That “Wisconsin Filmmaker” panel asked the best question at the worst possible time

(Pictured: Chris Irwin, Rebecca Weaver, Emir Cakaroz, James Runde, Eric J. Nelson, and panel moderator Michael Neelsen)

State connections are the start of the Wisconsin film conversation, not the subject

UPDATED 05-23-2016: And now it’s back up

UPDATED 04-22-2016: The Wisconsin Film festival appears to have removed both panel discussions from their YouTube channel

So the Wisconsin Film Festival put on two Sundance-hosted filmmaker panels yesterday. Don’t worry if you didn’t see that LinkedIn page. The whole enterprise was probably under-promoted by the festival and the panel’s sponsors, StoryFirst Media and Film Wisconsin. (The former is a Madison-based production company, including director Michael Neelsen, who moderated both panels. The latter non-profit coordinates vendors and resources for creatives looking to produce multimedia projects in Wisconsin.)

Forget the promotional issues, because both panels fostered some constructive discussion. The second, at 12:30p, centered on “Finding the Stories” and, to quote Neelsen, ended up as a mostly “inside baseball” discussion among the festival directors on stage (Revza‘s Emir Cakaroz, The Boy on the Train‘s Roger Deutsch, Frank and the Wondercat‘s Tony Massil & Pablo Alvarez, WFF alum Holly DeRuyter).

The first panel was where it was really at, though. Neelsen kicked off “The Life of a Wisconsin Filmmaker” by asking each director why they chose to shoot their project in the state. Cakaroz, who sat on both panels, reminded everyone that he went to Turkey to shoot his docushort on his mother, but Eric J. Nelson casually mentioned that his decision to produce Forest Products in Wisconsin was “a matter of convenience.” June Falling Down‘s Rebecca Weaver remarked that she and producing partner Chris Irwin are “basically a two-person crew” before Irwin joked that such a setup is “not a good idea.” Irwin added that their Door County location was unbeaten in terms of local community and excitement.

On the topic of financing, Weaver and Irwin were honest about the value of crowdfunding. “Hey Door County on Facebook, can you help us?” Weaver joked, before adding that both campaigns forced her to learn how to get word out through social media. Cakaroz and his one-person crew reduced production costs to the price of a round-trip ticket, while White and Lazy director James Runde used gifted film stock that was “just sitting down in the freezer” at UW for his comedy short.

The panel also touched on the challenges faced during each production, from drunken bar patrons standing in the middle of shots to just finding time in the morning to write a script before day jobs begin. But the most substantive stuff actually came from the audience. On the logistics of festival submissions, Nelson had no commercial aspirations for his short, but wanted “audiences to actually watch it.” Nelson offered up Film Freeway as a thrifty means of avoiding often costly submission fees. “I entered like, 80 of them,” Nelson said. “And I may not get into any of them but it didn’t hurt because I didn’t have to invest anything else into it, other than an hour of my time.” Cakaroz said the topic “makes [him] mad” in that festivals don’t pay filmmakers outside of the pleasure of getting eyeballs on your project.

And then something curious happened. Wrapping things up, StoryFirst partner David Neelsen fielded the panelists’ thoughts on the filmmaking community in Wisconsin. Nelson “wouldn’t want to live any place else” before slipping in that he wished “there was a bit more of an entertainment community here.” Weaver expressed interest in meeting other filmmakers in Wisconsin, as well as starting new projects here in the future. Runde qualified his answer as having a network mostly limited to UW, while Cakaroz tackled the question head on, saying that he would like to see a more formalized association or club, a networking space for filmmakers in Wisconsin.

And then it ended.

Pay no attention to that non-profit behind the curtain. Credit to StoryFirst Media, Film Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Film Festival for creating a forum for some of this year’s featured directors, but come on. You round up stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds related to your state’s diminished filmmaker space, talk with them for an hour, raise a valuable question about your industry’s livelihood and longevity, and rest on some platitudes about state pride? David Neelsen asked a fantastic question at the worst possible time. Bear in mind that Film Wisconsin’s managing director Lisa Ledford-Kerr introduced both panels by reminding everyone that “we don’t have an actual film office in Wisconsin anymore.” If Film Wisconsin wants to be an industry resource, then it should take a leadership role — a role that requires more than promoting competitions for grants and never following up on them.

While I understand that there’s only so much time for this stuff in an hour-long panel, I wish Michael Neelsen (who otherwise did a stellar job moderating) investigated more deeply on this point. I’m not a filmmaker, but as someone who regularly writes about the state’s relationship to that industry, this awkward balancing act that comes with “the community” is problematic. You can like where you’re from and still recognize that it has shortcomings. We shouldn’t be satisfied with bringing up tertiary connections for a locally-themed puff piece. Focusing just on one’s relationship with the state is a patronizing approach to coverage, and cherry-picking the occasional profile on artists that happened to graduate from UW-Madison six years ago is shallow journalism (Looking at you, area media outlets).

It’s great that people who live here want to make movies, but engagement is essential, and there is a Lambeau Stadium-sized abyss between product and marketing. Why is this stuff worth seeing? Why is this stuff worth reading about? Worth paying money for? And most importantly, why should Jane Q. Public be interested in seeing this instead of the next superhero CGI pasta bowl? The film community and the media (present company included) need to work beyond this surface-level stuff and engage those questions directly. Stop appealing to state pride and start appealing to state substance.

  • Nathan

    Yeah this is a really interesting point. I’m not sure what the festival’s priorities should be when promoting content but it is frustrating to go to festival after festival and see the same big films getting all the attention, with a fringe local film on the side. Obviously it’s difficult to program a festival, and I don’t understand the ins and outs, but I guess a really cool scenario would be where the Wisconsin Film Festival is first and foremost a place to see cool Wisconsin films – as much as fantastic international stuff that might not end up in cinemas (or whatever).

    But then there’s the other problem you mention, which is that there’s not a lot of Wisconsin films because we don’t really invest in filmmaking here. I don’t expect that to change under Walker but it’d be fantastic if the state actually promoted filmmaking in the state through grants, funding schemes, etc…the talent and will is in Wisconsin, there’s just not a lot of money!

  • markonfire

    Unpopular opinion: by focusing on becoming a big, yearly spectacle of curated film screenings followed by a citywide return to a cinematic diet of detritus, the administrators behind Wisconsin Film Fest have shirked their duty to engage audiences with the craft of filmmaking. At least it was a step in the right direction, but this panel should have had greater promotion and resources from the festival, and the people holding that back work for the festival itself.

    I’d go out on a limb and say that Wisconsin Film Fest isn’t all that interested in being a film festival anymore.