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.
LAST OF THREE PARTS
Before the 2007 Milwaukee International Film Festival ended, the Shepherd Express, the "founding sponsor" of the festival, began sending invoices to the festival offices for advertising the festival had run.
The Shepherd did not put up money the way other sponsors did, but their sponsorship was always first listed and first announced. Whenever advertising was needed, Dave Luhrssen was inclined to use words to the effect of, "Don't worry about it, we'll take care of it."
Beginning in October 2007, invoices were coming in from the Shepherd asking MIFF, now a relatively independent office in a fiscal way, to pay monies owed. They were even asking for interest on the money. Some of the dates went as far back as 2005. MIFF staff had no idea this was coming.
There was a kind of absurdity about it. The Shepherd Express and Louis Fortis, who had claimed so much responsibility for creating and for managing the film festival, who had taken so much public acclaim for everything attached to the festival, who had been the founding sponsors, were now asking for their money back.
The festival had never been allowed to advertise in any other local periodical or media; it was confined to advertising in the Shepherd Express alone and at the paper's discretion, and now the paper was asking to be paid for what had always been believed to be part of its sponsorship.
But the bills had to be taken seriously. There were other creditors also asking to be paid and there was little money in the account, since the MIFF account had been paying staff salaries and healthcare benefits, two items that had not been written into the 2007 budget.
The Shepherd Express had always paid salaries and health care costs. The budget was always a little questionable, anyway, because Fortis, who had little intimate knowledge of how the festival ran, had written it. It had never been a clearly defined guideline and was often withheld from the staff. In fact, Fortis routinely presented false budgets to potential sponsors. To a certain degree, the financial success of the 2007 festival had been set up to fail from the start.
Fortis developed certain fundraising goals each year. In 2007, funds raised from foundations and grant proposals -- an area the festival staff was permitted to focus on -- had exceeded expectations by nearly 50 percent. Funds raised from corporations, which Fortis had instructed staff not to directly approach because he and the so-called "mayor's council" were going to take care of it, fell short of the established goal by almost 70 percent.
By this time, the mayor's council was a loosely formed and constantly changing group of extremely well intentioned people, who met monthly at Hotel Metro. It was a step up from the usual coffee shop but still a busy, public place. Chris Allen would inform them of the status of fundraising and a discussion would ensue about how to proceed. Fortis occasionally attended these meetings. Luhrssen, the titular executive director of the festival, never did.
Julia Taylor, of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, was a consistent presence, as were VISIT Milwaukee's Dave Fantle, Uihlein Wilson Architects' Marsha Sehler and myself. Jodi Taback, from the mayor's office, was often present. Because there was no specific leadership and no clearly defined process for approaching corporations, and because everyone on the mayor's council had full time jobs that kept them pretty busy, they were relatively ineffective at raising money.
We tend to be a finger-pointing nation and culture. If something, is going wrong it seems necessary to blame an individual. Heads have to roll. It is true in relationships and it is true in politics. It is a custom that seldom, if ever, rectifies the situation, but it gives the illusion that something is being done and distracts attention enough so that, sometimes, things can be patched up.
In this case, even though the festival had just had its best year ever, and even though Allen was integral to that success, the finger of Fortis, who was still very much, in his own estimation, THE BOSS, pointed at him. He was called for a review of the past year, at a yet another coffee shop, and instead was asked to resign. However, he set criteria for his resignation too high for Fortis, so they fired him.
Some weeks before, Fortis and Luhrssen had announced that they were going to hire an executive director. The festival was growing so rapidly and Luhrssen was increasingly busy at the Shepherd and had never really sought or, seemingly, enjoyed the job of executive director. As a partial recognition on Fortis part that the festival was ready to become more grown up in the way it functioned they set out to search for an executive director.
It amused me at the time that their way of conducting this search was to put an ad in the classified section of the Shepherd Express. I don't know whether they sent the bill to the festival office or not. I applied for the job.
After "the board" reviewed my application they told me that three independent parties who represented not-for-profit organizations around the city would interview three finalists, including me. We were also told that their decision would be final and that there would be no interference from Fortis or Luhrssen. The most attractive thing about the job to me was the opportunity to work even more closely with Jonathan Jackson and Allen, who at this point seemed a hero because of the way the 2006 and 2007 festivals had been run.
Just a few days before my interview, Allen was called in for his review and asked to resign. It seriously changed the nature of my interview. I had been outspoken enough with Fortis and Luhrssen that I had few illusions about getting the job, but there is always hope. I never heard anything. There were rumors that the job had been offered to someone who had turned it down even though he had been offered more money. No explanation why. The position went unfilled long enough that it began to seem as though the age-old tactic of living in denial until everyone forgets what had been promised was being employed.
Then a man named Byron Alpers was appointed. Alpers had been a friend, a drinking buddy, of Fortis. He had a successful career in business, but was semi-retired. He was an artist, I believe. Fortis asked him to step in and take the festival to the next level. He was not told that there was debt. He was not told that most of the debt was owed to the Shepherd Express and his friend, Louis Fortis.
He was introduced to the staff and given the office that Allen had occupied and the files Allen kept and he went to work. Within a day, he realized what a mess the festival financials were and he recognized that there had been some very awkward accounting practices between the Shepherd and the festival.
