10/9/08: Maybe you got to the page searching for Milwaukee International Film Festival 2008. Sorry to say, there isn't one. Next year, we hope, the new organization called Milwaukee Film will stage an international film festival here. Here's an MJS story about its new director.
My local film festival, MIFF, began five years ago as an effort launched by the publisher and film critic of our alt-weekly, the Shepherd Express (known as Express Milwaukee on the webs). Film fests are rarely money-making ventures; as I have been writing in my book on indie cinema, their noncommercial institutional identity lends them artistic legitimacy as arts organizations like museums and symphony orchestras and in contrast to for-profit multiplexes and art houses. Apparently the Milwaukee International Film Festival, although successful as a cultural event, now faces financial problems that threaten its future. These stem from the relation of the non-profit fest to the for-profit alt-weekly, from which it has been buying ads over the years with money in part raised from philanthropic foundations. When the festival claimed an outstanding debt to the alt-weekly, the foundations who have kept it afloat decided to cut off its funding. The story as such is in Bruce Murphy's online column at Milwaukee Magazine. The Shepherd Express disputes some of Murphy's facts and the implication that the festival's future is in question.
The economic and institutional underpinnings of alternative cinema are topics for much further analysis. Items in Murphy's comments and in the Express reply make clear that the public rationale for having film festivals is largely cultural rather than economic. High-profile arts events like a film festival give us a sense of our city's importance and vitality. The identity of Milwaukeeans seems to hang in the balance: having a film festival, like having a major league baseball team, makes us feel better about where we live. To the extent that festival films are better or different from the films we can see in other venues, the event promises edifying and educational opportunities that we don't otherwise get. This is presumed to be an unambiguous cultural good, like farmers markets and public parks.
But despite the prevalence of the cultural logic in asserting the significance of film fests, there is also an economic one. The film festival here, like in so many other places, is meant to spur growth in the local media production biz, and in local retail and service sectors. A film fest is a way of attracting and keeping "creative class" types, whose presence is deemed essential for the future of any city's economy. And of course, local media like the Shepherd Express benefit greatly from having high-profile cultural events. It gives them material to cover and provides opportunities for boosts in circulation and ad revenue. The idea, then, that a film fest is merely a cultural good is naïve. Film festivals depend on donations from corporations and individuals and on state support of various kinds, many of which are given in part in hopes of economic, not just cultural, benefits. Whether the dealings of MIFF's leaders have been truly shady or not, this episode reveals the complex web of interests that produces a film festival, and the fact that bringing great cinema to a city and making a city a good place to live are only part of the agenda.