Jimbo’s Wrap-Up, Part One: Numbers, Coverage, Schedules, and Audiences at the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival
In the first of two reports after the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival, James Kreul shares thoughts and observations about ticket sales, media coverage, venue logistics, and non-film events. Part two will discuss and rank the 32 programs he previewed and attended this year.
Congratulations and thank you to all of the Wisconsin Film Festival staff and crew for a vibrant, engaging, and seamless presentation this year. Programmers Jim Healy, Mike King, Amanda McQueen, and others gave us more than enough to discuss and debate over the last month. Ben Reiser and Christina Martin-Wright addressed old and new challenges with a commitment to reminding people how important it is to see films on a big screen as a community.
By the end of our coverage, we will have posted well over 20,000 words about the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival at the Madison Film Forum. Eighteen years in, the Festival remains a important, vital, even essential part of Madison’s film culture, which is why we remain committed to explore it in depth each year.
The opening night at the Barrymore Theater had a wonderfully pulsating sense of community, and the decision to highlight the Wisconsin’s Own Golden Badger winners before the opening night film worked much better than I had expected. The closing night at Sundance presented some unique challenges due to technical obstacles (for The Love Witch) and last minute opportunities (for Love & Friendship) all of which were handled extremely well given the potential nightmare of last minute theater swaps. In between those nights, the Festival consistently affirmed its status as one the most wide-reaching annual arts events in Madison.
In last year’s wrap-up, I raised three issues before launching into the film recaps: a possible post-weekend dropoff; Sundance logistics; and post-screening socializing. Here are a few thoughts on parallel issues in 2016. I will discuss my Top Ten and Bottom Five films (out of about 30) in my next post.
What Do the Numbers Mean?
This year we’ve already had a chance to crunch some numbers at the Madison Film Forum, thanks to Sean Weitner’s contribution last week.
Last year I predicted a drop in ticket sales before 2015 numbers were announced, which turned out to be more or less right. Just to make things interesting, I’m going to guess that the numbers are slightly up from last year, but not significantly. Let’s make it even more interesting: I predict 27,654.
There’s no pressure to be right or wrong at this point, because that raw number no longer has much explanatory value.
As Sean’s 2014 numbers-crunching taught us, it’s nearly impossible for the current model of the Festival (the post-2011 “new normal”) to grow significantly. We still need to formulate another explanatory model, beyond raw numbers and anticipation of growth, to evaluate the financial success of post-2011 Festivals. It’s unlikely, however, than anyone outside of the university will do that, or have the data required to do so. Somebody will have more data to work with this year, however, thanks to the ticket barcode system.
I’m anticipating a small bump up in sales, despite my observations that attendance Friday night at the Barrymore (Morris From America and Tickled) seemed relatively light after such a dynamic opening night. Unlike last year, I sensed a relatively strong audience commitment throughout the post-weekend programming at Sundance.
The value of Sean’s number-crunching, however, is to remind us what the raw numbers can and cannot tell us.
The number that several colleagues, at Madison Film Forum and elsewhere, have debated among ourselves since the start of ticket sales has been the Festival’s claim of 20,000 tickets sold in the first two days, cited in Rob Thomas’s Capital Times coverage. As Sean suggested, this would mean that if sales remain relatively consistent with the past four years, about 75% of this year’s tickets were sold in those first two days.
If accurate, this number provides more valuable information than the final ticket sales, in my opinion, because it suggests how most patrons are selecting films, and what little impact local media coverage (reviews, previews, etc.) has on actual ticket sales.
If the Festival can sell 20,000 tickets with only two overlapping 10-film “hot ticket” lists in the Capital Times and Isthmus, then the rest of us are simply working too hard. Obviously the Film Guide itself is far more important to current active ticket buyers.
Personally, I found the numbers liberating, even though I’m also keenly skeptical about them. If most of the ticket buyers had already made their choices by March 21, the Madison Film Forum could comment more freely in its coverage that started in earnest on April 1, without fear of significantly affecting ticket sales one way or the other.
Regular readers might have noticed that this year we were more interested in starting a discussion about the films, even with negative responses. Taking seriously our mission statement—attend, stream, discuss—we shifted from just encouraging people to attend to making sure we discussed what we liked and disliked, and asked questions about how selections related to overall trends in Festival programming. (We’re going to repeat the “deep cut” analogy until it sticks, gosh darn it.)
The question then becomes: How will other local reviewers approach the Festival if opening weekend ticket sales suggest that it is critic proof? Does the Festival actually need significant coverage after March to succeed at the same level annually? Can it do just as well with much fewer column inches devoted to it during April?
