Milwaukee Film Festival finds groove turning niche films into big events

On a rainy night last week, about 1,100 people lined up to see an 85-year-old silent experimental Russian film at the Oriental Theatre during the Milwaukee Film Festival.

Under normal circumstances, “Man With a Movie Camera” wouldn’t fill the seats of a smaller theater, despite the dazzlingly innovative 1929 film having been voted the best documentary of all time.

But lines like these are common during a festival that turns specialty films into special events.

“Line out the door!!!” screenwriter Grace McPhillips wrote on Twitter when her film, “The Other One,” was shown at the Times Cinema last week as part of the festival.

“It was far and away the biggest audience we’ve ever had,” said New York filmmaker Johanna Hamilton, whose “1971” was this year’s opening-night film at the festival. “And we filled the theater twice,” she said in an email. She called the audience response “phenomenal.”

Such a devoted audience is the foundation of an event that, in its sixth year, has found its groove.

The films may be niche, but the appeal of the 15-day Milwaukee Film Festival — which runs through Thursday — is widespread and growing.

“I want the festival to someday mean the same thing to the community as Summerfest does,” said festival executive and artistic director Jonathan Jackson.

This year, the film festival’s main stage acts have included homegrown talent such as John Ridley, and David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams. But smaller films are proving to be its bread and butter.

Booming attendance, sold-out shows and a 100% increase in the number of people who pay $60 to $3,000 to be members confirm the festival’s appeal.

The festival’s membership base of 3,000 “is among the top five in the country,” Jackson said.

Filmgoers invested

The number of members — who are invited to “secret screenings and can buy tickets in advance and at a discount” — “is our No. 1 metric,” Jackson said. It’s “people putting skin in the game. And because it is truly philanthropic support, people tend to come in at an entry level and grow from there.”

One enthusiastic supporter is Shorewood resident Sarah Fenicio, 28. She attended Tuesday’s screening of “Man With a Movie Camera” and pronounced it “exceptional. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Fenicio and her husband, Jeremiah Hayes, 36, became Milwaukee Film members this year after attending the festival in years past.

Fenicio and Hayes picked up program books the day they became available, “and we each circled which films we were interested in.” She bought tickets for 18 films, including the sold-out showing of Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” and was second in line at the Oriental box office when they went on sale.

“We love, in any way shape or form, to support the fest,” Fenicio said. “The discount you get for tickets didn’t hurt either.”

A ‘non-stressful’ festival

Jackson estimated that the 2013 attendance of 55,000 — including ancillary events — was among the top 20 among film festivals around the country. The 2013 Sundance Film Festival, for comparison, listed an attendance of around 45,900.

But unlike Sundance, “where everyone has to fly” into Park City, Utah, Milwaukee is “where people from the city where a festival is held are able to attend, able to buy tickets in a non-stressful, (non-)life-destroying way, and able to park their car,” said director Debra Granik, who was the subject of a tribute and presented her new documentary, “Stray Dog,” at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival.

This year’s festival is screening films at four theaters: the Oriental, 2230 N. Farwell Ave.; the Downer Theatre, 2589 N. Downer Ave.; the Times, 5906 W. Vliet St.; and Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, 334 E. Silver Spring Drive, Whitefish Bay. Ancillary events also are being held at locations near the theaters.

Granik, whose film “Winter’s Bone” also screened at the festival, called the Milwaukee festival “one of those hidden gems,” and she said the local infrastructure of theaters, coffee shops and restaurants was “a dream come true.”

Jackson said the festival treats filmmakers “like kings.” It provides free airfare and hotel rooms. A hospitality suite is stocked with beverages and food and is a “place to get away, conduct business and network.” And four festival drivers are available 24 hours a day.

Local support

Membership, ticket sales and merchandise represent 37% of the festival’s cash budget of $1.6 million. The rest comes from foundations, individual gifts and corporate sponsors.

An in-kind budget of $800,000 from service providers includes putting guests up at the Milwaukee Marriott Downtown.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been the festival’s presenting sponsor since the event’s founding and is in the last year of a two-year commitment.

“As we do with all our sponsorships, we’ll sit down soon to evaluate — and make sure it continues to meet our marketing needs,” Journal Sentinel president and publisher Elizabeth Brenner said in an email.

Brenner said the planned merger with the E.W. Scripps chain “will have no influence” on any decision.

“If anything, I’d hope to help connect” the festival “with counterparts in other Journal Media Group cities who may be thinking of starting their own festival,” she said.

The festival, Brenner said, “is a significant ‘rite of passage’ for Milwaukee as a serious arts community.”

Building a foundation

The Milwaukee Film Festival was on shaky ground after its founding in 2009 but reached a turning point when it began hiring non-local people on the festival circuit who shared other festival strategies, Jackson said.

The festival now has seven year-round staffers, about 75 seasonal workers, 200 to 300 volunteers and a board of directors comprised of the city’s movers and shakers.

Another development was creating different sections of the festival and programming films for them. The addition this year of Mexican and African-American film programs “allows us to engage with a wide and diverse” community, Jackson said.

At a screening and reception presented by the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee, a youth mariachi group performed.

“I’m trying to figure out ways to do more unique ‘wow’ moments you only get at a festival,” Jackson said.

Jackson, 36, grew up in Cleveland and moved to Milwaukee in 1998 to study film at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree.

UWM’s film department “is a key contributor to the festival’s growth and success,” Rob Yeo, film department chairman, said in an email.

Besides alumni like Jackson and marketing director Blyth Meier, the school provides “an increasing number of excellent productions” shown in the festival. More than half of the films in the festival’s shorts programs were by UWM alumni, faculty and students, Yeo said.

Jackson worked as manager and projectionist at UWM’s Union Theatre and was programmer of the Milwaukee International Film Festival for five years until Argosy Foundation CEO — now Milwaukee County executive — Chris Abele withdrew financial support for that festival.

Abele and the Herzfeld Foundation provided seed money for the new festival and recruited Jackson. Abele has rejoined the festival’s board of directors.

Jackson said the films shown at the festival “are not my personal taste or films I love the most. After…years of programming in Milwaukee, I think I understand where the audience is at.”

“You can program the greatest festival in the world,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter if there aren’t butts in the seats.”

Email: [email protected]

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THE BIG MOVIE GIG

The 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival continues through Oct. 9. For tickets, schedules and other information, go to the festival’s website: mkefilm.org.

Follow Journal Sentinel film critic Duane Dudek’s coverage of the film festival on his blog, The Dudek Abides (jsonline.com/dudek), and on Twitter: @TheDudekAbides.