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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Future of the Milwaukee International Film Festival

Crossroads for MIFF

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The Milwaukee International Film Festival (MIFF) finished its fifth season last year with another round of record-breaking ticket sales. Rarely have I ever seen consensus on any issue, but there seems to be a virtually unanimous opinion that the Milwaukee International Film Festival has been a great addition to the city and is an institution that’s here to stay.

We certainly hope it’s here to stay. But MIFF is at a crossroads. There are going to be changes that we all hope will help the festival grow and not spin out of control and crash and burn. Here, I want to lay out the history of the festival and then explain the crossroads it is facing.

The History of MIFF

In April 2002, two young men from Lake Geneva wanted to meet with Dave Luhrssen, arts and entertainment editor of the Shepherd Express and a very highly regarded film critic, to discuss their upcoming film festival, the two-day Black Point Film Festival. I went along to that meeting at La Boulangerie in the Third Ward because of my interest in international films.

After the meeting, I asked Dave why Milwaukee didn’t have an international film festival. Dave said that many people had talked about a festival for years and some even tried to launch one, but no one could make it work. In a moment of high energy, I said that we should create one.

After all, the Shepherd’s 258,800 readers already looked to it as a consistent source of high-quality arts coverage. Why not use the newspaper to vigorously and enthusiastically promote an international film festival? I spent the next several days after the meeting researching film festivals and found that 47 out of the top 50 cities had film festivals. These festivals were quickly becoming one of the major require- ments for becoming a “world-class city” in the 21st century. It became clear to me that Milwaukee not only needed a festival, but being so late in the game relative to other cities, we needed a world-class festival right from the start. We couldn’t do just a weekend festival. We had to start with a large and sophisticated 11-day event. Our goal was to create a festival that would become one of the top 10 festivals in North America and to make Milwaukeeans even more proud of their city.

I then put together a plan of action for an 11-day festival. Unlike the excellent Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison, a now 10-year-old four-day festival sponsored by the University of Wisconsin, I knew that we could not get major university support. Instead, we would have to raise the needed monies from local businesses, foundations and individuals. We needed to have our festival be highly prominent and quickly acknowledged by the city or we would not be able to raise money for the second year. I created a private nonprofit corporation that would be the vehicle for the Shepherd Express to give back to the community that has supported it for the past 26 years. The first project of this new nonprofit would be the Milwaukee International Film Festival, and the first festival took place in October 2003.

Goals of the Festival

We had four goals for the film festival: Bring screenwriters, directors and the best cinema in the world to Milwaukee for 11 days each fall to create an event that would make Milwaukee an exciting place where young professionals would want to work and live.

Break down biases and prejudices in our society. We believe that one of the best ways to better understand other cultures is by viewing high-quality cinema from around the globe. Develop a filmmaking industry and all of the ancillary businesses and jobs that are associated with it. There are tens of thousands of high-paying jobs to be had for Milwaukee if this strategy works.

As part of the film festival, we created the Midwest Filmmaker Competition, a regional contest, to begin to build the image of Milwaukee as a center for independent filmmaking. As a former state legislator, I also worked to help get the new tax credits for shooting films in Wisconsin passed in the Legislature, in order to contribute to this plan to build an industry in our area and create high-paying jobs.

Make the festival a learning opportunity for local high school students. MIFF would bring some of the highly educational films into the high schools where teacher volunteers would lead pre- and post-screening discussions. The festival would also create yearround programs where students would learn how to write a screenplay or learn all of the techniques and skills necessary to produce a short film.

The Challenge of Creating Something New

While we were planning the first festival and asking people for their support, many of them told us things like, “It just won’t work in Milwaukee,” or, “There was a reason that there was no film festival in Milwaukee,” or, “If you are able to pull off a festival the first year, don’t assume that there will be a second year,” and on and on. There were, however, enough people who believed that there was a new Milwaukee that was striving to be a great 21st-century city. Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, was perhaps the most heroic. Without her help, there might very well not have been a year two.

“I just don’t have the time to go to many movies, but I think this is a great idea and I will help any way I can,” Julia said. Unlike many people who offer to help, Julia actually rolled up her sleeves and worked very hard to raise money to make the event a success.

