The state of Madison filmgoing in 2018

Seven Tone Madison writers discuss the delights and frustrations of cinema culture in Madison.

Seven Tone Madison writers discuss the delights and frustrations of cinema culture in Madison. | By Jason Fuhrman, Edwanike Harbour, Reid Kurkerewicz, Chris Lay, Grant Phipps, Mark Riechers, and Daniel Seeger

Cinephiles in Madison have to navigate a lopsided landscape. The central city and campus area has no first-run movie theater, but offers a wealth of free or cheap art-film options from programs including UW Cinematheque, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Spotlight Cinema and Rooftop Cinema, the Wisconsin Union Directorate Film Committee, and the Madison Public Library’s assorted film events. The downside is that most of those are one-and-done screenings. The east- and west-side sprawl contain plenty of your newer breed of amenities-focused theaters like Sun Prairie’s Marcus Palace Cinema, East Towne’s Flix Brewhouse, and Hilldale’s AMC 6, but these places aren’t very ambitious with their programming. We’re blessed to have the Wisconsin Film Festival here in the spring, but the rest of the year is a crapshoot as far as catching new and niche films on the big screen.

This isn’t all bad—it just means that keeping up with movies in this town takes initiative and curiosity. And it’s worth it, especially for the Tone Madison contributors who work tirelessly throughout the year to preview screenings, get their heads around the always massive Wisconsin Film Fest lineup, and maintain their grasp on Madison’s ever-evolving film scene. We brought together seven contributors in a roundtable discussion about their experiences throughout 2018.


Grant Phipps: I’m still impressed by the value the theatrical experience offers here in Madison, and the efforts made to keep audiences returning for various premieres and repertory screenings. Most of them are free on- and off-campus, and those that do have a cover are more affordable and accessible than the theater chains.

In terms of the popular events, the at-capacity summer sneak screening of Bo Burnham’s charmingly awkward, heartfelt Eighth Grade at UW Cinematheque was a treat, especially having the opportunity to watch it near the time of year depicted in the film (early summer) and experiencing it with a multitude of generations—from current middle and high school students, millennials like myself, to Gen Xers, and Boomers.

A highlight from Cinematheque’s ongoing “Silents Please!” series was undoubtedly the 35-minute fragment/surviving footage from Curse Of Quon Gwon, made in 1916 by Marion E. Wong and family. Curiously, no intertitles were provided, which made the viewing even more surreal. But it left me with not only a sense of its historical significance, but artistic ambitions and cinematic storytelling innovations.

Other than that, Arts + Literature Laboratory’s stronger presence in the indie and micro-budget scene was a boon for the near-east side in Atwood area. In August, the Saturday night outdoor series Off The Wall featured a number of my favorite short film discoveries of the year (like the locally made About Time by Mats Rudels and Dustin Imray), which I would not have even considered if it weren’t for the artist/programmer duo of Simone + Max, who organize the series.

While I’ve written about the newly established Mills Folly Microcinema selections ahead of their screenings, I actually haven’t had the experience of watching them with a crowd, so I’d be curious to know more about that from anyone who’s gone to ALL on those Thursdays.

Regarding this past April’s Wisconsin Film Festival, how did the programming compare to prior years for you? Or, if this was your first time attending, what were your impressions?

Jason Fuhrman: Grant, I am also still impressed by the richness and variety of free theatrical experiences offered in Madison. This was my first year attending Simone + Max’s Off The Wall series and it was quite refreshing to discover contemporary experimental video art that I would probably never have otherwise been exposed to. My inaugural experience at this year’s second screening was positively mind-melting. I have only attended two Mills Folly Microcinema screenings.

Reid Kurkerewicz: I’m also impressed by the accessibility of experimental and world cinema, especially from Off The Wall. My favorite from the series was  Adrián Regnier Chávez’s animation of the “three basic principles of formal logic,” titled N. We should use cute cartoons to discuss heady philosophical ideals more often.

Too Late To Die Young, which screened in November at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Spotlight Cinema series, stuck out to me specifically as the first film I’ve ever seen that focused on an alternative community in a neutral, relatively unproblematic light. When mainstream American films imagine alternatives to capitalism, they are usually tales of folly and hubris, notably prevalent in mainstream superhero movies like The Dark Knight Rises. (This a point I take from the writer and anthropologist David Graeber and anarchists like Marc Fisher). This phenomenon was also evident in this fall’s superb Cinematheque series on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, particularly when Fassbinder depicted West German Communist and anarchist groups in Mother Kusters Goes To Heaven, though Fassbinder clearly had strong critiques for every human who passed through his lens. Instead, in Too Late To Die Young, the commune is not the problem that needs to be solved or defeated. Instead, the commune is simply the backdrop and influence for an individual’s maturation, which is a troubled process no matter what regime you grow up under. For anyone looking to understand the intricate and emotional world of direct community engagement that marks Madison’s struggle to provide affordable housing, Too Late To Die Young would be a great primer.  

