The story of our city’s fast-growing film festival has all the makings of a great movie: action, drama, a colorful cast of characters. And now it’s coming to a theater near you!
INT. ORIENTAL THEATRE — JULY 2018
Jonathon Jackson used to spend the wee hours of his Sundays in the Oriental Theatre, cleaning up after midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While he doesn’t miss the handfuls of rice and rolls of toilet paper audiences would hurl at the screen, he’s glad to be back in Milwaukee’s grandest movie palace again, this time as the CEO and artistic director of the organization that runs it.
Jackson – 40, with a sweep of ash-blond hair above pale blue eyes – is sitting in the largest of the Oriental’s three auditoriums, working his way through the laundry list of renovations that Milwaukee Film took on when it began leasing the cinema earlier this summer. A large fan rattles in the distance, and the construction workers marching in and out of the cavernous space periodically stop to dab at the sweat on their brows.
At 91, the Oriental is starting to show its age. Water stains mottle its ornate ceilings, and its once-plush red seats are a little threadbare. But when Jackson surveys the 1,080-seat auditorium, he isn’t thinking about what it looks like now. He’s thinking about what it will look like the next month, when it reopens to the public under Milwaukee Film’s control – at last, a year-round home base for screenings, talks and whatever else the organization wants to put on. And he’s thinking about what it will look like on Oct. 18, when thousands flock to the cinema for the opening-night festivities of Milwaukee Film’s signature event: the biggest and best-attended film festival the city has ever seen.
What past Milwaukee Film Festival flicks can I stream from my couch RIGHT NOW? Click here to find out.
INT. SHEPHARD EXPRESS OFFICES — 2002-08
Though Milwaukee Film celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, the story of the city’s first big film festival actually dates back six more years, to 2002.
In April of that year, Louis Fortis, editor and publisher of the Shepherd Express, and David Luhrssen, then the paper’s arts and entertainment editor, met with a couple of men who’d founded a small Lake Geneva film festival. Fortis later learned that Milwaukee was one of the largest cities in the country without a major film festival and hatched a plan to create one of his own. “We can do it,” he remembers telling Luhrssen. “This could be the Shepherd’s gift to Milwaukee.”
The two knew that they couldn’t mount a major festival on their own. So they created a nonprofit that would be dedicated to promoting and overseeing it, and they reached out to local civic leaders for help. Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and Chris Abele, president and CEO of the Argosy Foundation, were among the first to pledge their support. (Abele would run for, and win, the office of Milwaukee County executive in 2011, but at the time he was best known for his high-dollar philanthropic work with local arts organizations.)
They also approached Jackson, who had just graduated from UW-Milwaukee’s film program and was running its Student Union Cinema, and hired him as a programmer. Together, they settled on a lineup of 100 films from more than 30 countries for the first festival, with a special focus on films that could break down barriers and educate local audiences about the wider world.
About 8,000 people bought tickets to that first iteration of the Milwaukee International Film Festival, braving biting November winds to catch limited-release screenings of indie flicks made by up-and-coming auteurs. The moviegoers evidently liked what they saw, because when they came back the following year they brought their friends, and their friends’ friends. The mayor declared the festival a triumph, and, by its fifth year, attendance had swelled to around 30,000. Publicly, the festival was an unequivocal success.
INT. MILWAUKEE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT – 2008-12
Privately, though, some funders, staffers and volunteers worried that MIFF wasn’t living up to its potential. “The concern was that the festival could only really grow if it had an expanded board and a strategic vision,” Taylor says.
MIFF’s board – made up of Shepherd employees Fortis, Luhrssen and Finance Manager Matthew Astbury – was the minimum size allowed for a nonprofit by state law; governance-minded organizations such as the Better Business Bureau recommend at least five. The small board was by design, Fortis says: “If you want to put something together, that’s how you get things done.”
The festival was intertwined with the Shepherd in other ways, too. The newspaper was underwriting operations such as office costs and festival work done by Shepherd employees. Those costs – plus most of the festival’s advertising – racked up loans from the Shepherd to the nonprofit that surpassed $438,000 by May 2008, according to a statement by Astbury published in the paper that month, though Astbury noted that Fortis was not seeking repayment of anywhere near that full amount.
Fortis didn’t think the board’s opting to use the Shepherd’s resources for the festival presented a serious problem. Abele disagreed. He says he had no idea that Fortis and the board were operating the organization at a deficit owed to the Shepherd. “Normally in a borrower-lender situation,” he says, “the borrower and the lender are different people. But as the chair of the nonprofit, he’s the only person who could have made the decision to incur debt, and as the 100 percent owner of the for-profit, he’s the only person who could have made the decision to lend.”
In the spring of 2008, Abele and some of the other funders (chief among them Bill and Carmen Haberman, of the Herzfeld Foundation) began petitioning Fortis to open up MIFF’s board. Fortis says he offered to let them buy the Shepherd out, for $135,000. They decided instead to stop funding the festival, which prompted Fortis to lay off Jackson and the rest of the MIFF staff.
That summer, Abele – with help from the Habermans – registered Milwaukee Film as a nonprofit and hired all of MIFF’s former employees to start putting together a new film festival under a new name and board.
Fortis felt betrayed, and in the winter of 2009, he filed a lawsuit claiming that Abele and Milwaukee Film had stolen a festival from him and ought to pay up. “Sometimes you’ve just got to fight back,” Fortis says.
