The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.
Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with the Milwaukee International Film Festival, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects, including the comedy Web site, comicwonder.com.
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com.
FIRST OF THREE PARTS
We begin with a disclaimer: I have had a very close association with the Milwaukee International Film Festival since its second year. What follows are my recollections of the history of that festival. I have worked closely with all the participants at one point or another. But, as always, my personal bias informs, or infects all things.
In the year 2002, Louis Fortis, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Shepherd Express, and his arts and entertainment editor, Dave Luhrssen, had a brilliant idea. That idea became the Milwaukee International Film Festival.
Because they knew very little about film festivals they went to Jonathan Jackson, a Cleveland native and a graduate of the UWM film program. In the three years prior, Jackson had re-energized the UWM Union Theatre as its program manager, breaking attendance records and screening more films and programs than ever before.
Rubina Shafi, a Milwaukee native, was hired as managing director for the 2003 festival. Shafi had experience with several film festivals in New York City. Working with a staff of two full-time employees, plus a miraculous assortment of volunteers and interns for the first few years, the festival grew quickly.
What started as an admittedly ambitious 11-day festival with more than 100 films and 8,000 attendees in 2003 evolved into a smooth-running, important regional festival with more than 140 films from 50 different countries and more than 30,000 attendees in 2007.
In the past two years alone, the attendance at MIFF doubled. The Milwaukee International Film Festival became a showpiece for Milwaukee, a moment of great pride in the early fall, when filmmakers from around the world and around the country came to this city to see and show their films and talk about movies with both industry insiders and fellow film lovers.
The most influential people in the city and in the film industry, myself included, have celebrated the original idea and the two men who had it. Fortis, in particular, and Luhrssen, as his aide, have been celebrated much the way Richard Nixon is celebrated for his trip to China in 1972. Despite all that came after, Richard Nixon is still known as the man who opened the doors to the East.
An international film festival in Milwaukee was one of those ideas where you slap your forehead and say, "Why didn't I think of that?"
In retrospect, it was a no brainer.
A city the size of Milwaukee, with the tremendous diversity of its population, and with city managers who understand that for a civilization to truly aspire to greatness it must celebrate itself through the arts, a city like that not only deserves a good sized film festival but it requires one.
I was asked in 2004 by Dave Polacek, at that time the managing director for the festival, to speak on their behalf at a press conference. Mayor Tom Barrett also spoke. The mayor had been a great supporter of having a major film festival in Milwaukee from the beginning and remains so today. Fortis also spoke, as did Luhrssen. There was a small contingent of press present. Not as much as I had imagined. The festival itself was quite good and the attendance was, though uninspiring, quite adequate.
What inspired me at the 2004 festival was the staff of Jackson, T.J. Fackelman and Kyle Heller, and especially Michael Wautier, who seemed to be everywhere acting as a film festival guru to everyone involved.
Wautier had many years experience working at the Seattle International Film Festival, a 34-year-old festival that draws a lot of attention to that city. Fortis and Luhrssen had asked Wautier at our festival's inception to function in the role of executive consultant.
He wasn't a paid staff member but, because of his extraordinarily generous nature and knowledge in the field, everyone recognized him as executive consultant, as "the main man" in building and shaping the festival. He was everywhere, providing direction wherever there was a need to get anything done, from stuffing envelopes and licking stamps to helping guide the festival's marketing campaign.
The rest of the staff, led by Jackson, was just as committed and easily as hard working. I did an Outward Bound course many years ago, and in the wilderness they train you to make all decisions that affect the group by consensus. You talk, and argue if necessary, until everyone agrees. No bosses, just some advisors. You survive and are more successful if the group functions as an organic whole. Corporations throughout the country use these Outward Bound courses to train management.
It's an interesting theory on paper, but when it works it's a real joy. This small group of people, who put on a very smart and fun 11-day film festival (no small task) worked just that way.
In the beginning, Heller, still finishing his studies at UWM, was the festival's lead intern and assistant to the managing director. Fackelman had taken on the role of hospitality coordinator after volunteering during the 2003 festival.
Their commitment paid off because they were hired as the second half of the staff the following year. They had a passion for what they were doing and they wanted to learn. They also, each in his own way, took the initiative and were very creative. You have to be creative when you are building something from the ground up and doing it with very little capital.
It was a management style that slowed the process down and instilled a definite lack of trust in the staff towards management.
The most consistent element throughout the five-year history of the festival, the rock to which it has been anchored, and the reason volunteers like myself return year after year to give their time and energy, is Jackson and the extraordinary line-up of films he produces each year.
Producing an 11-day international film festival is akin to producing a movie or building a bridge. A year of planning and decision-making goes into making 11 days of fun seem effortless. Jackson guides the process of choosing films and in a very understated way he spiritually guides all the people who help create the festival. And he has done it for five years, through all the turmoil. He has continued to learn and to grow as an administrator and as a man.
Jackson asked me if I would like to sit on the World Cinema Program Committee to help select the international feature films for the 2005 Festival. It's a tough job, watching movies. It's time consuming and many films were hard to watch all the way through, and there were never enough comedies, and then to be articulate in your criticism ... but still, it's watching movies, how much fun can one person have? And I love movies. How could I say no?
The World Cinema Program Committee was a group of 12 to 15 people, about eight of whom would meet every Tuesday and Thursday at Wautier's apartment to screen films that had been targeted for consideration in the Festival. Carol Grossmeyer -- owner of Schwartz Bookshops -- former Sentinel writer and film critic Elfrieda Abbe and her husband, Dan Sargeant, Marquette professor Michael Fleet and his wife, educator Jean Fleet, and several others would regularly meet, watch and then talk about and score over 200 films, already pre-selected from over 1,000, in order to come up with the best 60 to show in the fall.
