Tom Yoshikami on a decade of programming films in Madison
The longtime Madison film curator reflects after his recent move to Vancouver.
Much has changed for Madison filmgoers over the past 10 years. The opening of Sundance Cinemas Madison in 2006 brought new competition to Madison's first-run movie market on both the mainstream and art-housefronts (though Sundance, despite its namesake, has been an underwhelming source for independent film). More recent moves by Marcus Theatres to close down its Eastgate theater and open a new theater in Sun Prairie took first-run movies even further from central Madison than they already were. Downtown Madison’s historic movie houses, the Majestic and Orpheum, have been revived by new owners who focus on ambitious music and comedy programming but very little on film. All kinds of local art-film programs have come and gone over the years, and campus-based programs like UW Cinematheque, WUD Film and the Wisconsin Film Festival have expanded their scope to include more Madison premieres of independent films and beefed-up retrospective programs, aided by new digital projection equipment at Cinematheque’s Vilas Hall screening room and the comfy 330-seat Marquee theater in Union South. The Madison Public Library has stepped up its film programming, and beloved video store Four Star Video Heaven has forged on with new owners who hope to grow the store’s collection.
Throughout all this, Tom Yoshikami was both a constant and an agent of change. Yoshikami came to Madison in 2001 to begin graduate work in communication arts at UW-Madison, and in 2004 began working for Cinematheque as a program assistant. He soon began to play an essential role in art-house film programming in Madison, curating everything from Jean-Luc Godard retrospectives to whimsical experimental short film series. In addition to his programming work for the Cinematheque and WFF, Yoshikami helped to launch the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Rooftop Cinema series in 2006 (and has curated it ever since), and has co-programmed MMOCA’s fall Spotlight Cinema series with Cinematheque and WFF programmer Mike King for several years. He worked with UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies to launch the Tales From Planet Earth film festival in 2009. In 2010, he became the staff adviser for the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s student-run film committee, and also has played a role in organizing WUD’s Distinguished Lecture Series.
More important than Yoshikami’s curatorial eye for film, though, is that he embraces the diverse roles that cinema can play in public life. Cinematheque is very much a window into the world of film academia, even as it makes savvy moves to build its audience with more premieres and heaping series of Hitchcock and Welles; Rooftop Cinema adds an experimental zest to the exuberance of a Madison summer; Tales From Planet Earth celebrates the art of film but also aims to inspire activism; WUD Film provides hands-on learning experiences for dozens of students and has worked to diversify its reach with events like the annual LGBT-focused Reel Love Film Festival. In addition to being a guy who travels around to big film festivals and draws on a film scholar’s deep knowledge, Yoshikami has always come off to me as a guy who really wants to present things in a way that makes sense for the audience and the setting, a self-effacing person who seeks out opportunities to share his passion in fun, welcoming ways. This is true of many other film programmers in town, of course, but Yoshikami stands out for the sheer variety of things he did in his time here.
Yoshikami and his partner moved away to Vancouver earlier this summer. But you can still see some of Yoshikami’s programming work on Madison screens this year. Rooftop's Cinema’s 10th-anniversary season wraps up on Friday, August 21 and Yoshikami and King are currently finalizing plans for this year’s Spotlight Cinema program, which will begin September 30 and span eight Madison premieres of new art films. The biennial Tales From Planet Earth also is slated to return this November. Now getting settled into Vancouver, Yoshikami talked with me on the phone last week. Instead of talking about individual films, I wanted to hear his reflections on the obstacles and rewards of curating art-film series in a mid-size city. Yoshikami talked with me about his experiences in Madison, the challenges of balancing multiple film series, and where he’d like to see Madison’s film community go in the future.
Tone Madison: How did you balance the competing needs of all these different series? Not that the WUD programs and MMOCA programs compete in a zero-sum way, but they all need a lot of attention and have a slightly different character. Was that a challenge?