And fight he did, for more than three years. In June 2011, a judge dismissed several of the lawsuit’s claims while allowing the others to move forward. The case went to a jury trial a year later but Fortis dropped the suit before a verdict was issued.
EXT. THEATERS AROUND MILWAUKEE – 2008-18
A bare-knuckle legal brawl was only one of two big obstacles that Milwaukee Film had to overcome in its early years. The other was the Great Recession.
Nearly everyone interviewed for this story mentioned – unprompted – the toll the 2008 financial crisis took on the fledgling nonprofit during its first year in operation. “It was the absolute worst year in a century to start a new nonprofit, with close competition, I suppose, from 1929,” Abele says. “All these donors are having a hard enough time supporting the groups they already do, and all of a sudden their holdings lose a third of their value.”
That one-two punch only seemed to compel Jackson to fight harder for Milwaukee Film’s success. Former co-workers describe him as hard-driving, ambitious and single-minded in his focus on the festival – at once praise and criticism. His staffers are similarly dedicated.
Working nearly around the clock, they started partnering with theaters in the suburbs to expand their reach and boost attendance. Whenever they identified up-and-coming actors or directors who might be open to attending the festival, they moved heaven and earth to make sure they could.
Take Milwaukee-born filmmaker John Ridley. Jackson invited him to speak at the festival after 12 Years a Slave swept the 2014 Academy Awards, earning a screenwriting Oscar for Ridley. Ridley demurred, saying he’d love to attend but was busy wrapping up another project in Texas and couldn’t possibly make it there and back in time. Jackson explained the situation to Abele, who chartered a private plane to fly Ridley in and out of Milwaukee just for the evening – problem solved. Ridley later joined the Milwaukee Film board, and he and Abele launched a film incubator, No Studios, in the Pabst brewery complex earlier this year. (Milwaukee Film is the incubator’s anchor tenant.)
And as the organization grew, it began to take on more community-minded projects. In 2014, it launched the Brico Forward Fund, and began offering grants to fledgling filmmakers. In 2016, it founded the Milwaukee Filmmaker Alliance to drive more money and support to local media makers.
All the while, its attendance numbers kept creeping up. In its fourth year, MFF was more popular than the much older – as in 44 years older – Chicago International Film Festival. Last year, MFF sold out more than 100 screenings and drew 84,072 attendees, making it the ninth-best attended film festival in the country, by the organization’s own estimation. And staffers expect the 2018 festival to pull in even more people, thanks in no small part to the excitement stirred up by the recent takeover of the Oriental.
INT. NEW LAND ENTERPRISES – 2013-18
Jackson moved to Milwaukee in the summer of 1998 to study filmmaking at UWM. His first night in the city, he caught a screening of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi at the Oriental and fell in love with the theater.
“Jonathan has a vision,” says Melissa Musante, a former festival volunteer coordinator who’s worked at Film Wisconsin. “I think the Oriental was part of his vision from year one.”
The problem was that the Oriental already had a longtime tenant. Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres had rented the place since 1976. And the Milwaukee company that owned the building, New Land Enterprises, wasn’t initially inclined to sever ties with a responsible renter who always paid on time. “They were a wonderful tenant,” New Land Director Tim Gokhman says. “There were no issues whatsoever.”
Jackson arranged to meet with Gokhman anyway, in 2014, and learned that Landmark’s lease was set to expire in 2018.
That was all the incentive Jackson needed to try to convince Gokhman that Milwaukee Film would be a better tenant. “We’ll invest in the building,” Jackson remembers promising him in one of many follow-up meetings. “We’ll reinvigorate it with more programs, more year-round engagement, more foot traffic.”
His charm offensive, or maybe his promise to invest $10 million in the theater, eventually worked. Last summer, Milwaukee Film announced it would sign a 31-year lease on the building. This summer, when the organization took possession of the building, Jackson ushered in architects, engineers and construction crews and got to work.
INT. ORIENTAL THEATRE — AUGUST 2018
Jackson maneuvers his way through the crowd gathered in the Oriental’s newly renovated lobby and climbs midway up its grand staircase to tell neighbors, supporters and reporters what they’ve been waiting to hear: Milwaukee’s most beloved movie palace is open for business again.
The antique chandeliers hanging above his head look exactly the way they’ve always looked, and still cast the same warm, soft light. The ceramic lions guarding the staircase look the same too. But there are noticeable changes here and there: Freshly plastered ceilings, updated sound and projection systems, a women’s restroom on the first floor. A renewed sense of excitement, too.
Jackson was able to convince his staff, his board and New Land that the Oriental ought to be under Milwaukee Film’s control. And now he’s won over much of his new neighborhood, too – the crowd in the lobby that day seemed as entranced by the theater as he’s been since he first moved to Milwaukee 20 years ago.
He doesn’t spend much time basking in the glory of the moment, though. After talking for a minute or two about what cinema fans can expect from Milwaukee Film’s continuous presence in the cinema – more limited-run and local films – he descends the staircase and wades back into the crowd, his brow slightly furrowed, as if he’s already thinking about the next big project he wants to tackle, the next hurdle he needs to overcome.
Abele hints at what Jackson and the organization might be setting their sights on now. “We all lean in most when we think the cause is something worth working hard for,” he says. “Summerfest didn’t start out as the biggest music festival on the planet. The reason they got there is that no one gave [those] people the memo that this is Milwaukee, you’re only allowed to shoot for second-best. Screw that. We deserve the best, and we’re going to get there.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct and clarify the timing and outcome of Fortis’ lawsuit against Milwaukee film.