This committee functioned the same way the staff did. Good, strong, well thought out and passionately stated, yet civilized, discussion followed by a systematic selection process in which everyone in the group had an equal say. We began viewing films in April and went through to July, when the final choices were made.
During that year of preparation for the 2005 festival, I saw a little more of Fortis. He formed an unofficial board, people of his choosing, myself included, and called it the executive board at that time. We met infrequently, but when we did it was a quickie, in public, at a coffee shop.
Wautier and I were in the festival's office fairly often doing whatever needed to be done.Fortis seldom, if ever, came by the office. Luhrssen, functioning as executive director, a title that just seemed to appear one day next to his name, would chair occasional meetings with the staff. Again, these were so that he could be brought up to speed and so that he could communicate back to Fortis what was being done.
I went with Fortis to raise money once. We met with Jim Popp of Chase Bank to request a sponsorship for the festival's Midwest Filmmaker Competition. The Milwaukee Festival is the only festival that has a competition specifically for Midwest filmmakers. The staff thought that it would make the Festival more attractive if we offered a cash prize so Fortis and myself, because I had a certain amount of celebrity, set out to pitch the idea to highly recognizable businesses in town. Chase turned us down because we had gotten a late start and their funding operation was near the end of its cycle.
After that one "no," we never went out again. As an actor, I am used to getting no for an answer. It's easy; you just dust off and go at it again. I think Fortis took it more personally and felt that he himself had been rejected. He simply pulled back and did very little more in the way of direct fundraising.
He relied heavily on Mayor Barrett, who had been a friend for a long time. We formed another group called the Mayor's Council. Once a year, the Mayor's Council would meet with the mayor. We invited representatives of major corporations in town to City Hall, and we did a big presentation about the festival and the education programs that we ran year round.
We trotted out numbers and brought in students and teachers to speak. There was a lot to be proud of and we paraded that pride, all in the interest of raising money for that year's festival. Fortis repeatedly regarded the annual presentation at City Hall as a way to "get them into the big house so they can't say no."
Yet for reasons that are still unclear to me, Fortis said that we were not to ask for money. He said that would be done in a follow up conversation, but that follow up seldom, if ever, happened.
Chris Allen was hired to be the director of operations in February 2006. Allen brought a lot of non-profit expertise in fundraising, marketing and event production from his experience with both Hunger Task Force and the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. He also had tremendous organizational skills, and his formal education included an emphasis in film and mass communications.
I was asked by Fortis to work with Luhrssen and Wautier to find a really top-notch person as director of operations. There had never really been one before. Two different people had the job previously and each time it had a different title.
We all recognized that the festival was growing and becoming much more than the little festival that the Shepherd Express put on in the fall. It was really becoming Milwaukee's Film Festival and as such we needed a more professional and larger staff. We interviewed maybe 15 people after carefully looking at resumes for 30 or 40.
We always interviewed in a coffee shop near the Shepherd. Apparently, a lot takes place in coffee shops these days. Fortis didn't come to any interviews. He waited until we had chosen three finalists and then he met with them. And he decided. He still thought of it as his festival and so it was his decision. I thought he was wrong about Allen, but it turned out he couldn't have been more right.
In the first year that Allen was director of operations, attendance increased by 76 percent and revenue by 25 percent. Now, it was going to increase anyway because there had been three years to build momentum and during the prior year, the festival had opened up and tried to become more than an esoteric, East Side film festival.
Jackson suggested that I ask my friend and colleague John Landis, director of "Animal House," "Trading Places," "The Blues Brothers," and many more popular films, to be the focus of a tribute in 2005.
Landis came and talked about movies and about Milwaukee, and the press came and the people came and because there was so much support from the community, the festival really began, in that year, to look like something the city could be proud of and could count on. It was becoming an institution.
So, Allen came in at a good time. We were ready for growth and ready to tighten up the operation. He added a level of professionalism in his managerial technique that everyone in the office was ready for and, I believe, they all learned a lot from his two years sharing the helm with Jackson.
We all felt such a rush of adrenaline after the great success of 2006 that we, the staff and those of us who worked almost daily throughout the year to support the festival, began to believe that we knew what we were doing. We did. Or at least Jonathan Jackson, T.J. Fackelman, Kyle Heller, Chris Allen and Michael Wautier did.
They felt so strongly that they knew what they were doing that at a board meeting, at yet another coffee shop, Allen actually had the chutzpah to disagree with Fortis's fundraising strategies by suggesting that the festival use basic, universal fundraising fundamentals-such as including staff in meetings with sponsorsand the relatively simple idea of sending out festival funding requests on Film Festival letterhead rather than Greater Milwaukee Committee letterhead.
The simplicity of that point was that Allen was asking that the festival take responsibility for itself, because it obviously could, rather that hiding behind the pants leg of the mayor or Julia Taylor and the Greater Milwaukee Committee. Nearly everyone at the meeting supported Allen's idea, because we had all talked about the festival being ready for independence at one point or another.
I will never forget the look on Fortis' face. Soon after that meeting, the function of the "Executive Board" was changed. It became what was referred to as a sounding board. Then, just weeks before the festival that year, it was dubbed an "Operations Committee." There were two meetings and then we ceased to exist.
Fortis took the staff off of the Shepherd Express payroll and health insurance and placed them on COBRA, and transferred all accounting and debt into the festival office. These were abrupt changes, without notice or consultation. And then, within weeks of the end of the 2007 festival, Chris Allen was fired.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.