Being a man of great integrity, he began to investigate the causes and explore solutions. Since Chris Abele of the Argosy Foundation was already at work trying to convince Fortis that an independent board was necessary and that Fortis should enable the process of selection of that board, I suggested that Alpers contact Abele. I believe that Abele had already met Alpers and asked for a meeting.
By this time, it was apparent to almost everyone involved that the only way, not only to move the festival into the future but, perhaps, to preserve the very existence of the festival, was to create an independent board. Apparent to everyone except Louis Fortis.
I exchanged several e-mails with Fortis during the early months of what was obviously a difficult decision-making process for him, but I really don't know what his thinking was. I know he expressed concern about losing control of the festival. He said he was fearful that another board -- one other than the one-man-and-his-assistant board that was Louis Fortis and Dave Luhrssen -- would change the nature of the festival and bring shame to him by allowing it to fail.
But I don't think he was noticing the maturity and seriousness of purpose of the people that were proposing this transition. The parental analogy came into play again.
When the Argosy Foundation and the Herzfeld Foundation became aware of the bookkeeping inconsistencies, they called for a full financial audit as well as a systems audit to determine the soundness of the Milwaukee Film Festival as it had been run up until that time. When that was completed, those sponsors, who had been there from the beginning and always in the most supportive way, told Fortis that they would be unable to continue their sponsorship until an independent board was appointed.
Even at this point, Fortis could have made a decision that would preserve the festival and keep his reputation. He would have forever been the man who created the Milwaukee International Film Festival.
He could have been an emeritus member of the new board. I teased him that we would put a bust of him up in the lobby of the Oriental during the 11-day festival each year. It would even appear to the public that it was his idea to transform the festival into a major event that would hinge the city's fall schedule by appointing an independent board that would be able to raise the kind of money necessary for such a transformation. He would have nothing to do with it.
When he began, finally, to negotiate with Abele and the Argosy Foundation, he was asking that the Shepherd be paid back something in the neighborhood of $250,000. This number comprised the ad revenues discussed above, money that Fortis claimed to have paid out of his own pocket to cover losses in the first few years, and staff salaries. It was an outrageous sum and a ridiculous request.
As time went by, the sum lessened, because that is the nature of negotiations, but time was passing. In April of each year the World Cinema Program Committee always began watching films. The deadline for submissions to the Midwest Filmmaker Competition and the World Cinema Showcase was May 13. By April, an advertising campaign was usually being readied to slowly bring the public's awareness around to the September festival.
The membership drive was supposed to be in full flower. But April came and went and the promise was still, "By the end of next week we will know something." That statement became a refrain, which became a chant, which became a mantra, which became, not a lie, but a delusion.
On May 14, 2008, Louis Fortis fired the staff in a conference call. So, Jonathan Jackson, Kyle Heller and TJ Fackelman, who had worked tirelessly for the festival since day one, and had continued working even when they were not being paid but were being promised, "By the end of next week...," were without jobs.
They were told that it was a "temporary layoff," but we all know what that means. Byron Alpers had already resigned, I now believe, because he saw no reason to further burden the financial status of the festival (And this is supposition on my part, out of frustration with the man who he had counted as a friend), but he continued to come to the office to work, trying to make the transition happen.
Chris Abele, now with the help of Julia Taylor of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Carmen and Bill Haberman of the Herzfeld Foundation, and Mayor Tom Barrett himself, pleaded with Fortis to make the transition to a new board structure easy by simply saying that it should happen.
He finally relented and agreed, after making sure that a certain amount of money would change hands for the "intellectual property" of the idea of the film festival. The papers were sitting on his desk, ready to be signed. But Fortis decided that he wanted to be on the board, and he wanted to have Dave Luhrssen on the board, too, along with a third person that he would name, presumably Matt Astbury. In other words, he wanted to stack the board as much as he could. The people he was negotiating with had heard enough. Finally.
Now there will be a new entity. There will be a new festival. It will operate under the umbrella of a not-for-profit organization called Milwaukee Film. They are looking for an executive director and a new name.
Once again, I have applied for the job, but regardless of that I will be involved if they need me. Suggestions for names are coming in. Jackson , Heller and Fackelman, the people who have carried the ball and built the festival for the last five years will work to create another, bigger and better event.
There will be a major event in October at the Oriental Theatre that will showcase Milwaukee filmmakers. And there will be a party to celebrate the future of the festival. There will be other events throughout the year. But there will be no Milwaukee International Film Festival this year.
There will, however, be a greatly improved and beautifully supported film festival in 2009. It will be beautiful because the people who have fought for it and worked for it, who have argued, negotiated, talked, waited patiently, and in the most civilized way, given their blood and talent for it, have earned it.
And they will not stop working. They have never stopped working, never given up. There is great support throughout the community for a big-time film festival in Milwaukee. Milwaukee deserves it.
Now that the final, and it feels like, perpetual obstacle is out of the way, the professionals and the people who truly and deeply care for the city and for the joy of films and filmmaking can take over and bring it home in 2009. I hope to see everyone at the movies in October and again next year.
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.