Edwanike Harbour: I continue to be impressed by the amount of sneak previews and some of the selections that WUD has put together this year. Madeline’s Madeline (which screened as part of the What Is Family? Film Festival), Eighth Grade, and First Man were some of the standouts. Given that Sundance 608 is no longer in the picture, both WUD Film and UW Cinematheque continue to fill that void for not just students but the community at large. It would be great to see WUD begin to promote their screenings more effectively, as Vox Lux snuck in under the radar. They should also keep up some midnight screenings, with options like Searching or other midnight cult fare, as the audience is definitely there for those shows.

Grant Phipps: Edwanike, yes, it would be great to see WUD’s sneak previews at the Marquee programmed with a bit more notice. It’s challenging for anyone to plan ahead when, on some occasions, films are announced just four or five days ahead. There was a decent crowd for Vox Lux considering how it popped up at the last minute (and the week of Thanksgiving). But if their goal is to get as many people to attend those sneaks as possible, it would behoove them to make sure the word is out on social media and the events are added to the union.wisc.edu Google calendar like 14 to 21 days in advance. And there’s always room for cult films, even if they’re at earlier hours on Thursdays. There is something special about watching them with a devoted audience at 11 or midnight, though.

Jason Fuhrman: Edwanike, I definitely agree with you. Personally, I loved Mid90s. I happened to find out about Vox Lux just in time to catch the screening, but it would be nice to have more advance notice. And Grant, that’s true about seeing cult movies with an audience at midnight, such as when WUD Film showed Jodorowsky’s El Topo a few years ago. I would certainly like to have more opportunities like that in the future.  


Daniel Seeger: I echo everyone’s appreciation of the way UW Cinematheque, WUD, MMoCA, and others are preserving some level of art-house cinema scene in Madison. But I’m also increasingly glum about how much of the burden of delivering a broader range of film is falling to them. I think that’s why the most memorable part of the city’s film year was when the Twitter account for the AMC 6 (formerly Sundance 608) briefly went rogue. Clearly the shenanigans of an old Sundance 608 employee who still had the keys to the social media account, the afternoon of puckish jibes against the multiplex’s corporate overlords was like the death rattle of non-specialized exhibition of independent film here.

Sundance 608 had already strayed well away from the aspirations of permanent Park City-vetted artistry that accompanied its opening over a decade ago, but there was a lingering sense someone there still wanted to see a cineaste culture bloom. Foreign films, documentaries, and other like-minded material are still booked there, but the clear indifference is depressing. A film like Lee Chang-dong’s phenomenal Burning deserves more than a single-week, split-screen run in Madison that’s barely announced by the theater.

Even the unlikely appearance of another multi-screen theater, the Flix Brewhouse, didn’t help matters. Hidden away on the dark side of the East Towne Mall, the theater is clearly modeled after Alamo Drafthouse, right down to strict audience rules and a pre-roll that replaces the usual procession of squawking commercials with clips and curiosities tangentially related to the feature. What’s missing is the Texas-based chain’s baked-in love of movies that can lead to more adventurous bookings at some of their locations. Instead, Flix Brewhouse has committed fully to playing the same films already well-represented at both major Marcus outposts. My impression is that business hasn’t exactly been booming there. I wonder if they might fare better by veering away from the redundancy, embracing the city’s film community, and trying to fill the programming gap that actually exists.

Grant Phipps: Daniel, I could’ve sworn the Sundance employee went rogue on AMC Twitter last year, but you’re right. That was this just past February! Good on you for remembering that, because I was thinking it was last summer. My sense of time is off, haha. Anyway, I think, to some degree, that’s true. But part of the problem is related to lack of promotion, as in WUD Film’s case. Some art films are opening for a mere six or seven days with little warning sometimes; so, if you aren’t paying attention (or can’t) one week, you’ll miss something you were anticipating. It’s times like these that we miss David Klein, my former editor at LakeFrontRow, who, at one time prior to 2016, would actually collect everything playing on campus and opening within the city limits and list them in one place. Burning is a fine example, particularly because I couldn’t find time to go at the beginning of this month. So, now I’ll just have to rely on streaming. Some films may also screen for a week or two at Market Square, which we tend to view as a theater for features on their second run, but it’s also spot where a few features end up the first time that have been ignored or overlooked by Marcus or AMC.

