Madison’s new 48 Hour Film Project producers will serve you now. Literally.

48 Hour interview 2017

Co-producer Michael Keeney shares he and partner Katherine Thompson’s plans to shape up the city’s annual competition

2016 was a landmark year in more ways than one for Madison’s 48 Hour Film Project. The annual event celebrated its tenth year in Madison, rounding up aspiring young directors and bored 40-somethings alike for its category-focused filmmaking competition. For cursory background, the 48 Hour Film Project challenges teams to craft short films with predetermined criteria across an entire weekend. Entries are then screened for an audience and a panel of judges (traditionally at Sundance Hilldale AMC Dine-in Madison) who then recognize select shorts at a subsequent awards show.

Last year also marked the final year for city producer Sierra Shea. By all accounts, Shea was the primary party responsible for bringing the 48 Hour Film Project to Madison, although the competition also has a presence in Milwaukee. Announced this past Jan, Shea’s replacements will be Key Media’s Michael Keeney and Katherine G. Thompson, who will spearhead the city’s competition for the foreseeable future. Among their responsibilities: coordinating ticket sales, managing film teams, and figuring out what to do with the Theater Formerly Known As Sundance.

The pair have already implemented a few changes this year, stepping up their social media presence and attracting prospective teams with meet-and-greets and offers to buy team leaders drinks. Responsibly, of course. I’ve taken a vested interest in the 48 Hour Film Project — both as a fan and as a critic — so when Keeney and Thompson reached out for an interview, it was hard to say no. Over email, I asked Keeney about the changes he and Thompson already have in mind. 

I know you and I talked about the 48 Hour Film Project back in 2014. Has your experience with the 48 changed since then?

Certainly we’ve gained more insight to the behind-the-scenes aspects of creating this international competition. It’s been exciting to learn of the unique opportunities participating in the 48 offers to filmmakers. As you’re aware, not only does competing in our local competition throw your hat into the ring for the Cannes Film Festival, but one of our regular teams will have their 2016 48 Hour Film Project production screened at that prestigious event in France. Truly, that speaks to the quality of local filmmaking.

The 48 began looking for a new producer last year. What was it like to be on the applicant side of that process?

In some ways it was the typical job interview: written applications, phone interviews, waiting, more phone interviews. All the usual stuff for being brought in to do a job. Because the decision-makers are literally spread across the U.S., the interviewing process was all done through telephone and internet connections. For people who are used to getting things done with warm hand-shakes, looking people in the eye and working shoulder-to-shoulder with them, it was a touch surreal. In other ways it’s been a “Welcome to the Club!” experience, as we’re able to network with other producers from the 144 other cities that will be hosting a 48 this year — sharing experiences, ideas and camaraderie.

What made the two of you want to be producers?

We’ve both been event producers for many years. We’ve produced a film festival in the past, so we were confident we could do the job, and really it came down to a few things. There were areas that we thought could be done different ways, and we’d been candid with the previous producer, Sierra Shea. So when she determined she couldn’t truly operate the 48 from the other side of the country (She lives in Seattle and had been commuting the past few years.), it really seemed like a case of “Put up or Shut up.” She encouraged us to throw our hats into the ring. It’s also an opportunity for us to expand our own connections in the industry, hopefully not only on the production end, but in distribution as well.

When we formed Key Media Narratives, we made the conscious decision to be something of an incubator production house. We’ve both had our chances at “The Big Leagues” (and still do work on major studio productions from time to time) and decided we’d rather live here than make the move to NYC or LA. Our families are in the Midwest. Wisconsin is our home. Still, we understand that if you want to make it big, you’re probably going to end up on one of the coasts. We wanted to be a place where people could learn some skills, cut their teeth, and get a start actually doing things to start making their filmmaking dreams come true. Becoming producers of the Madison 48 is a very direct way of advancing that goal.

In what ways will splitting the producer’s workload this year be beneficial to the 48 teams — and to the event in general?

