The Milwaukee Short Film Festival takes place this Friday, Sept. 7, and Saturday, Sept. 8, at the Fox Bay Cinema and Grill in Whitefish Bay. Fifty films will be screened over the two days, including the first film shown at the festival 20 years ago.
Ross Bigley, the festival's founder and director, recalls that the festival began as a simple gathering at a coffee shop with a projector. "When I was making these short films, there was really no place in Milwaukee to screen anything like that," he says.
Slowly, the short film screenings were played on public-access television periodically. In 2003, Bigley and his friends decided to bring back the festival in earnest (although it was still in a coffee shop).
"Quickly, the audience rose dramatically, and the submission levels improved greatly, too," he recalls. "So, we [had] to be someplace where we can actually be on a screen because there's such a demand."
That's where Eric Levin, this year's Pace-setter Honoree, comes in. Levin has been managing movie theaters in Milwaukee since the 1980s — first owning and operating the Avalon Theater from 1987-1994, and then the Times Cinema from 1993-2007. He then moved to the Oriental Theatre, which he operated for 11 years until Milwaukee Film took over the lease this past July.
Levin offered the support of the Times Cinema as a venue to host the Short Film Festival in its early stages, and notes that he has been enthusiastic about supporting local filmmakers throughout his career.
"Ross is very understated and modest, but he is responsible for driving interest in shorts in Milwaukee, and I'm glad we were able to support the effort in those earlier years," says Levin.
"I think people are looking for short bits of genius, maybe, and that's a very difficult format to work in," he adds. Both Levin and Bigley reflect on how much the quality of short film making has grown in the past two decades.
"The amount of quality in short films has risen greatly, and not just in Milwaukee — Milwaukee’s filmmakers are, I think, exceptional at this moment — but across the world," says Bigley. There are 40 shorts by Milwaukee filmmakers in this year's festival.
Ross Bigley and Eric Levin joined Lake Effect's Bonnie North in the studio to share more about the 20th Milwaukee Short Film Festival: