Mark Metcalf

Festival filled void when it was needed most

By - Sep 10th, 2009 09:34 am
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TCD writer (“Moving Pictures”) and podcast host Mark Metcalf offers a historical perspective about the Milwaukee Short Film Festival. Ever self-effacing, he just barely slips in the fact that, along with filmmaker Kathy Fischer, he will receive the festival’s new “Pacesetter Award,” too. Metcalf is beloved for his roles in National Lampoon’s Animal House, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Seinfeld (just to name a few). Currently, he works for First Stage Children’s Theater in Milwaukee and runs the high school screenwriting/filmmaking program, Collaborative Cinema. This year’s Collaborative Cinema project, Ward Three, will screen in the Milwaukee Film Festival next month.

Ross Bigley looked around 15 years ago and noticed that there wasn’t a consistent venue for people interested in film and video to showcase their work — not in Milwaukee anyway. That was way before YouTube. There may have been a coffee house or a bar around that would dedicate a night to people’s films, but nowhere that they could show their films to others. So, Ross decided to be that place, or rather that person. He started the Milwaukee Short Film/Video Festival.

The first three years, the festival used Public Access Television. Then Ross got busy making films of his own, and it disappeared for a little while. But in 2003, he and Tony Myers decided there was a definite need, and they started taking it seriously. They put together a festival in June 2003, showing the five films that were submitted. By November of that year, they had another festival, doubling the number of films shown. They kept growing, and interest kept growing, so eventually they had to move into Times Cinema in Wauwatosa. After doing three festivals inside of one year, they were on track and decided to make the festival an annual event.

Metcalf as barking ROTC leader in National Lampoon's Animal House.

Metcalf as barking ROTC leader in National Lampoon’s Animal House.

Local filmmakers, professionals and amateurs alike, have come to count on Ross and The Milwaukee Short Film Festival (MSFF) as a focal point for their work. For area filmmakers, the festival is not just as a place to show what you’ve done, but a place to get serious feedback, find a crew or actors, sort out story ideas and discuss technique. With genuine enthusiasm and dedication, Ross and the people who work with him have created a place (not a physical place but in mind and imagination), where people come together, share what they know and learn the process without feeling alone. It is the most collaborative of mediums, and Ross Bigley has created a tremendous way to collaborate.

As MSFF grew, it became better known elsewhere than here. In 2006, Moviemaker Magazine named it “Best Local Festival.”  When Laura Belliveau came onboard in 2004, the festival began to explore the Internet as a means of networking and showcasing films. In fact, at this point, MSFF’s submissions are 60 percent international, 30 percent national and the rest are local. Professionals throughout the industry serve as judges. The festival is “blogged about” by entities in New York City and others like Universal Focus Features in Hollywood. One of MSFF’s biggest challenges is simply getting local media coverage. There is a tendency in Milwaukee to look beyond the city limits with envy rather than with pride.

Last year, a not-for-profit called The Milwaukee Independent Film Society (MIFS), which was started in 1998 by Dan Wilson, Brooke Maroldi and Dan Kattman, merged with Ross and MSFF. MIFS was designed to help filmmakers make films and learn to write grant proposals. The new fusion gave The Milwaukee Short Film Festival a higher degree of legitimacy and The Milwaukee Independent Film Society (which had been a little high and dry lately), something concrete to be involved in. With a three-day festival with more than 50 films, there will be plenty to keep everyone busy. It promises to be a strong event in Milwaukee’s calendar this year and in years to come.

Mark enjoys a little bubbly in Kathy Fischer's How to Not Kill Everyone, a featured film in the festival. Photo, courtesy of Milwaukee Independent Film Society.

Mark enjoys a little bubbly in Kathy Fischer’s How to Not Kill Everyone, a featured film in the festival. Photo, courtesy of Milwaukee Independent Film Society.

For the first time, the festival will give a “Pacesetter Award” to two people in the community who have contributed to the development of the city’s film scene. One of the recipients is Kathy Fischer, whose film How To Not Kill Everyone, will be showcased on Friday night. Kathy seems to be everywhere film is shot or talked about. For several years she was a volunteer videographer for the Milwaukee International Film Festival. She works on anyone’s film that needs help (and everyone needs help), so she is busy. Last year, she received a grant from Kodak to make a short film. The result is How To Not Kill Everyone. It stars Larry Thomas of Seinfeld and “Soup Nazi” fame. Laurie Birmingham of The Rep and many other theatres around town gives a wonderful comic performance. I am also in it, in a bathtub, with nothing but a martini and a carrot.

The other Pacesetter Award will be presented to … well, to me. So this entire article has been ostentatiously self-serving. It wasn’t meant to be but they asked me to do it, and I almost always say yes. I am grateful to receive the award, and it gives me a chance to thank the Milwaukee film community for taking me in and inviting me to be a part of something that is on the verge of really taking off. I have been involved with the former Milwaukee International Film Festival and the current Milwaukee Film Festival. I run a program called Collaborative Cinema that teaches screenwriting and filmmaking to high school students in the Milwaukee area. Through Collaborative Cinema, a collective of filmmakers has formed. What I think are the best of the professional filmmakers in the city work together each year, sharing their talent, time and knowledge with students and each other.  Through this collective, we try to establish a sense of cooperation and a way of working together so that more and more, high-caliber short and feature-length films can be made here. There is even the possibility of a web series in the near future.

There is so much talent, intelligent enthusiasm and energy available here. And, if we can continue to get the support of the community we should be able to give voice to the stories and many of the people who nurture their hopes and make their homes right here in Milwaukee.

Categories: Movies, VITAL

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