Milwaukee Film Celebrates Its Return With a Splashy Opening Night Party

The kickoff event marks the festival’s much-yearned-for return to in-person screenings.

Milwaukee Film Festival kicked off its Opening Night soiree with a bang. After 903 days of being held hostage by a pesky pandemic, the festival opened with the quirky, crazy, charmingly oddball documentary, The Pez Outlaw, and organizers of the festival – beginning straight at the top – couldn’t be more ecstatic to be back.

“We like people. We get our energy from bringing this community together,” says Jonathan Jackson, CEO of Milwaukee Film. “You can show great films, you can stimulate ideas, but you can’t connect with people virtually. For us, this is why we do it. It’s so exciting to be here and it just means everything.”

To top off its return, Jackson kept the celebration all in one, turning movie night into a movie palace party by hosting the long-awaited event at the historic and newly ($10 million) renovated Oriental Theatre, a space Jackson says is underutilized by our community. “This is a treasure,” he says “and we’re going to continue to expand the ways we use this movie palace, and having the opening night party here is just the beginning of that.”

An estimated 100-some people came out for opening night, with moviegoers lining up outside the theater hours before the show. Patrons were ready to grab a box of popcorn, get comfy in those freshly restored velvet-lined seats, and sink into the darkness as the big, bright screen told them a story. One such viewer was Milwaukee Film’s artistic director, Cara Ogburn, who planned the opening and advocated for The Pez Outlaw as the kick-off film. “I had such an exceptional thrill of hearing people laugh together for the first time in, like, two years, so I’m just so happy,” Ogburn says. “Our audiences really like documentaries. So not necessarily splashy stars on opening night, but these films that really get to the heart of humanity and [that are fun]. For me, it just sets this tone of like, OK, let’s just watch movies for two more weeks.”

The Pez Outlaw’s own star, Steve Glew, also appeared as a special guest for the film’s talkback, along with directors Amy Bandlien Storkel and Bryan Storkel, who all stayed to enjoy the party.

Throughout the night, which featured catered food and desserts by local restaurants, guests could peruse both levels and all theaters by partaking in trivia, enjoying trailers of films featured during the festival, grooving to the tunes of DJ Gemini Gilly, and capturing the Kodak moment with Enclave Light and Sound photo share platform.

Longtime festival volunteers shared in the excitement of the fest’s in-person return. Susan DeGraw described the delight of chatting with actors from the documentary: “That’s exactly what this is all about… connecting with the filmmakers, and feeling like you’re somehow part of it.”

UW-Milwaukee film student, Michael Hack, shared his thoughts on attending his first opening night party, calling the environment “a really good reminder of why I like doing film. I don’t know where my career is going to take me, but seeing people in their fields and living out their dreams, I find it extremely inspiring…. I’ve been a part of local film movements in other cities, and it’s just not as ecstatic for each other as it is here in Milwaukee.”

Ultimately, Jackson feels the city gathering in the name of film is all about making Milwaukee a better place. Ogburn agrees: “Just generally, as we come back to the in-person experience, [we want to] bring people together to have those moments of joy.”