MKE Film Festival explores alternative options to keep organization afloat

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and concerns over the safety of running a 14-day festival, Milwaukee Film Festival will be conducting a virtual festival complete with access to exclusive streaming content of over 190 short or feature films and community engagement activities. Participants have the opportunity to choose between a whole pass or individual tickets to allow them full control of their viewing experience. 

Alec Fraser, Shorewood alumni, parent and current Milwaukee Film Festival board member, shares his thoughts on the decision to go virtual and the previous structure of the festival.

“Usually we have the Oriental Theater which has three screens and then several other local cinemas…so there would be a film schedule at all these different physical venues over the course of 14 days,” Fraser said. “Obviously, because of COVID and the need to social distance and not have large groups of people, it became clear to us pretty early on that we were not going to be able to have a traditional film festival, and so the decision was made several months ago to go ahead and announce that we could not have an in-person festival.”

Isabella Lozier, junior, avid film watcher, and past patron of Milwaukee Film, shares her thoughts on the changes to the format this year. 

“We will absolutely be purchasing a pass, and I think that’s a very fun creative way to have the film festival still [while] also giving you access to the movies,” Lozier said. “So in some ways, it’ll be more convenient than the film festival because like a lot of the movies happen during the day, and we’re in school during the day so this way, there’s more access which is nice. And you can be in the comfort of your own home.”

I think that’s a very fun creative way to have the film festival still [while] also giving you access to the movies,

— Isabella Lozier, junior

Lozier also spent time reflecting on the importance of community events and shared experiences. Being able to have unique perspectives shared while in the company of community members is important to her. 

“I think it’s such a fun way to bring the community together. You’ll be waiting in line … for your movie and like you’ll see someone … and then you’re talking about those movies, and I think it really brings people together,” Lozier said. “I like watching movies and eating popcorn, and so do a lot of people and so just being able to do that fun thing with people you don’t really know is cool.” 

Jonathan Jackson, Shorewood parent and CEO of Milwaukee Film Festival, also reflects on the community and cultural value of the festival. Jackson came to Milwaukee in 1998 to attend film school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one of the nation’s best film schools, and ultimately chose to remain in the city to build the Milwaukee Film Festival into what it is today. Jackson’s first role with the organization was as artistic director, and now he works as the CEO

“We are at the height of the production of filmmaking globally. There’s more film, more access to technology, and more creativity than at any point in its hundred plus a year history,” Jackson said. “But what I love about Milwaukee film is that, yes, it’s about the art and it’s about the film and about the entertainment and the culture, but Milwaukee Film is about how we use that to connect, to educate, to engage and to help our community thrive. So, the films we present, we select, we help even produce or support artists to produce, they don’t exist in a vacuum. We love the cinema experience. We love bringing people together or communal viewing experiences.” 

We love the cinema experience. We love bringing people together or communal viewing experiences.

— Jonathan Jackon, CEO of MKE Film Festival

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and shutdowns in March, it has been a struggle for Milwaukee Film Festival and the theater they own, the Oriental Theater, to both maintain afloat without direct revenue and translate some of their service into an online format. 

“I mean from my standpoint as a board member, the first challenge we had was making sure Milwaukee Film Festival survived, because in addition to running a film festival every year, we now operate [the] Oriental Theater,” Fraser said. “Like any other business, … it is very difficult to operate [when] you’re paying rent and hiring employees if you have no source of revenues.”

In order to do so, Fraser created a plan that would help them overcome their economic struggles. 

“Step number one when this happened was we needed to to make sure that we could survive as an organization and then after we had that figured out and we realized that we were going to survive we needed to figure out how we were going to run a festival because it was really important to run a festival because we think it’s culturally important to Milwaukee both because it’s a great community event but also because of the educational benefits,” Fraser said.

Changing to an online or app format provides a new set of challenges that the team has not had yet in their 12 year history as an organization. 

“The whole fabric of Milwaukee film, yeah it’s about great films, but it’s also about presenting them in a cinema and convening in person,” Jackson said. “In the early days of the pandemic we quickly had to research and develop technologies for entirely new ways of presenting our content and engaging with it. And so the biggest challenge is just identifying and developing a seamless platform for both presentation of the films that are protected where the content can’t be stolen and that our consumers can access that is a high quality streaming mechanism.” 

However, Jackson and Fraser remain hopeful and are excited for some of the content that will be presented to their audience. On October 5, the entire film list was announced to the public. Fraser spoke of a film that he was particularly excited about and that his law firm, Michael Best, sponsored for the festival.

“The film that we’re sponsoring this year is called the Donut King and it’s about a Cambodian refugee who moved to Los Angeles and started a vast network of other Cambodian refugees and he taught them how to start donut shops,” said Fraser. “It’s a really cool story about, you know, immigration and entrepreneurship and sort of his personal journey and his struggles to sort of establish himself in America and help his countrymen.”

He also reflects on the great diversity in films that are presented through Milwaukee Film Festival and available to the public. Both Fraser and Jackson believe it is important to present films that represent the various communities of Milwaukee, and groups of people who may not completely be represented in film nationally and throughout history.

“[The Donut King] sort of speaks to the vastness of the different types of content so you have short films you have feature films you have documentaries you have fixed in films with you know, A-list Hollywood actors, you’ve got horror films, you’ve got comedies, you’ve got everything and anyone who, is interested in film, which is everyone, is gonna find something at the film festival that they like,” Fraser said. 

Accessing different cultures and perspectives through film, including those that may not be present at normal movie theaters, is important to Lozier as well. 

“I just enjoy seeing more unique movies from perspectives that aren’t often in your larger theaters and some storylines that are more unique, [and] in a lot of cases [are] specific to Milwaukee which is cool,” Lozier said.