The list of things the Wisconsin Film Festival does very well is a long one. In his Arts Extract article, “What We Can Learn From the Wisconsin Film Festival,” Scott Gordon points out many of them. Perhaps the two most important of Gordon’s observations are that the Festival “draws a more diverse audience than [he’s] ever seen at any other event in Madison,” and it is “housed within UW-Madison, but leverages support from a broad range of private, public, and non-profit partners.” In a city where there are “insular little pockets” within the arts community (as Gordon knows from covering them), as well as real and perceived barriers between the campus and the wider community, the Wisconsin Film Festival is a singular achievement.
To Gordon’s list I would add that the Festival has a hard-earned national reputation of doing things the right way and doing things well. This most clearly manifests itself in feedback from visiting filmmakers, who have spent time on the circuit and know a well run festival when they see one. In this year’s Festival wrap-up press release, Actress director Robert Greene says, “I knew the festival was going to be great but it exceeded even my high expectations. I wish we could have stayed longer! Congrats to all for being a part of a festival that matters and spreads the power of cinema!” And Cairo Drive director Sherief Elkatsha writes, “Thank you all for all your hard work, making it a ‘smooth’ experience—and for filling the audiences!” Filmmakers find a refreshing respite at the Wisconsin Film Festival, because it is neither a jealousy-provoking competition nor a cutthroat distribution marketplace; it is a place that they can share their work with receptive and supportive audiences.
And I hope it is obvious to anyone reading this that the Madison Film Forum would not be what it is at this point (I’ll let the reader decide what that is) without the Wisconsin Film Festival. Our growth in visitors and page views (and Facebook likes and Twitter followers) can be directly correlated to our coverage of the Wisconsin Film Festival, because Madison is always hungry for information about what films they should see each year. We’re also grateful for the legitimacy the Festival conferred to us as a new website not only by giving us access to preview screeners and press passes, but also by including us in the list of articles about the Festival on their media page, right along side the Captial Times and Isthmus/The Daily Page. Click on any of our posts from early March to now, and you will find ample testimony about the quality of the programming at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
But . . .
[Let’s first consider the “But…” turn that any constructive criticism must take. The “But…” should not negate the positive that precedes it, and the reader should keep the positive in mind in everything that follows it. It is somewhat alarming that there are very few “But…” turns in local coverage of the Festival, which suggests that healthy public critical discussion is currently lacking. We’ve all been in that classroom feedback setting where everything starts with “what I really liked” until that first criticism opens up a more productive discussion. My hope is that this article will start such a healthy discussion, rather than seeming like the loudest guy in the room who wants to hear his own voice.
One thing I quickly learned from the early days of the Wisconsin Film Festival is that everyone has an opinion. What follows below is just one person’s opinion (which occasionally draws on the opinions of others for support). The challenge that Mary Carbine and I and our colleagues faced after the first few Festivals was to distinguish between complaints from complainers and constructive feedback that might be hard to hear but needed to be considered and addressed. I’m less concerned about being right about any of the topics I will bring up this week, and more concerned that these topics are raised and moved forward to the benefit of the Festival.]
. . . I have a few suggestions for the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival. Today through Friday, I will offer five suggestions, one each day, and I will explain why I hope the suggestions will find receptive and sympathetic eyes and ears. [Edit 4/1/14: I’ve delayed the last two installments for Friday and Saturday.]
Suggestion #1: Write a clear and ambitious new mission statement to distinguish the Festival experience from “a lot of screenings in one week.”
As the institutional support for the Festival within the UW-Madison continues its transition from the Arts Institute to the Communication Arts department, this coming year will be a good opportunity to rethink and redefine the identity and mission of the Wisconsin Film Festival. Even if no goals or priorities significantly change, I think that that its current mission should be clearly articulated to the general public and to the local film-going community.
I went back into my personal archive of early Festival documents, and found Mary Carbine’s 2000 Festival report in which she listed the original goals of the Festival:
Bring the best independent, experimental, and world cinema—and filmmakers—to Madison.
Showcase the work of Wisconsin filmmakers.
Promote independent film venues and bring new audiences to these venues.
Contribute to the cultural life and diversity of the city, region, and state.
Revitalize the downtown cultural district and independent film scene.
—”Wisconsin Film Festival Summary Report / Planning Document,” Prepared by Mary Carbine, Director, Wisconsin Film Festival, June 1, 2000.
