Discuss: 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival

What should Wisconsin Film Festival coverage look like during the ticket sales period?

After a glitch at the start of last year’s Festival, and internal changes at Madison Film Forum this year, James Kreul outlines some changes in Wisconsin Film Festival coverage in 2017.

Slow and steady wins the race. That’s what I’ve been telling myself as I begin to assemble contributors for our Wisconsin Film Festival coverage this year. Last year’s Festival Film Guide launch taught me a few things, and I hope that colleagues at other outlets will also take some time to contemplate what last year meant for their coverage as well.

Without assigning blame, or really getting into any details because they are water under the bridge, there was a glitch last year concerning when Festival titles could be announced and discussed leading up to the Film Guide publication. I’m less concerned about who said what when, and more concerned now about the consequences of the glitch. Personally, I felt compelled to speed up our traditional three-part schedule announcement coverage (“Big Auteurs,” “Big Indies,” “Big Docs“). But it is impossible to do that kind of combing of the schedule quickly and to have anything original to say along the lines of analysis. We ended up following our original publication schedule—the three days leading up to the opening of the Box Office—but much of it felt like old news by the arrival of the third installment.

Generally speaking, what I read elsewhere was somewhat hurried recapitulation of Festival press materials or quotes from Festival staff. This is what you have to do when you’re in scoop mode, or when you have to respond to a scoop. But if this is all you do in order to seem timely or newsworthy, then wait a month for the Festival itself to begin, there are a lot of films—and issues and concerns—that are going to fall through the cracks.

This year the Madison Film Forum will significantly slow down its coverage of the Wisconsin Film Festival, and we encourage our colleagues to do the same.

We’re going to spread out the three installments of our schedule analysis and not concern ourselves with the Film Guide publication date (March 9), or our usual deadline of the opening of the box office. Those installments, in turn, will be shorter to provide more time and space to discuss the films themselves as they become available to preview. By allocating our limited resources more efficiently, we hope to improve our post-Festival coverage and analysis, which admittedly was lacking last year.

Part of the motivation here has to do with internal changes at Madison Film Forum, as contributors Jake Smith and Taylor Cherry have gone on to other projects and life changes. There are also several reasons to slow down and value depth over speed, with the health of Madison’s film culture in mind.

First, it became clear to me last that it was a huge mistake to forsake Wisconsin Union Directorate Film programming in March because we were too busy with the Wisconsin Film Festival. In terms of year-round impact on Madison’s film culture, WUD Film has become too important to ignore for a month. I think WUD Film makes a strategic error each time it mounts ambitious programs like next week’s Directress Film Festival when they know perfectly well local film coverage will be dominated by the Wisconsin Film Festival in March and April. (The Directress Film Festival begins the same day the Film Guide is published!) But as far as the Madison Film Festival is concerned, the story next week is the Directress Film Festival (we hope to post two reviews). We will get to the Wisconsin Film Festival Film Guide in due time.

Second, if the reported ticket sales from last year are accurate, the Wisconsin Film Festival box office doesn’t need us to rush our coverage. As I noted last year, if previous reporting has been correct, then about 75% of 2016 Festival tickets were sold in the first two days of sales. (That stat draws from the work of Sean Weitner and the reporting of Rob Thomas in the Capital Times). The Festival has established a ticket selling machine in which audiences know what they want pretty much from the Festival Guide; for more about this conclusion consult my observations from the front lines at the box office last year. Now, is that machine currently driven by old people who are going to die at some point and need to be replaced by young audiences for the Festival to survive in the long run? Sure. But they’re not all going to die this March. Everything will be fine…for now.

Everyone I know who has done any serious writing about the Wisconsin Film Festival locally has at some point expressed to me (or to their readers) how important the Festival is for Madison. Although we’re supposed to remain journalistically neutral, I think we all want the Festival to succeed financially and secure support for years to come. But the numbers already tell us, more or less, the range of ticket sales this year. That range will be the same this year no matter what we do over the next few weeks. So let’s do something different.

The Wisconsin Film Festival coverage needs more depth, not speed. And it needs more coverage to explore lingering issues in March, instead of waiting for April.

A key issue that needs to be discussed in March—before the Festival instead of afterwards—is the role and status of local filmmaking at the Festival. David Klein made several on-point comments in his LakeFrontRow coverage of the filmmaker panels outsourced to StoryFirst Media and Film Wisconsin last year. In response to David’s comments and my own experience at a panel, last year I wrote:

Rather than suggest that the Festival recommit itself to its social and networking role through non-film events and gatherings. . . 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.

David’s discussion and my brief comments were dead in the water, however, because they were made during the Festival when everyone is too exhausted to think about broader issues. Will those events be in the programming grid this year? We’ll find out March 9. Meanwhile, if we can raise these issues leading up to the Festival, they have a chance of being discussed more fruitfully.

Fortunately, David will follow up on his concerns about local filmmaking (not just at the Festival) in the coming weeks. He has organized a “State of State Cinema” discussion as part of the LakeFrontRow series of events at the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch on Wednesday, March 22 at 6:30. He describes his goal as “to bring together artists, film institutions like the Wisconsin Film Festival, and the general public in the hopes of further bridging the gap between the audience and the art that’s created around the state.” If you want to participate in the ongoing discussion, fill out David’s “State of State Cinema” survey. That’s the kind of discussion we need to start having in March and April, instead of summarizing press releases.

Speaking of which, I was discouraged by the first press release announcing a few Wisconsin Film Festival titles this week. The titles are great, or at least intriguing: The Salesman, Things to Come, and the animated short My Life as a Zucchini. You only have one chance to make a first impression, but this first announcement pitched the films due to their Oscar credentials (The Salesman won Best Foreign Language Film; Things to Come stars nominee Isabelle Huppert; Zucchini was nominated for Best Animated Short). The Festival has become a ticket selling machine (to that specific older target audience mentioned above) because the audience has faith in the programming experience of Jim Healy, Mike King, and others. When the Festival puts its first foot forward, it should foreground what you are going to discover at the Festival but have never heard about, rather than try to validate itself through Oscar credentials. Otherwise it’s hard to distinguish it from the All-Day Oscar Festivals at Marcus Theatres or AMC Theatres each year.

Maybe I’m wrong about that. But let’s discuss why I’m wrong over the course of the next few weeks.

Published by James Kreul

James Kreul has advocated for alternative screenings of independent, international, and experimental film in Madison since the 1990s.