Although it’s hard to believe, spring is quickly approaching, and that means the Wisconsin Film Festival is just around the corner. About to enter its 15th year, the festival, which is programmed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arts Institute and the UW Department of Communication Arts’ film studies program, is gearing up to present over 150 films in just eights days from April 11-18.
This year’s festival implements new adjustments in order to include four additional days of programming, which means a constantly changing basic groundwork. Mike King, the senior programmer and technical director for the festival, anticipates this will provide a greater opportunity for audiences to see more films.
“A lot of people, over the years, say it has been so hard to choose,” King said. “Now you have four extra days where you can really spread out and see more. There are more opportunities then ever to see films.”
Preparation for the festival happens more than a year in advance, which means discussion of the 2014 festival already started. However, the majority of the work occurs during the fall season, especially with the kickoff of the Toronto International Film Festival, typically held in September of each year.
Beginning with Toronto and following film exhibitions, the Wisconsin Film Festival programmers begin an important task: watching as many films as possible.
“There’s a lot of watching,” King said. “And trying to get your ear to the ground trying to figure out what is going to be good and just spending a lot of time trying to track them down.”
Throughout the course of watching films in the fall, King and other coordinators begin to conceptualize how they want to program the festival. They believe their approach to programming tends to be “organic” programming not based on what they want but rather what they find.
“[Director of Programming] Jim Healy and I were just seeing a lot of bold and daring films from young American directors,” King said, giving them the inspiration for the new festival series Brave New American Cinema.
King said that coordinating a schedule after watching so many films becomes one of the greatest obstacles in organizing a festival. Making decisions about what films would play well together takes consideration and paying attention to balance among genres and types of film.
The programming specifically for the Wisconsin Film Festival helps to distinguish it from other film exhibition events from across the country. Rather than having a specific theme or focus for the festival, the programmers plan a broad, varied schedule of films ranging from silent films to recent 2013 films that just premiered last week at South by Southwest.
“We have films from all over the globe, documentaries, experimental cinema, animation—so this festival really covers all sorts of ground,” King said. “That’s something that’s nice: to be able to hop between all these different forms of movies over the course of the day.”
With the release of the festival’s schedule, the box office has been nothing but chaos, with over 16,500 tickets sold in 48 hours as of Monday. However, the programmers still have much work ahead of them. In addition to selling and marketing tickets, King is preparing for the technical aspect of the festival.
“All the movies are coming in from around the world. We are focused on getting them here on time, inspecting them all, making sure they’re in the right formats and will run properly in the ways we expect, and setting up the venues,” King said. “Now it’s a lot more focused on getting the logistics of the show done.”
As a result of developments in technology in recent years, King is adjusting to new forms of projecting all the films. With 35mm films becoming a thing of the past, the Wisconsin Film Festival is using more Digital Cinema Packages, or “super-digital, high-resolution hard drives” for a majority of the festival, King said.
“So many distributors say now that DCPs are the only way we can get a print of a lot of films,” King said. “It’s a big change that I’m learning how to navigate for the festival.”
Although a different form of technology, the DCPs are expected to project quality visuals that should still encourage audiences to attend the festival and enjoy the diverse programming schedule.
Audience enthusiasm at the Wisconsin Film Festival also differentiates the event from other film exhibition events across the country. King describes the audience as having an “intangible vibe” and an enthusiasm to see great films.
“It’s really hard to see these kind of films in Madison during the rest of the year,” King said. “A lot of times there is a drought for art house cinema in Madison, so I think people like to take advantage of the festival.”