Tom Yoshikami: Oh, absolutely, but that's what made it so fun. Every program has its own audience that it could tap into. Sometimes they overlapped, but oftentimes they were quite different. Whenever I introduced a film at one venue and I thought there was something else of interest at another venue, whether I programmed it or not, I would talk about it. I guess I like to think of Madison film culture as expanding enough, or having the capacity to grow, in a way where it didn't seem like these were mutually exclusive. [Cinematheque and WFF programmer Mike King] and I have been watching films for the fall Spotlight series, and we comment, "Oh, this would be a Cinematheque film" or "This is alternative programming and I think it's very much in line with that cinephilic programming bent that the Cinematheque has," and there's a little bit of that at the Festival but not that much. The Festival is a much larger audience. I mean, it's fun to try to figure out which film might fit where for which kind of audience. And I think part of the job of a programmer or curator is to try to not only give audiences what they want to see but to kind of tell them, "This is what you need to be seeing. This is what's out there that's really great that we think is important that you take a look at." So trying to identify those is a lot of fun, and watching the audience react and talking with people afterwards is even more fun.
Tone Madison: When you would go to film festivals like Toronto to see films that you might end up programming for these series, did you end up talking to a lot of other people who were programming films in small or mid-size cities?
Tom Yoshikami: Yeah, and there's a whole network of programmers. I think I went the first year that there was a film programmers' meeting there, and programmers from all over the country got together, and more than anything it was great to meet one another and start corresponding. That's how the  Godard series came about at Cinematheque. I talked to people and said, "I'm thinking of putting this together. Would you be interested in helping defray costs of shipping from France for a lot of these prints?" And a lot of people were excited to do so. And there's still a lot of talk on these e-mail lists about what films do well in what type of venue, and someone saying, "I just saw this and I think it would do really well in X." The community of it has been fun.
It's also been fun to work with a great number of folks in Madison too, I mean, having Mike and [Cinematheque and WFF director Jim Healy] as colleagues and [former WFF director Meg Hamel] as well, it's fun to bounce ideas off of them and debate where things do fit.
Tone Madison: Over the past decade, how do you think the circumstances of putting on film events Madison have changed?
Tom Yoshikami: I think the audience is certainly growing for it. I feel like there's more film going on now than there has been since I've been there. That said, when I got to town, there was a thriving art-house scene that I don't think is present anymore. You had the Majestic with a screen downtown, the Orpheum with two screens, so there was a real daily downtown film presence, and both of those venues were playing a lot of art-house films. And then you had Hilldale, with, what, two screens, and Westgate, with three screens. That's eight different screens showing first-run art-house films day in and day out, which was awesome. And then Sundance came along and, I mean, it's a great place to watch a film, but they, you know, obviously supplanted Hilldale and Westgate closed not too long after that, and they're kind of the only game in town, and when they're devoting a couple screens to kind of big Hollywood blockbusters, that leaves a lot of films that aren't screened first-run. Which I think in some ways has opened the door for places like Cinematheque, WUD, or even Spotlight Cinema to step up and show those films. In the past few years, Jim and Mike have organized their Premiere Showcase thread of the Cinematheque calendar, which I think is maybe about four films every semester that haven't premiered in Madison. WUD Film has been showing quite a number of Madison premieres of art films that for whatever reason aren't coming to Sundance. And when Mike and I are programming Spotlight, those are the films that we're looking at as well—the films that we feel like should come to Madison, that have an audience that we know that we can tap into, that deserve to be seen on the big screen that aren't there. In some ways the demise of the art-house proper has led to kind of a greater diversity in venues showing those types of films. And I should say that the Cinematheque films and the WUD films are all free, which is great, and Spotlight isn't that much money, as opposed to Sundance, which is getting more and more expensive.
It will be really interesting—I know that Sundance, their whole theater chain is up for sale. I'm both excited and very nervous to see what will happen with that. If they were to somehow close or change their programming mission, there would be a real dearth of even kind of larger art-house films. I'd imagine that someone would pick up the slack then, but I don't know who it would be and I don't know if we have the infrastructure in place to do that.
Tone Madison: As you mentioned, Spotlight and the campus film programs have become way more aggressive in the past couple of years when it comes to getting new films. Where do you see that effort going in the future? How can it be leveraged into something bigger?