I didn’t live here when Westgate Art Cinemas off Whitney Way was around over a decade ago, but the death of that and increasing significance of Netflix haven’t helped the cineaste culture you mention, Daniel. And most of it is concentrated on the isthmus, with repertory work and one-screening-only premieres. It’s unlikely Flix Brewhouse will embrace films that are off the beaten path, but we can all try to keep an eye on that. It looks like they’re almost exclusively screening a series of loud, colorful, wider-appealing crowd-pleasers at the moment like Mortal Engines, Ralph Breaks The Internet, Fantastic Beasts, and Robin Hood (well, okay, that last one’s not winning anyone over) with the lone exception being Clint Eastwood’s The Mule. Odd, hah. Maybe the best suggestion is to actually talk to management about securing one of the theater’s eight rooms for something exclusive. If you prefer to watch things without the accompanying dining experience, it’s not an ideal environment for a somber drama or niche comedy, but it’d still be encouraging if they tried.

Jason Fuhrman: The programming at Cinematheque is always on point, but I found this year’s lineup to be particularly impressive. Among the highlights for me: The newly remastered 4K DCP presentations of three Tarkovsky films; Jules Dassin’s Rififi; Repo Man, Zabriskie Point, and Blow-Up on 35mm; Olivier Assayas’ long-unavailable Cold Water; the chance to see Fitzcarraldo for the first time on a big screen; the Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective at the Chazen; the LACIS film series, especially Zama and Vazante  Lucretia Martel’s first feature, La Ciénaga, on 35mm; Jacques Rivette’s Duelle; Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven; Mandy; Basket Case; and George Sluizer’s The Vanishing. Having previously seen only one Fassbinder film (World On A Wire), the Sunday afternoon Cinematheque series was a revelation for me. I attended those screenings religiously and only missed one (Beware Of A Holy Whore).

I have also been immensely enjoying the Wisconsin Film Festival’s Tuesday Night Movie Club screenings at Union South. Seeing a 35mm print of Morvern Callar was pure heaven. I sincerely hope this will be a continuing series.

Regarding the Wisconsin Film Festival, I thought this year’s programming was especially timely, relevant, and powerful, with its strong emphasis on international female auteurs. My personal favorite film of the festival and of the entire year so far was Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. Unfortunately the film played for only one week in theaters later in the year, which I think exemplifies the limitations of Madison’s commercial cinemas.

I only made it to one Spotlight Cinema screening at the MMoCA this season, the Ryuichi Sakamoto documentary Coda. I found it to be quite elegant, moving and inspirational. On the one hand, I certainly appreciate the opportunity to see contemporary art films with an audience that do not receive any other theatrical screenings in the area. On the other hand, it’s a glum reminder of how so many great films are unjustly neglected in Madison.

Daniel, I share your sentiments about the disproportionate burden placed on the Cinematheque, WUD, and the MMoCa. Nevertheless, I am grateful that these organizations continue to enrich the local cinema scene. At this point, I have completely abandoned any faith I may have once clung to in the former Sundance 608. There is the occasional foreign or independent film that plays exclusively there, but it definitely seems to be moving further away from that kind of programming. The indifference to art-house fare is indeed discouraging.

While I admittedly enjoyed my experience seeing Widows at the new Flix Brewhouse, I completely agree with everyone’s above points about the theater’s limitations. It seems unlikely that this theater will ever branch out into more adventurous programming and it will probably continue to exist as nothing more than a mediocre novelty and a pale imitation of the Alamo model.

Despite the obvious limitations of the commercial cinemas and the unfair burden placed on the Cinematheque and other public venues, I remain optimistic about the future of foreign, independent, and art-house film screenings in Madison. In addition to the core of devoted cinephiles, it seems like more and more people are interested in seeing films at alternative theatrical spaces. As the curator of the Cinesthesia film series at the Madison Public Library, I have tried to fill in programming gaps and contribute, in my own small way, to the growth of a cineaste culture in Madison. This year I celebrated my fifth anniversary and had record attendance.

Mark Riechers: I’m going to stay in my lane and stick to some thoughts on the emergence of Flix Brewhouse, the rare confluence of my expertise in both theater venues on the east side and breweries. Functionally? It’s the theater I’ve been waiting for in Madison since I first attended an Alamo Drafthouse at SXSW in 2009: Each screening had carefully curated pre-show reels of obscure Japanese commercials, film school projects and other ephemera related to each film. Beers from all over Austin’s beer scene could seemingly be delivered instantaneously without interrupting the show.

In practice, the Brewhouse has rough spots. There are missed logical slam dunks for a 21-and-up-leaning theater that are just baffling. How was the booking schedule at Halloween not packed with horror films, much less at least the current scary releases for October? And the seemingly co-opted stylistic elements don’t have nearly as much love behind them all of the time. I went to screenings of Crazy Rich Asians and Split and the pre-show entertainment amounted to a YouTube keyword search of the title of each film. Bafflingly, Split had straight-up bootleg clips from other Shyamalan films.