Even before he decided to run for mayor, Tom Barrett said the festival was something Milwaukee desperately needed. “Just tell me how I can help,” he told us. Another early player was attorney Matt Flynn, who is on a number of arts boards and was especially helpful. Chris Abele of the Argosy Foundation pledged his financial support early in the effort.

The first festival was a great success not only in bringing excellent world-class cinema to Milwaukee, but in sparking an excitement and interest in a broad base of Milwaukeeans. The festival was on the local news each night for the entire 11 days. We had films from more than 40 countries and members of various ethnic communities contacted us to tell us how proud they were to see a movie from their country being screened at the festival.

It was off to a great start. Mayor Barrett said, “I’m incredibly impressed that an independent group like the Shepherd Express just stepped forward and created an institution of this magnitude. It was an extraordinary gift to our city.”

Decision Time for MIFF

When we created the nonprofit that managed the festival, we decided to have a very small, three-person board so that we could focus our energies on growing the festival like a business and not have to worry about factional fighting that has caused the demise of many successful nonprofit organizations.

Now after five years and much discussion and thought, we feel that it may be time to cut it loose, create a new board and see if we can have it grow even faster. We are now looking at creating a new nonprofit organization completely independent of the Shepherd Express that can bring in new energy and hopefully more financial resources.

Despite the festival’s success, fundraising has always been a challenge. Film festivals are not cheap to put together. Even a mature film festival only earns about a third of its costs from ticket sales and a new festival like MIFF earns even less. It was always very difficult to raise money for the festival because the business community was initially skeptical about its prospects.

For example, when Matt Flynn and I met with Dick Abdoo, former CEO of WE Energies, Dick said, “I will support the festival, but if we make a financial commitment, how do I know that the festival will actually happen?” I told Dick that I would guarantee that a festival would be launched and that the Shepherd Express would end up being the angel if there was a shortfall in revenue and would lend MIFF the money to put on a worldclass festival. Abdoo said fine and WE Energies was onboard.

Beyond the initial investment of the Shepherd Express, the Herzfeld Foundation was the first to send MIFF a check. Major corporations led by Roundy’s, Harley-Davidson, Northwestern Mutual, Potawatomi, Time Warner, Reinhart Boerner, New Land Enterprises and Midwest Airlines saw the value of a local film festival, along with foundations such as Argosy, Bader, Brico, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Lubar Family Foundation, Jack Rosenberg Charitable Trust, Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and other contributors.

Even with all of this financial support, there was always a shortfall of about 10% to 15% that the Shepherd Express would fill each year. MIFF ran a very lean operation and our expenses were significantly less than 11-day festivals in other cities. We could have cut the festival back to a four-day event, for example, or we could believe that the festival would grow and that the investment would pay off. We were optimistic, like all entrepreneurs. The festival did continue to grow year upon year. Ticket sales tripled from the first year. We definitely made the right decision.

The Future of MIFF

The Shepherd Express was content to continue to cover the losses until the film festival could begin to develop a surplus. However, some of the foundation funders felt that a nonprofit should not be running an operational deficit. Our argument was that it was a soft debt and that no one was calling in the loan, but some donors argued that the debt was not acceptable coming on top of the large debts that some other arts and cultural organizations have accumulated.

So the Shepherd Express decided it is time to step back and to begin to assemble a new board of high-minded individuals who will hopefully fill the role played by the Shepherd of being the angel when the festival needed various resources and money.

We have a committee looking for civic minded board members who are prepared to work hard to continue to move the festival forward and raise the necessary funding. The Shepherd Express has agreed to forgive a large part of the debt that has accrued to it and the Shepherd has invited an auditor to examine the books so the new organization will get a film festival with a clean bill of health.

People have told me that this transition sounds like parents sending their first child off to college or to their first job. We knew that the child would eventually have to go off in the world to grow and develop, but we also knew that there would be risks, so we wanted to exercise our guidance as long as possible.

We know it is necessary and the right thing to do, but we, of course, are concerned. We are confident that we can find a good board, and we look forward to seeing MIFF become one of the top 10 festivals in the country.

Louis Fortis is the publisher of the Shepherd Express.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com

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