you will be able to meet these incredible personalities in Advertising, Entertainment, Media and Production. Get ready.

Brenda Webb started at Chicago Filmmakers in 1978 as Program Director and became Executive Director in 1985. Prior to that she was an educational film editor at Treeflower Films in Chicago.

She received her B.A. in Psychology from Indiana University and studied film at Columbia College Chicago, where she went on to teach experimental film aesthetics in the film and video department.

She has served on the boards of The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture, the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, and Women in Film. In 2017 and 2019, she was chosen as one of the top 10 most influential people in the Chicago film community in Newcity’s “Film 50: Chicago’s Screen Gems.”

chicago filmmakers

She was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame for her commitment to increasing LGBTQ visibility in film through her work as founder and director of Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival. 

How did you get into the film industry?
I became interested in film when I was in college getting my degree in psychology and took a film appreciation class where I became exposed to foreign films by artists like Antonioni, Bergman, Wertmuller, and other amazing directors. Film took on a different meaning for me than it had before and I felt like I could learn more about human psychology from these filmmakers than I was from studying psychology. When I got my psychology degree, rather than continuing in that path, I moved to Chicago to learn filmmaking at Columbia College. Oddly enough, I was offered my first industry job when I was on a school field trip to a post-production house. I didn’t work long in the commercial film industry, though, opting for the non-profit arts world instead.

Who were your mentors?
Allen Ross, an experimental filmmaker and the Program Director at Chicago Filmmakers before me, was a mentor. He had an empathetic ability to intuitively understand and appreciate what an artist was expressing when it came to fairly opaque experimental films. I learned from him how to be open and receptive and to trust the artist’s intent. He inspired a reverence for the work and I revered him for it.

What is your greatest achievement?
I feel pretty good about realizing my ambition to secure a permanent home for Chicago Filmmakers. I was completely out of my comfort zone when it came to nearly every aspect of the process, from acquiring the building to overseeing construction, including working with architects, contractors, bankers, and lawyers, and spending huge sums of money – it was quite a learning experience I hope to never have to go through again!


What are your biggest pet peeves? 
People overly engaged with their cellphones when they are with their young children. Watching an infant trying to make eye contact with a parent whose eyes are glued to their phone really saddens me.

What are your predictions for the film industry over the next decade? 
The film industry is Chicago is pretty much booming, so I’d say that should continue for the next decade and beyond. Hopefully, the days are gone now where students graduating from Chicago’s many film schools have to leave the city for the coasts to find production work. What we need now is for more of the financing to come to Chicago (or stay in Chicago) to support independent film productions by Chicago creatives, so that Chicago is not just the setting for stories but the originator of stories.  

Name a job you had that would surprise people.
I was the assistant to my psychology professor in college who sent me into a boys’ reformatory to run a behavior modification program, sent me into nursing homes to talk to seniors about death and dying, and assigned me to take care of the lab rats who grew bigger, more bored, and increasingly perturbed over the summer when school was out. It was a lot for a 19 year-old to contend with.

Do you talk to yourself?
Of course I do! I think everyone does. I do talk to myself with the own internal voice, though, so I’m not talking to myself as various different characters or other people or anything like that. I probably wouldn’t admit to that!

What inspires you to be creative?
Whatever creativity I have has long been channeled into creating programs and plans for Chicago Filmmakers, where I’m the Executive Director, rather than into my own creative endeavors. I’m all about supporting other people who create. I have to say, though, I got immense creative gratification when my daughter was young and I found myself sewing elaborate costumes for her productions. She wasn’t always the star of the plays she was in, but she was the best outfitted!