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The growth of the festival and the shrinking of the paper probably signal the end of their current sponsorship arrangement, which expires this year.

The Milwaukee Film Festival stands on the shoulders of many supporters and sponsors, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which has been the Presenting Sponsor since 2009, the festival’s first year.

The association has “been critical to our success,” said festival executive and creative director Jonathan Jackson.

“We could not dream of being able to afford the ad placements their advertising trade donation has provided us and I think it has been critical to our effort to reach as wide an audience as possible for the film festival in Milwaukee.”

Poster_8.5x11_FINALBut the growth of the festival and the shrinking of the paper probably signal the end of this arrangement which expires this year.

The total extent of the Journal Sentinel’s involvement is an in-kind contribution – ads for the festival in the paper. No money changes hands.

For its part the paper receives above-the-fold billing in the festival program, posters and public screenings and a trailer that runs prior to the films touting Journal Sentinel “storytellers.” (Tellingly two of them, featured in the Journal Sentinel‘s back page ad in the festival program, no longer work at there.)

The paper also has most-favored-nation status for festival announcements embargoed for use by other media until they appear in print. I benefitted from this for years until my job as film critic was eliminated during last year’s festival. This has resulted in the incongruity of a newspaper without local film coverage being the chief sponsor of the local film festival.

Which runs contrary to Milwaukee Film’s dream of nurturing a year-round movie environment in the city.

The Journal Sentinel now runs canned movie coverage – synopses, wire stories, large photos – and is using staff writers and freelancers for their festival coverage. That the paper didn’t send a representative to Opening Night, the festival’s signature event after its publisher fell ill, further signals its detachment.

Meanwhile attendance at the festival has grown, sell outs are common and there are more films than ever. With more than 64,000 attendees in 2014 the festival is ranked fifth among similar sized cities in attendance.

It operates with steam roller efficiency under excellent management. The local movers and shakers on its board of directors are topped by County Executive Chris Abele who co-founded the festival with Carmen and Bill Haberman. Four foundations are Luminary Sponsors, donating upwards of $100,000, including Haberman’s Herzfeld Foundation. Milwaukee Magazine is a Leading Sponsor, in the $50,000 range.

“Every sponsor relationship is unique and could include cash, trade goods, trade services, trade media, etc,” said Jackson in an email. “Our policy …. is to not disclose this.”

For its support Milwaukee Magazine receives, among other things, an ad in the program guide, its logo on screen, a 15-second promo before each movie and the title of “official magazine” of the festival.

The festival’s total 2014 budget was $2.8 million, $1.8 million in cash. Ticket sales, merchandise and membership account for 33 percent of that.

All of which gives the Presenting Sponsor position held by the Journal Sentinel real value as a source of funding, like naming rights, helping the festival develop sources of revenue independent of foundation money.

And the association with the festival comes with a marquee cache for any local deep pocket that chooses to support it. The flip side, of course, is that the nature of films at a festival can involve a supporter in controversy.

The paper may continue to support the fest, but not at the pole position.

Who’s got next?

The festival program guide’s advertising and sponsorship pages may offer some clues.

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