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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – State of the Festival

Posted on Oct 12, 2016 by | 0 comments

By pretty much every measure imaginable, the Milwaukee Film Festival is a huge success. Attendance grew 8% this year to 76,899, impressive considering that they didn’t add any new venues. Not a single screening I attended this year was less than well attended. Sell outs were up. Money given out was up. Sponsors were up. In a short amount of time, the Milwaukee Film Festival has become one of the most attended film festivals in the United States.

The films that the Milwaukee Film Festival attracts might not quite be on the awards spearhead that come to the Toronto, Telluride, or New York, at least so far, but there are more very good or great movies than you can attend at the festival. And it’s starting to fully develop its own traditions as I’d put the yearly silent film screening or the Stop Making Sense dance party as great experiences for any festival in the world. If you want to see great films, at an affordable price, the Milwaukee Film Festival is fully accomplishing its goal.

That said, there are issues that Milwaukee Film is taking on that are still challenges. Clearly a mission statement for the Milwaukee Film Festival this year was to reach beyond the segregated lines of Milwaukee to its African-American and Latino communities. The Black Lens program and the brand new Cine Sin Fronteras program were two such efforts and it was to Milwaukee Film’s credit that they didn’t stop at those two categories but had an emphasis on minority outreach in the various other categories, including high profile Spotlight and Competition programs with THE FITS (winner of the Milwaukee Film Festival’s competition prize), QUEEN OF KATWE, MORRIS FROM AMERICA, LOVING, and MILWAUKEE 53206: A COMMUNITY SERVES TIME being among the heavily featured films. MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE won theĀ 2016 ALLAN H. (BUD) AND SUZANNE L. SELIG AUDIENCE AWARD for feature film. John Ridley was added to the Board of Directors. The Milwaukee Film programming committee didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk.

But, did it work? I don’t have full demographics of the festival, but I’d say that the results were mixed at best. I saw a large crowd of African-American attendees come out of MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE and the fact that the film won the audience award should attest to their satisfaction. On the other hand, the lack of minority attendance at John Ridley’s keynote was remarked upon and for much of the festival I saw the usual suspects of East Side regulars. Milwaukee Film absolutely gets credit for trying, but obviously challenges still remain.

Part of the issue is certainly that the Milwaukee Film Festival is a prisoner of its own logistics limitations. With the exception of the Times Cinema, the neighborhood theaters that make up the festival are all on the East Side of Milwaukee. John Ridley in his keynote suggested that Milwaukee Film has to go to where the people are rather than expect people to cross the segregated lines of Milwaukee and I think he’s right. Obviously, Milwaukee Film can’t screen a film where there are no theaters, but there’s nothing preventing them from holding an event like the John Ridley keynote at a school, church, or other local venue that is in a different part of the city. The Times might have been a better option for the John Ridley keynote or even Miller Park. Churches and other local venues would certainly be good targets for outreach throughout the year. Maybe there is something more that can be done to arrange mass transportation to the venues.

And, if there are no theatrical venues in underserved areas, perhaps Milwaukee Film can be instrumental in developing a solution to that. Minneapolis’s Trylon Microcinema is supported by a 501(c)3 nonprofit and the same organization muscle that created Milwaukee Film could develop something similar. Milwaukee Film dreamed big to achieve its growth, it certainly can explore ways to grow the festival into other parts of the city.

That takes nothing away from Milwaukee Film’s efforts this year. No one is expecting Milwaukee Film to single-handedly solve Milwaukee’s racial divides. They certainly are trying to be part of the effort to unify the city. But, they can try to do more than just program films that appeal to various minority communities in the city. What more they can do calls for creativity and commitment as there’s plenty of work to be done.

One other thing Milwaukee Film is trying to do is help spark the film community. Certainly it has had a positive effect, as the number of locally produced films that are entered in the festival is rapidly increasing. Yet, it’s fair to say that Milwaukee isn’t exactly on the verge of developing a thriving commercial film industry.

John Ridley addressed the nature of the importance of tax subsidies in his keynote, which unfortunately is beyond the means of Milwaukee Film to create. Milwaukee Film can certainly make the topic public and there are many influential sponsors associated with Milwaukee Film, but with Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin having problems paying for schools and roads it’s hard to see where the money would come for any tax subsidies. I doubt a special license plate would raise the funds necessary on a sustainable basis. Perhaps, there are options to explore at the Century City complex to develop technical facilities for the filmmaking community. As John Ridley noted, there are plenty of jobs in the filmmaking community that involve technology and no area needs good paying jobs more than the area near Century City, but it’s hard to say if there’s the capital, will, and vision to chase filmmaking vs. other more traditional manufacturing jobs.

Again, it’s to Milwaukee Film’s credit that they want to be more than a really good film festival, but also an agent of positive change. On the former front, it’s remarkable what they have done. In a short amount of time, they’ve built up the Milwaukee Film Festival to being competitive with all but the very premiere festivals in North America, and perhaps a better and more accessible bargain. They’ve created a cultural celebration for the City of Milwaukee that is one of the highlights of the calendar. And they did all that leveraging existing assets like the Oriental Theatre. I’ve been personally lobbying them for a STEM program, but clearly the people in charge know what they’re doing. Milwaukee Film enjoys plenty of support with one of the largest membership bases in the world. They’ve earned all that. The agent of positive change front is something that’s more of a challenge, and probably something that will only be effective on the margins. It’s notable because it was so visible this year, although there is room for improvement.

I want to thank everyone involved in Milwaukee Film for creating a first class film festival. And I want to thank Megan Benedict for the opportunity to cover the festival. Being a member of this great organization is something I don’t regret. We managed to cover 22 films plus some other events and I hope our coverage was worthy of the hard work everybody put in and what they achieved. With any luck, we’ll be covering the Milwaukee Film Festival again next year.

Robert Reineke
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