FADE IN.

Milwaukee Magazine - - HOME & DESIGN -

INT. ORI­EN­TAL THEATRE – JULY 2018 ▶ JONATHAN 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.

INT. SHEP­HERD 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 03

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 2012, a judge up­held some of the law­suit’s claims but dis­missed sev­eral oth­ers. For­tis ac­cepted a set­tle­ment, agree­ing to drop the re­main­ing claims and pay his own le­gal fees.

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.”

FADe OUT.

JONATHAN JACK­SON

CHRIS ABELE

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