The 48 is a lot of work and a lot of expense. In all honesty, the 48 has been more than a one-person job virtually from the outset. Many larger cities have a whole staff working on the various tasks that go into making a quality event. Because we also work together on our own production company, we already have an idea of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We know where we compliment each other well, and we’ve been able to somewhat hit the ground running.

We’re hopeful that we can bring an energy to the 48 that would very difficult to maintain if you weren’t living here. And we each come to filmmaking from different avenues and different experiences. Katherine is well-versed and tremendously respected in the Madison theatre scene as well, and in this area, there is a lot of overlap. She’s working those connections, looking to bring some new blood to the screen. I have built up significant relationships throughout the film industry, not just in this area, but across the country. One area where that’s had an instant impact is our judges. We have industry pros from all over the industry and the U.S. judging this year, so not only will fresh sets of eyes be evaluating each film, they’ll do so from a variety of angles throughout the filmmaking spectrum.

What else, if anything, will change with this year’s competition?

A couple of things. I’ve already mentioned new judges. We’re hopeful of adding meaningful prizes for the awards, and we are working on bringing in fresh sponsors as well. We’ve added, for Madison, a Best Student Film category as a way to encourage young filmmakers to try their hand. This is a real competition, with real challenges and real challengers — as evidenced by one of the regular teams having a 48 film at Cannes this year. Young filmmakers will be able to not only test their mettle against experienced pros but rub elbows with them as well. To help with that elbow-rubbing, we’re adding a “Filmmakers’ Mixer” event on the screening night (Jun 22nd) right at AMC Dine-In Madison 6 so that filmmakers and film fans will have a chance to talk about their 48 films and other projects in greater detail than just in the crush of the ticket-line.

Do you plan to keep uploading entries to Madison’s YouTube channel?

That YouTube channel is privately held, and we don’t have access. We are exploring other distribution avenues, and we have commitments for the films into Dec.

Are there any plans for online ticket sales?

We are still researching best process, but we intend to offer both online and at-the-door ticket sales while seats are available.

How has AMC’s acquisition of Sundance affected plans for this year’s screening venue?

AMC’s purchase of Sundance forced our hand. We can’t have a 48 unless we have a theater to host the screenings. Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray, the manager at Sundance-now-AMC, was very candid that she wasn’t sure how independent bookings were going to be handled by AMC, or even if she’d be able to bring in independent films or attractions once the sale was complete. So we needed to lock down a theater as quickly at possible. We were happy to be able to continue the 48’s association with the theater in Hilldale — whatever it will be called by the time our Jun 22nd Premiere Screenings take place. We hope to be able to work with AMC in the future, but as large chains buy up the theater market, screening venues are becoming harder and harder for independent films to find.

I like the idea of forging a “48 community” with these meet-and-greets. Apart from buying drinks for registered teams, what do you hope to get out of them?

The Madison filmmaking community is relatively small. It seems like everyone knows everyone else, and it really seems like that if you show up to a film event here and you don’t know anyone! The meet-and-greets are a chance make the film community a little less intimidating for newcomers and reinforce a sense of “coopetition” throughout the community. They’re also a chance for would-be filmmakers to swim in the shallow end of the pool, as it were.

It’s also a way for teams to bond and brainstorm. While it is true that all creative production must take place during that 48-hour time period, there are a great many things that can and really should happen beforehand. You can secure your locations. You can codify your team. You can do your paperwork. A couple of big things that can be really helpful to do beforehand are prop/skill acquisition and what we’ve called on our own team “Damage Control.” What are we gonna do if we get X genre? It’s well within the rules for teams to have those conversations. What tends to happen is, “Oh, I know a guy that has a big military-looking truck” or “My neighbor teaches karate.”

And, the meet-and-greets are an opportunity for team leaders, cast and crew to meet us in a capacity they haven’t before. As far as the drinks go, hopefully someone will buy us a drink or two as well! We’re going to need it!

  • Keeney and Thompson will host another meet-and-greet on Thurs, May 25 at Funk’s Pub. The Madison 48 Hour Film Project runs Jun 16 through Jun 18 with premiere screenings on Jun 22. You can find more information at