When sitting down to write this, I was surprised to discover that I've been attending the Wisconsin Film Festival for over a decade now (this was long before film festivals were deemed the #3 item on the list of Stuff White People Like). Held in Madison each spring, the festival has evolved into an extremely well-organized cultural event, one which has me contemplating taking a week of vacation next year to attend as many screenings as possible. 2014 was the first year that the festival spanned a full eight days, and it had me frustrated that I had to leave my home on Day 5 to travel for work. Still, for an extended weekend in early April, I was one of over 28,000 people who participated in the 16th annual iteration of the event. Over that span, more than 2,000 films in all genres have been shown at the festival throughout the capital of Wisconsin.
Tickets are reasonably priced ($9 per movie in advance, $10 at the door), and the rush lines are managed well. There was a time in the festival's history where showing up for a movie sans ticket on the day of a showing with the hope of snagging an empty seat was a chaotic, frustrating experience. Not so anymore. With the cadre of volunteers swelling over the years, the standby lines are monitored so that people who want to see the movie are gradually granted admission until each and every seat in the theater is filled (bad news for folks who like to store their winter coat next to them - it's only April in Wisconsin after all). My sister and I were two of the last folks let in to a Saturday matinee screening of Joe Swanberg's 'Happy Christmas', scoring aisle seats just as the official festival trailer concluded. With that luck, the 45 minute wait was a small price to pay.
This is the first year that I bought all of my tickets (with the rush line exception) online, and it was finally a pleasant experience. In past years, I've tried calling the box office on the day tickets go on sale (with a .000 batting average getting anybody on the phone) while simultaneously trying to purchase my tickets on the festival web site, whose servers were severely overloaded and the transaction kept timing out. There was also the option of standing in line at the box office, but who wants to do that? This year, those glitches seem to have been worked out, hopefully for good.
With growth and the passage of time comes change, not always positive. I really miss some of the old venues, like the Orpheum Theater on State Street (which may or may not be going up for auction in the very near future, depending on which news accounts you pay attention to). Ditto to the still extant Play Circle Theater at the Memorial Union on Langdon - it was a great site for the fest. And I still mourn the loss of the University Square theater, now the site of high-end student housing in the center of campus (R.I.P., U Square) The old-school Club Majestic and Bartell Theater have been replaced by newer, glossier locales such as the Chazen Museum of Art, Union South Marquee, and multiple screens at Sundance Cinemas. For me, some of the festival magic was diminished when they supplanted those shabby, retro screening rooms with settings that you'd expect at Toronto or Telluride. I couldn't even bring a coffee into the Chazen or Elvehjem, a rude awakening since a few years ago, I didn't visit a single venue where you couldn't buy a beer, glass of wine, or popcorn (with real butter) to take in with you.
For some inexplicable reason, my wife generously let me attend seven movies in 72 hours (granted, I scheduled most of them after the kids had gone to bed, but still). I'll write a bit on each of them so that you can decide for yourself if you'd like to try to catch them on the festival circuit (if you have the means or if geography is in your favor), or perhaps rent/stream them in the near future. And by next week we should have a save-the-date for the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival!