Now in its 10th year, the Wisconsin Film Festival has become the de facto kickoff of the city's spring arts season, and audiences clearly aren't tiring of it. Festival director Meg Hamel reports that in 2007, nearly 30,000 tickets were sold for its four-day run. And sales are just as brisk for this year's event, which runs April 3-6 at 10 downtown locations. The typically broad slate of 220 films includes a trio of movies about China's controversial Three Gorges Dam, several films related to LGBT issues, plenty of films by Wisconsin filmmakers, and screenings of recent work by film veterans like UW-educated horror auteur Stuart Gordon.
Everything is booked by Hamel, the festival's only full-time staffer. After three years, she's comfortable with the rhythms of the job and much savvier about the film world. "Because of the relationships I've built with production companies, distributors and filmmakers, we're getting films now that we wouldn't have gotten in the past," she notes.
Hamel dreams of expanding beyond the festival's traditional four-day run, which would allow for more films that explore a central theme and more screenings in general. With purpose-built media facilities planned for both the Chazen Museum of Art's new building and the rebuilt Union South, finding enough comfortable, high-quality screening rooms will only become easier in coming years.
The catch is how to finance an expansion. "After this festival, the hope is to come up with a master plan for the future and also do some fund-raising," says Hamel, who organizes the festival under the auspices of the UW's Arts Institute. "The challenge the institute faces is how to keep up with demand, how to pay for it."
The festival receives sponsorship from local businesses and corporations (Sony has been generous this year). Hamel also applies for grants to cover some expenses.
But much of the budget is financed by ticket sales. As a result, every year there's plenty of nail-biting as sales figures begin rolling in. Even with yearly increases in attendance, that money keeps the festival running on a shoestring.
"There aren't funds to hire more people," Hamel laments. "Just to remain at the level we're at, we need more staff, more money, more of everything. I just try to cut costs any way I can. We used to have marvelous companies like Planet Propaganda doing our graphic design. Now I do that myself."
Even with more fund-raising, an increase in the festival's modest ticket prices is inevitable. "They haven't gone up since 2001," Hamel notes. "With so much money having to come from ticket sales, there's pressure to raise them."
After 10 years, Hamel thinks the festival has had its effect on filmgoers. "People who've attended it over the years are broadening their tastes," she says. "They're really bolder, braver and more adventurous about their film choices."