Does anybody else feel like, just yesterday, it was 1999? Reality check: that was 17 years ago. We’re guessing the folks at the Wisconsin Film Festival can’t believe how fast time has gone, either. Started in 1999, the annual week(ish)-long event has continually grown, becoming the largest university-produced film festival in America.
The festival is produced in part by the UW’s Department of Communication Arts but under the larger umbrella of the UW–Madison Arts Institute, which has only technically been around one year longer than the festival itself.
Prior to 1998, the Arts Consortium was the artistic hub on campus. Founded by Chancellor Edwin Young in 1975, the Consortium aimed to coordinate all arts activities on campus. As the Consortium evolved, the mission changed from coordinating activities to administering departments, programs, and faculty. In 1997, the Arts Consortium recommended the creation of an Arts Institute that would be governed by leaders of campus arts programs and departments. In 1998, the Arts Institute completely replaced the Consortium and, one year later, the inaugural Wisconsin Film Festival was held.
The first festival was organized by two Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) students, Wendi Weger ’98 and James Kreul ’92, MA’96, PhD’04. The 1999 festival screened 30 movies, all for free. The next year, the festival hired its first professional director, Mary Carbine ’86, MA’88 (who, fun fact!, is now the Managing Director of WAA’s Alumni Park).
Now, the festival spans eight days, shows roughly 150 films, and entertains nearly 30,000 people. Movies are shown at venues both on campus and in the community, including the Union South Marquee, Sundance 608 at Hilldale Mall, and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The 2016 festival begins on April 14 at the Barrymore Theatre with a showing of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an action-comedy from New Zealand.