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Time-out on our Wisconsin Film Festival 2015 coverage

Time-out on our Wisconsin Film Festival 2015 coverage

The WFF staff surprised us this weekend with media policies that are unprecedented and unacceptable.

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Update (March 23): This has been smoothed over, to a point at least, and we plan to continue with our coverage. On Monday afternoon another festival staffer, Christina Martin-Wright, reached out and made a good-faith effort to clarify WFF's concerns. After some back-and-forth, Martin-Wright told me that "there are no rules" but that the guidelines in the email that touched this while thing off "[represent] the wishes of the programming team whose efforts are bringing these 160 films to Madison." So, that's still not entirely clear to me, but I think we can try and move forward.

The emails also maintain that WFF's concerns essentially come down to spoilers, which confuses me because what WFF actually said to us went far beyond the scope of that. WFF has asked us to consider giving readers more of a heads-up about possible spoilers, which we'll consider.

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I'm incredibly disappointed to say that we'll be refraining from any further coverage of the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival.

Over the weekend, we and several other media outlets received an email from WFF staff stating the following policy: "To obtain advance screeners, the press will agree to only publish capsule reviews/previews of these films, to appear no earlier than one week prior to the festival's start."

There are two big problems with this.

One, this policy was not clearly communicated until this email, which comes after the WFF schedule has been released and after the press has already been given access to a bunch of preview DVDs and streams. In the email, festival coordinator Ben Reiser writes that this is a policy he “assumed was implicit," which is not how these things work. Additionally, I've covered seven previous WFFs, and of course written/edited lots of pieces that don't conform to those rules. Not once have I heard a complaint from WFF staff about that coverage, nor have I ever heard any mention of this policy. Some distributors behind festival films try to establish a “capsule rules only" constraint, but there has never been any mention of such a constraint applying to WFF selections across the board. Not once. So this has no precedent at WFF. And with regards to the timing, well, the cat's kind of out of the bag on that: The WFF staff worked with several media outlets in town to coordinate a series of “exclusive" film announcements that ran before the schedule even came out.

Second, even if this policy had been clearly established, it would be unacceptable. The festival spans more than 160 titles and appeals to an incredibly broad audience. On its face, the notion of jamming all our reviews into one week and a short format is absurd. Tickets have been on sale since March 14, and it's a well-established pattern that many WFF films sell out very quickly anyway. More importantly, a bunch of different local publications cover the film festival every year, and they all have different approaches in terms of style and how they time stories, and that is part of what makes all those publications distinct and valuable. Anyone who works with the media on behalf of WFF should understand that basic fact. The idea that we'd all do things essentially the same way for one specific event is unreasonable. Having robust, diverse coverage of WFF in the weeks ahead of the festival is what we're here for. It's one of the most important things we do all year.

Update: Additionally, even as this dispute went on this weekend, WFF's own social media accounts were linking to full-scale reviews from local and national publications.)

More importantly, a respected film festival housed in a public university shouldn't be in the business of setting conditions on that. The WFF approach simply violates the principles of journalistic independence that all college journalism students learn about in their first semester. Yes, it's been increasingly common in the arts and entertainment world for event organizers, publicists, and others to try and place constraints on the press, but WFF shouldn't be contributing to that trend, and I for one will not be playing along. 

The email from WFF also cites that it's "common practice throughout the industry to publish preview pieces about Festivals, but to save in-depth critical pieces about the films themselves until after they have screened at least once at the Festival in question." Two problems here. One, the existence of “common industry practice" doesn't excuse WFF from clearly establishing its own clear parameters—which, as I've said above, they actually did not—nor do I accept it as a constraint on independent journalists. Two, in the case of WFF, we're talking about literally dozens of films that might screen in Madison only during the festival, and might never return to local screens. In this context, having a lot of preview coverage is arguably more valuable than after-the-fact coverage, and you'd think WFF would embrace that. Robust preview coverage gets people thinking about what they should see at WFF. Reviews after festival screenings are still valuable, but they mostly get people thinking about what they should look out for on Netflix.

And near the end of the email, there's this: "You are of course free to disregard these common practices, but you do so at the risk of us having to reexamine our policies regarding advance screeners and the issuing of press passes for next year's Festival." In other words, run your coverage how and when we would like you to, or we might cut off access. This is something you do when you're a big studio shopping a film you know is garbage, not when you're an ambitious, well-curated festival that, again, is affiliated with a public, university that, by the way, also hosts a renowned school of journalism and mass communications. Yes, worst case, the press runs some things whose timing and content don't align perfectly with your marketing strategy, but on balance, is that such a terrible thing?