I ask this question because it is becoming less and less economically viable to cover the Festival with anything approaching an appropriate breadth. Distributors no longer need to worry about Festival reviews longer than capsules, because only capsules are possible if anyone attempts breadth of coverage.
If the key to advance sales is that initial push, the Festival might consider releasing more information in March, so that local coverage doesn’t simply parrot titles and plot descriptions. The big, exciting coverage that requires more research time should come earlier. The simple recap and summary stuff should come later.
Because of the high percentage of sales in the first two days, I’d like to see more voices join us and engage the programming with a healthier sense of debate and discussion. If the released numbers are accurate, we’re not talking to people who need to make a decision about what to see. The decisions have already been made in March, so a more open discussion can begin every April.
The other consequence of such a high percentage of total ticket sales in the first two days is that the many sell-outs of advance tickets must have an impact more casual, last minute participation by potential new patrons. This isn’t a problem as long as the people who have been going to the Festival for over a decade keep buying tickets as soon as the Film Guide is published. But who is starting to go to the Wisconsin Film Festival in 2016, and will they keep going through 2026?
It’s becoming painfully obvious, especially in the Festival trailer, that the core Festival audience is getting old. Old people plan ahead. Young people decide what they’re doing Friday night on Friday night. The Festival needs to begin to account for that difference. Maybe not this year, or even next. But soon.
Oh, and one question about the trailer: students?
Sundance Programming Flow
Like last year, the logistics of moving people around between screenings was handled very well this year. I appreciated new ideas and strategies introduced this year to try to improve things even more. While there was some experimentation last year with capping the length of lines in the lobby and sending people outside to line extensions, the tactic was executed far more extensively this year, with good results. Good weather helped, of course.
I spent a lot of time at Sundance this year, deliberately deciding not to hop venues very much. I minimized travel time to maximize the number of films I would see. But curiously, I found trying to simply hop from film to film within the Sundance schedule occasionally very challenging, particularly on Saturday when film transitions were very tight.
Now, I realize that complaining about the difficulty of seeing films back to back sounds more than a little obnoxious. But it doesn’t always have to be this way. In fact, things were much better on Friday, when I had enough in-seat time to write most of my journal entry.
One big obstacle facing the Festival this year was that it took place the same weekend as a major Epic Corporation conference in Verona, which quickly takes over area hotels, even in downtown Madison. This resulted in multiple sponsoring partner hotels, and several different post-film gathering locations.
I can’t comment on the results of that strategy, because I only went to official Festival events at the beginning (Harmony Bar) and the end (Great Dane). I went to those because they were close to the Festival venues.
The most interesting and vibrant post-film event that I attended was the Smart Studios Story gathering at the High Noon Saloon on Sunday night. That concert related to the Festival, but it was not of the Festival. It connected the Festival to Madison’s larger arts and music scene, which more non-film events could attempt to do.
Our colleague David Klein at LakeFrontRow shared his thoughts about the filmmaker panels hosted by StoryFirst Media and Film Wisconsin. I will only add to his on-point comments that the panel that I attended did feel like I had entered a secret garden when I found it on the second floor of Sundance. This kind of thing used to be important at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
That said, I admire the commitment from StoryFirst and Film Wisconsin in making the panels happen, and their efforts at outreach by working with Focal Flame Photography to stream the panels live on the Wisconsin Film Festival YouTube page.
Rather than suggest that the Festival recommit itself to its social and networking role through non-film events and gatherings, however, I’m going to suggest just the opposite. The Festival should commit itself to outsourcing non-film events more vigorously, because the Festival currently projects the vibe of lacking interest in them. The only question then would be how to integrate such outsourced events more fruitfully within Festival publicity. Including them in the programming grid would be a good place to start.
My Old Saw
I’ll end this non-film portion of my Festival recap with another annual call for the Festival to more formally reinvent itself with a clear and comprehensive mission statement, which would take into account how it has changed over its first 18 years and how it will change over the next 20.
Jake Smith’s report of Jim Healy’s introduction to The Well suggests a possible starting point: screenings as an act of advocacy. That’s a mission, a great one in fact. It’s a mission worth foregrounding in the Festival message beyond one film introduction. Audiences should understand that they’re attending an act of advocacy long before the introduction starts.
It’s a different mission than the one that drove the early days of the Festival, when its initial infrastructure was assembled. Some aspects of that infrastructure might need to be jettisoned in order to efficiently and effectively pursue that mission (see outsourcing suggestion, above).
Such a mission statement, if clearly stated, would render moot many current criticisms of the Festival, especially most of mine.