Jon Anne Willow

America’s “Best Local Festival”?

The 16th Annual Milwaukee Short Film Festival returns this week, still better known internationally than in town.

By - Sep 4th, 2014 11:45 am
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Ross Bigley and Bai Ling. Photo by Phil Koch.

Ross Bigley and Bai Ling. Photo by Phil Koch.

To call Ross Bigley a quiet man is an understatement. In fact, the founder and Director of the Milwaukee Short Film Festival is so unassuming it’s a challenge to get him to toot his own horn, even when prodded.

It might explain why the MSFF, now in its 16th year, and running this weekend, is a secret so well kept that most people outside the film community are unaware of it. Those in the know, however, enjoy an engaging, eclectic event, a veritable cinematic feast in bite-size pieces.

“I’m glad we’ve been around so long, but I have to admit I’m tired,” BIgley confesses. We’ve met for coffee, and the late morning sun through Anodyne’s windows reveals the fatigue in Bigley’s face, underscored by a two-day beard. These are the last hectic days running up to the weekend of September 5 and 6, when MSFF takes over the Lubar Auditorium at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which the festival has called home since 2009.

Bigley launched the Milwaukee Short Film Festival in 1994, and for the first few years just held one “when I felt like it.” After the fourth, he committed to presenting annually.

At the time he was a recent MIAD grad, aspiring filmmaker and part-owner of an art gallery downtown (Art Centric). Frustrated by the dearth of venues for local film, he first tried showing films on public access television, but says “it didn’t really work out well.” At the time, the only two festivals in the city were UW-Milwaukee’s Student Film Festival and the LGBT Film Festival. Neither offered much opportunity for films either produced by non-students or that didn’t fit the LGBT focus.

He took his dilemma to his friend Jelani Nation. Nation owned the coffee house Beanhead on MLK Dr. and was happy to supply the venue. The event, which was open to any local filmmaker, proved so popular that a few years later it moved to the Times Cinema, where the festival stayed, for the most part, until its 2009 move to Lubar.

A lot has changed since the Beanhead days. In 2006, MovieMaker Magazine voted the Milwaukee Short Film Festival “Best Local Festival” in the country. Instantly, submissions started pouring in from other states and around the world.

“We’re more well-known outside Milwaukee, and especially outside the country,” says Bigley. About 80 percent of the festival’s submissions are foreign to this day, of about 500 received annually.

“For some reason we’re very big in Sweden. A few years ago a Swedish entry won Best Film (The Man with all the Marbles, by Hans Montelius), and it got a big write-up there. Since then he’s won more awards with us and it’s been good for his career.”

Zombie Frat House

Zombie Frat House

This year, the festival will screen about 40 shorts in two days, plus one feature, as is the custom. The latter is typically a local film, and this year Bigley is screening the latest from his own production company, Dirty Job Films, which he also wrote and directed. Zombie Frat House is a whale of a local indy, featuring most of the Miwaukee acting community and starring Brian Miracle, Bo Johnson and KJ Lyn, though Bigley is quick to note it’s an ensemble piece – armies of zombies are the real stars here. Phil Koch is the Director of Photography.

Each year, MSFF also gives the Pacesetter Award to a local person for their active support of the Milwaukee film community. This year’s recipient is John Kline, owner of Milwaukee Production Rental and the current head of MARN Movies.

Satellite Beach

Satellite Beach

Friday night highlights include a screening of Billy Balfoor Wants an Apology, written by local playwright Jeff Ircink, and the Wisconsin premiere of actor Luke Wilson’s new film, Satellite Beach, which Owen produced and directed.

Saturday features World View – a program of international shorts – and the juried show. In addition, a second screening of Zombie Frat House has been added by popular demand. Look for Montelius’ new film, Solace, as well as On/Off, a French film that’s already earned several awards.

Among the films to be screened, Bigley says there’s also buzz around Tough Cookie, which he describes as “kind of a Grind House genre piece” and which recently premiered at Chicago ComicCon. “It’s kind of hard to describe,” says Bigley. “Basically, it’s about Girl Scout-types who sell drugs and the Nazi-esque Boy Scout-types with whom they engage in a gang war.”



I ask Bigley what, in a perfect world, the festival would be if it could be anything.

“I would like to see a lot more social activity, with parties and panels – I think it has opportunity to grow.” So what’s holding MSFF back from taking its place on Milwaukee’s must-do list?

Bigley gives a soft laugh. “I have to eat.”

He says MSFF, which is officially operated under the Milwaukee Independent Film Society, is a 501-c(3) and eligible for grants, but “we have so few people to actively do the work. We need more hands, so if anyone out there wants to roll up their sleeves and help grow a great festival, email me. I’d love to help this festival see its potential.”

Tempted to get involved? Good for you. Just email Ross Bigley here.,


MIlwaukee Short Film Festival

September 5-6,Lubar Auditorium at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Complete schedule HERE

Tickets: On sale now. $10 per event, seven total events. Best deal is $35 for an all-inclusive two day pass

Parking: $8 at the museum, free on the street

More on Zombie Frat House at – click Features/Zombie Frat House

Twitter: MKEShortFest

0 thoughts on “America’s “Best Local Festival”?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I was happy to read that ” In 2006, MovieMaker Magazine voted the Milwaukee Short Film Festival “Best Local Festival” in the country”. I remember Ross Bigley from MATA, and I hope that this year’s festival is a great success (I too have found, with my creative work – particularly in poetry – that I’m appreciated more on both coasts and internationally than I am in this community).

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