Tom Yoshikami: I think in some ways it's reactionary, because if there were art-house chains or larger venues that were willing to give these films week-long runs, distributors would go with them. They'd recognize that they could make a lot more money than a one-off screening that a museum or university is putting on. Because we don't have that, because Sundance is only showing so many films, there is this need for that. So, where does that go in the future? I don't know. If Sundance can re-commit itself to more art cinema, I can imagine that WUD's programming might change a bit, or Spotlight might change a bit. I'm hesitant to look too far into the future. I don't think that WUD Film can do too much more than it already is doing. I mean, they're already showing over 300 screenings per year. I would say maybe 20 or so are first-run or films that have not screened yet in Madison theatrically, and we're getting them prior to their DVD release date. But I don't think it should be any more than that. I don't know if it could turn into a full-fledged art-house on its own. I think what makes WUD Film so strong is the diversity in its programming.
As for Spotlight, I think it would be great eventually if the museum had a full-fledged film series. I don't think they have the infrastructure in place. When we show films there these days, we're renting a hi-def projector from the university, and the museum would need to invest in a DCP system going forward. But if they did that and hired operational staff to run these things, and obviously the programmatical side they'd have to beef up as well, I think that would be great. I think downtown is severely lacking a day-in-day-out film venue. But I don't know if the audience is quite there yet for it, and I don't know exactly what would need to happen before we get there.
I've got to say, I've only been out here a month in Vancouver, and the art-house scene in Madison I think is far superior to that in Vancouver. A lot of the bigger-name art-house films will obviously come here first, but from what I can tell, and I haven't looked that deeply, there's more art-house screenings or even excitement in Madison than there is in Vancouver. I mean, there's a Cinematheque out here and they're affiliated with an art theater that does more first-run things and that's associated with the Vancouver International Film Festival, which is also pretty big, but that's it. The things on campus really aren't that open to folks off campus, and I don't even think what they're doing on campus is that big at all, either at University of British Columbia or Simon Fraser University. On the one hand, I'm coming to a much larger city, and on the other hand, there are fewer options to see films. In Madison, I kind of took it for granted. You couldn't see art films every night of the week, but at least Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday you could, and that's not bad. And then often with Spotlight going, add Wednesdays. That's pretty good. I mean, you only had one shot to see them, but that's a lot more than I would say probably a lot of larger cities.
Tone Madison: I know you helped program the Tales From Planet Earth festival, but I'm still curious as to why the Nelson Institute decided to put on a film festival in the first place? I mean, how did they decide, "OK, we have something we want to accomplish, and a film fest is the way to do that?"
Tom Yoshikami: Gregg Mitman [a UW-Madison medical history professor and Nelson Institute affiliate] saw the opportunity to do something with this, to bring filmmakers together to talk about these issues, and to branch out and work with the public in a different way. It was also something that was really tied to the university as well. There was a class on environmental filmmaking, in which students would make these short films that would play before the films in the festival, which was really fun, but there was also a class on community engagement. With many films, students were paired with a film, and they were tasked with going out into the community and finding a local partner that was working on some topic related to the topic in the film. So if there was a film on dealing with food deserts in low-income neighborhood neighborhoods, they would talk to people in Madison working on those same issues. So often when we leave a documentary, especially environmental ones, we're outraged, and go, "Oh god, I wish I could do something to help!" And so these students' mission was so that we could give all the members of the audience some kind of tangible request, some ask at the end of the film, saying, "If you're upset about this or you want to know more, here's what to do." And this is something very small, but I remember it led to a letter-writing campaign, and various places in town started stocking Porchlight Products not too long after.
So that was something Gregg saw that there was a need for, and I was really brought on board to help with securing the films. Where do you start looking for these films and how do you negotiate the rights for these films? It was a project that I was really excited about working on, because it was something that had been very different, a type of programming that was very different from the Cinematheque, the Festival, other more kind of film-as-art projects that I'd worked on in the past. It's fun that both can exist in town, but I think it's one of the strongest festivals that Madison has. It's really a treasure.
Tone Madison: What was something you did in Madison that failed or didn't turn out how you wanted it to, and what did you take away from that experience?