I’ll leave it to the comments section to figure out if we are really talking about the same Festival these days, but a few things stuck out to me when I looked at this for the first time in years. Experimental film was listed second in the list of types of films to be showcased in the Festival (Festival publicity materials, like those pictured in this article, highlighted the term “New Media”), and supporting Wisconsin filmmakers was a separate, distinct goal. It was originally an intention of the Festival to promote venues (which I will address in my Suggestions #2 and #3 this week). And finally, the Festival originally defined itself in relation to the downtown cultural district. But I’m not going to argue that the Festival should adhere to the goals of 2000. Instead, I’m simply saying that the current Festival would benefit from a 2015 mission statement that makes its current goals and ambitions just as clear. The best that the current Festival website has is a watered down, far more general version of something written 14 years ago in its About Us statement:
First launched in 1999, the Wisconsin Film Festival has brought more than 2,000 films to the heart of Madison, our capital city. The Festival presents the best new independent film (feature, documentary, experimental), world cinema, and restorations and rediscoveries, and showcases the works of Wisconsin filmmaking artists.
The mission of the Communication Arts department is different than the mission of the Arts Institute, so it would make sense that the mission of the Festival should evolve and change. All I’m suggesting here is the hopefully uncontroversial idea that the Communication Arts department should answer the questions: Why are you creating (and annually re-creating) the Wisconsin Film Festival, and what goals do you hope to achieve by doing so?
Time to Flip the Script and Create a New Narrative
A Madison Film Forum reader, Skip, hit on something worth thinking about when he observed, “The Festival used to feel like the circus coming to town, but now it feels simply like there are just more films showing in town.” I think many people feel this way, and the Festival needs to create a new narrative for itself so that long-time patrons (including me) are not always comparing the Festival to what it is no longer.
Do the programmers view the Festival as an extension of the UW Cinematheque, simply more of it? What difference, if any, is there between a Cinematheque program and a Festival program? Or is the Festival an opportunity to make connections between different audiences, including those who are not particularly interested in Cinematheque programming? What are some things that only the Festival can do that the Cinematheque can’t pull off at other times of the year? How might the Festival be integrated into the Communication Arts curriculum for both film studies and film production? At some point someone needs to answer these questions (and others) before the Festival can move forward within the Communication Arts department.
What kind of non-screening events might the Festival pursue that would help enhance things like: networking for local and regional filmmakers; social opportunities with visiting filmmakers beyond Q&A sessions; discussions and analyses of the works shown, from academics and critics? None of these things are necessary for a festival—at least let’s hope not, since we don’t have them anymore. But we should know if the Festival organizers and programmers would or would not like to have them. A clear and ambitious mission statement would help clarify that.
Back in 1999 and 2000 the Festival faced the challenge of changing a narrative that dominated coverage of its first years: the (never true) story that Robert Redford would come to the (Great) Wisconsin Film Festival to help present the “Golden Cheesehead” awards. Go back in the archives and you’ll be surprised how often this came up (even Entertainment Weekly ran with it). It took Mary Carbine a few years of visionary planning and hard work to shake free of that story and shape a new narrative for the Festival. Years after her departure, Carbine’s legacy continues to shape perceptions and assumptions about the Festival, and not always to the current Festival’s benefit.
The current Festival staff and programmers face a similar task of getting ahead of two dominant narratives shaping Festival coverage and conversation: “The Festival Abandoned the Downtown” (see reader comments by Tanya, Sanford, and Kris Zimmerman, and observations at Movie Outsiders) and “The Festival Attendance Has Declined” (which began with Sean Weitner’s Dane 101 coverage, and continues in his contribution to Madison Film Forum this year.). The reason that these have become dominant narratives is because there is no Wisconsin Film Festival narrative coming from the Festival itself. The Festival needs to stop looking like a disappointment because people might be framing it in an outdated narrative. The best way to do that is to create a new narrative, starting with a new mission statement.
At the very, very least, someone needs to revise the template description of the Festival that appears at the bottom of press releases. When you describe typical Festival audiences as getting “up to 34,000 attendees” at the bottom of a press release announcing the increase in attendance in 2014 to 28,300, you’re undermining your own narrative. We all know that 2015 attendance will not reach up to 34,000, it simply can’t. So write a new description that captures what the Festival is and what it will be, not what it was but no longer can be.
The Festival can and should go in any direction the organizers and programmers want to take it. I just want to know where they want to take it, and so do many other long-time Festival fans and patrons.