Reiser began the email by bringing up his concerns with two reviews of WFF selections that recently ran on Tone MadisonUncle John and Almost There. He did not take the time to bring these concerns up with me or the writer, Chris Lay, individually, but instead broached the subject in a group email that also included arts writer and editors at IsthmusMadison Film Forum, and LakeFrontRow. In the email, Reiser objected to some plot details we revealed about the films, saying that he doesn't see the value in reviews that he says are “comprehensive and filled with spoilers." In fact, they are neither. Chris' Uncle John review explains that the title character in the film kills someone—which happens in the beginning of the film and is strongly implied in the film's trailer and previous press coverage of the film. (The film's official Facebook page shared that review last week, so I'm guessing that wasn't enough of a spoiler to piss off the filmmakers themselves.) The Almost There review mentions—and in vague terms, for the record—that the subject of that documentary, Peter Anton, was arrested in 1980 and convicted of distributing “obscene material" to minors. That's been mentioned in press coverage of Anton in recent years, and because it's a court case, it's effectively been public record for 35 years. Yes, this is revealed a bit late in the documentary itself, but at this point it'd be more shocking if the film didn't mention this part of Anton's life.

I realize the WFF staff has no ill intent here, but following this policy would lead to a bad result, and from a communications standpoint this is an incredibly poor way to handle WFF's concerns. The rules proposed are just vague enough that if you really wanted to satisfy the constraints, you'd err on the side of caution, which means what you're doing will simply be less interesting. Or, worse, you'd be in the business of going back and forth with WFF staff, saying, “OK, can I do/publish this or that? What about this?" That's ridiculous. How is that all that good for anybody?

This is a bad look for WFF. I'm truly shocked and saddened to run into this with one of the local arts events I respect the most, and which, by the way, has previously always been nothing but professional and helpful with the press. Tone Madison will be holding off on publishing any further coverage of the Wisconsin Film Festival until WFF establishes reasonable media policies and communicates them in a clear and timely manner. I call on other Madison media outlets to do the same. Oh, and below is Reiser's email from this Saturday, with my annotations.

I hope this gets resolved soon. I absolutely love WFF and I'd hate to miss it—but not as much as I hate people trying to push me around.

Correction: This article previously stated that WFF is partially housed within the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This was incorrect and the reference has been changed.

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Hello all,

I was cruising the internet last night and came across two reviews on Tone Madison of 2015 Festival selections. These reviews, written by Chris Lay, are to my eyes, comprehensive and filled with spoilers.

We are still three weeks away from the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival, and I'd like to make explicit now what I assumed was implicit in all of my discussions and correspondence with you ladies and gentlemen of the press in preparing for coverage of this year's event, and in working to fulfill your requests for advance screeners of Festival films and for press passes allowing you access to screenings during the Festival.

Again, you can't assume that a specific set of rules is just implicit. You're talking about press people here, for god's sake. Leave a hole open and I will drive a truck through it. That's the social contract with us!

Our expectations are as follows:

We provide advance screeners as a courtesy to the press. To obtain advance screeners, the press will agree to only publish capsule reviews/previews of these films, to appear no earlier than one week prior to the festival's start.

I did not agree to this. I was never asked to agree, and had I been, I would not.

It serves no purpose for the Festival to have local media publish full scale reviews of new work premiering at our Festival this far in advance of the actual Festival.

You're entitled to that opinion, but that's not a constraint on Tone Madison. We don't work for you. Additionally, it definitely serves a purpose, which is to inform our readers about what we think is interesting and stir up conversation ahead of festival screenings. And it's not that far in advance. And again, the fact that WFF's own Facebook page is linking to full-scale reviews of WFF films already suggests you don't actually hold this opinion. So... what's the point of all this, exactly?

I also think it is detrimental to our relationship with filmmakers who entrust the Festival to handle their work in the most respectful and beneficial way possible.

Maybe, but isn't that WFF's concern and not mine? Does the occasional review really threaten to torpedo WFF"s ability to curate films? I don't really buy it.

The Festival is an actual, not theoretical event, and that event takes place this year between April 9- April 16.

Not sure what the point is of reminding me of that, except condescension and hostility, but OK...

Advance screeners are provided as a courtesy so that you have more freedom to choose films to see with press passes during the festival, and more time to watch and write about films that will be showing at the Festival, but not as a means to write in depth reviews of these films in advance of the Festival.

Nope. This was never mentioned or established. Not once, in the previous seven WFFs I've covered, and not this year, until now.

It is common practice throughout the industry to publish preview pieces about Festivals, but to save in-depth critical pieces about the films themselves until after they have screened at least once at the Festival in question.

You are of course free to disregard these common practices, but you do so at the risk of us having to reexamine our policies regarding advance screeners and the issuing of press passes for next year's Festival.

“It would be a shame if, uh, anything detrimental were to happen to you…"

I have enjoyed interacting with you in preparation for this year's Festival and hope to maintain a fruitful and mutually beneficial relationship with all of you in the future.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this issue.

Warm Regards,

Ben

Derrick Buisch on monsters and squares

Derrick Buisch on monsters and squares

Luke Bassuener of Asumaya on "The Euphemist"

Luke Bassuener of Asumaya on "The Euphemist"

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