Tom Yoshikami: Oh, yeah, there have been a number of failures. It's hard to say that I think any screening was an abject failure. Just getting people out to watch a film and getting them engaged, even if they really don't like it, in some ways, is a huge success. But especially with Rooftop, I feel like trying to figure out what types of films worked well on the roof was tough, and there were years in which we showed kind of feature-length experimental films. One of my favorite films is Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, a film that I think could play really well at the Cinematheque, has played really well at the Cinematheque, that if it was restored I think would be sold out at the Film Festival, but that was a film that I remember sitting on the Rooftop watching with folks—or I think that screening actually was rained out, so we moved into the MMOCA lecture hall—and the entire screening I just kept thinking, "Oh god, I'm so glad this isn't on the roof, people would be so distracted by all the noises around, and it's just way too long, and this is definitely not the way to go."
When I started Rooftop, the idea was shorter programs, no longer than an hour, of very accessible avant-garde films, so that people who maybe hadn't seen avant-garde film before but were interested in it—I've always thought about Rooftop's attraction being more about the setting than the films themselves, so sort of getting people up there with the setting and then exposing them to something that they might not ever have chosen to see themselves, but hopefully will be pleasantly surprised or enlightened by, and maybe seek out more in the future. Those early years we tried a lot of different things to see what worked well and what didn't, and there were a couple where we showed some longer things that were a little too dialogue-heavy that just didn't work up there. And they're hard to sit through. But they're good because I learned from that and was able to tweak the next years' schedules and maybe not include those, or include something that was a little bit similar but maybe not quite down that same line.
One of the things that Mike and I have talked about recently—Cinematheque does a lot of repertory programming and they show a lot of films that I think people now might consider kitsch, and this has been a larger conversation in the art-house world—there was an IndieWire piece not too long ago on it—about laughing in the theater. People laugh at things that are not necessarily jokes that are supposed to be funny, but have that kind of ironic laugh when they see a very unrealistic set or there's histrionic acting—things that were de rigueur at the time and not considered funny—and at least for me, it's startling to watch a film like that with an audience that's constantly laughing at it. It's been interesting over the years to be in different theaters where that's taken place. I think one of the things that Mike and I have talked about is, how can we educate people so that they don't do that? I mean, we certainly can't police how people experience films, but we want to give people an understanding of why things looked and sounded the way they did, so that maybe they'll have a deeper appreciation so it's not just, "Look at how silly that is! Oh my god, that was from another time when they just weren't as advanced in some ways!" And they can see it as this progression or understand the reason behind why these things were. But that's something when I'm programming repertory fare, it's definitely something I think about. And I don't think that's unique to Madison. I think it happens all over the country. But those are screenings where I don't think we've figured out how to solve them yet or if they need to be solved. Maybe the problem is my reaction to that laughter and how it pulls me out of it and makes me feel uncomfortable.
Tone Madison: What do you think are some untapped opportunities for film culture in Madison?
Tom Yoshikami: I think there is an audience for, and hopefully something will pop up again, along the lines of the micro-cinema movement, where you have very small venues bringing in filmmakers or video artists and almost kind of like the small-house-party music phenomenon, where musicians will go on tour and play for a couple bucks that people can donate at someone's house. I feel like there's no real micro-cinema scene here. There has been at many points in the past. When Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat were here, they had their Media Embassy series [at the Project Lodge, circa 2008-9], and I think even after they left, the Project Lodge would host things like that, and I think there's a huge niche for that. There's a lot of people that would love to see really off-the-beaten-path films. The stuff that we're showing at the Cinematheque or at WUD, I mean, even the low-budget films are still films that are costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, even if people haven't heard of them. But there's a huge number of films made by people for less than a few hundred dollars. I'm thinking kind of along the lines of what Brandon Colvin is doing with his Micro-Wave Cinema Seriesat Vilas Hall. And maybe getting it off the university campus might help. I'm not exactly sure. But I know that he brings in filmmakers via Skype. I think that market, even though it's very small, could be expanded a bit.
So much of it will depend on what happens to Sundance. I could even imagine at some point a documentary house that just shows documentaries. I know there was one in Minneapolis for many years. But I feel like Madison has the engaged activism in a way that might support a first-run documentary theater in town. That could be cool. But as I mentioned before, I would love to see more films downtown. I think that that would be great, to bring film culture off of campus and back into downtown.