Meg Hamel admits that she had to scramble to pull together the 2006 edition of the Wisconsin Film Festival, after being appointed the festival's interim director in December 2005. But this year's fest (which runs April 12-15) has been a little easier on her. Her position became permanent last September, and that's meant she's had a lot more time to book films, secure venues for screenings, and do all the other things it takes to make the annual four-day event.
"It's still not a lot of time to watch 600 films and boil them down into a schedule," says Hamel, who remains the festival's only full-time employee. "But it's been better."
With 183 separate features and shorts this year, the film festival is as big as it's ever been. The Majestic Theater has bowed out as a presenting venue, but Hamel has brought a number of new theaters and screening rooms online, including the Overture Center's Capitol Theater and the lecture hall at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. "We have 10 theaters now, even without the Majestic," she notes. "And they're all within walking distance of each other. That's just not the case at other festivals."
Securing the Capitol was a real coup, says Hamel. Its large screen and state-of-the-art sound system will make for an exceptional viewing experience, of course. But Hamel adds that its size is also a major benefit for the festival. "It's just nice to have such a large venue to work with, where capacity is not an issue," she explains. "People attending the festival need not worry that tickets won't be available for the films we're showing there. People can walk up to the box office just before show time and come see a great movie."
Tickets to some films will be hard to come by, however. Hamel says that although the perception is that the festival sells out popular films far in advance, WFF's streamlined online box office is still selling tickets at a fast clip.
More than 23,000 advance tickets have already been sold, and some films will reach capacity before the festival formally kicks off with a screening of Chalk, Mike Akel and Chris Mass' debut feature about the awkward lives of high school teachers. To Hamel's surprise, Chalk may sell out the Wisconsin Union Theater in advance: "We've already sold 1,000 tickets for it, which is astonishing."
Hamel is reluctant to pick best bets for the festival, arguing that all the films have merit. But she thinks a screening of the recently restored Young Frankenstein at the Capitol Theater will be a lot of fun, as will a showing of the Hungarian animated film The District, a black comedy that makes a virtue of raunchiness. She says Bomako, an African film that literally puts the West on trial, has done well in art houses on both coasts and is also quite special.
While the festival doesn't concentrate on grouping material by theme, she's also excited about a series of films about people with disabilities, chosen with the help of the UW's Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. It's particularly gratifying to offer these kinds of films, she says, because they underscore the fact that the Wisconsin Film Festival is very different from those festivals around the world that are all about serving the needs of the commercial film industry. "What's such a pleasure is that we're not trying to be the Hollywood of the Midwest here," says Hamel.