But the beer is decent, with good in-house options and excellent curated selections from across the state. And the service is excellent. Don’t undersell that—in a time where it’s basically full accepted that those damn recliner seats make it okay to be on your phone throughout the film, having staff maintaining the peace constantly is worth the price of admission alone.

I recently went to Austin and paid pilgrimage to the Drafthouse while I was there, and the presentation wasn’t as glowing as it was in my memory. The presentation was meh, the beer was mediocre, and when I ordered a juicy IPA with a cutesy name, the serve brought me a large fruit punch instead. Point being, even the holiest of movie sites has off days.

Frankly, apart from some of the trappings in decor, Flix Brewhouse has actually hit the mark more than you might think, right down to the questionably selected pre-show YouTube playlist.

My view? The Madison theater situation is better than its ever been before. Sundance only moved in because they knew they could swallow up the small but loyal art cinema audience attending Westgate and the former Hilldale theater that booked limited releases. They outgunned both theaters on presentation and amenities, killed those theaters off, then stopped serving that audience in pursuit of bigger crowds. Flix Brewhouse opened knowing they’d be facing stiff competition from Palace but went for it anyway. That’s to be commended in my mind, because the thing Madison has needed more than anything in this area has been meaningful competition.

I have high hopes to spend more time there in the future, but I’ll be voting with my dollars—they have all the elements for success, but they need to shore up their identity with bookings and screening series that make a more specific statement about who they see as their core audience. If they just stay in “Marcus customers, but for beer lovers” mode forever, they won’t get far. It’s never going to be an art house, but look to late night crowd pleasers like Sorry to Bother You. Look to packed horror series. That stuff does well on the east side, and would go a long way toward carving out a specific identity.

Chris Lay: Every year I make a resolution to go see more films, and every year the list of things I wanted to see but didn’t eclipses the number of films I did make it to. So many people are programming so many excellent things, and I just space on them or have other nonsense happening.

I’m with Grant in having thought that the AMC twitter freak-out was from 2017. What a wonderfully cathartic burst of social media yawping joy that was to behold.

As great as UW Cinematheque and WUD Film are, it’s interesting to think that they might be part of the problem if you consider that, unlike national chains like the Alamo Drafthouse, they’re able to operate at a loss with free screenings. As admittedly strong as their programming is (experimental, silent, noir, genre, etc etc etc and so many in 35mm!), there’s an argument to be made (devil’s advocate or not) that they’re devaluing the experience with a glut of well-curated content that has saturated the small Madison market. Madison has a community of film lovers, clearly shown by the rush lines at the Wisconsin Film Festival, but I just don’t see us getting something like our own version of the New Beverly (itself now notably bankrolled by Quentin Tarantino) or the aforementioned Alamo Drafthouse.

Related to that: Some understandable concerns have been raised above about the Flix Brewhouse, but I really would like to spend way more time there if I can. Hopefully they manage to find a way to make it work and carve out a niche, but as Dan mentioned above, Flix is programming the same stuff as everyone else, for the most part, and the location, married to a mall and near enough to be Sun Prairie that Marcus’ Palace will forever be eating Flix’s lunch, is far from ideal. And chalk it up to my dependency on public transportation but I’d get out there, or anywhere really, if it was on a bus line that ran direct and often. Who thought an isthmus would be a great place to build a city, anyway?!

I’d love to see some other, non-traditional venues doing more revival-style programming. The Majestic has its Brew N View series, sure, but that mostly sticks to some really broad selections. Just the other week the High Noon Saloon hosted a “Holiday Grindhouse” double feature of seasonally appropriate slashers Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night. While I wasn’t able to get out there in person (me = part of the problem), I can only hope that bodes well for future experiments in oddball genre fare that might draw a crowd on nights when bands aren’t booked there or wherever else.

The New Vision Fitchburg 18 this year provided my worst-ever experience in a theater, which I wrote about for the Tone Madison email newsletter. Why New Vision decided to shove something like 20 minutes of ads into the intermission of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (in a special 50th-anniversary IMAX screening) I will never know, but I’m not being hyperbolic when I say it completely ruined that film for me. Perhaps needless to say, I will not be going back.

A few more stray thoughts:

The 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival was, as always, a highlight. Seeing the city come out in such a supportive way never fails to brighten my life. The diamond in the rough I discovered thanks to the festival’s collection of animated shorts, anchored by Don Hertzfeldt’s expectedly excellent World Of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden Of Other People’s Thoughts, was Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s surreal stop-motion musical Bath House. I think the film that will break out the most will be Support The Girls, Andrew Bujalski’s endlessly charming paean to working-class ennui. The festival’s final night culminated with one of my favorite theater experiences, Coralie Fargeat’s brutal and bloody neo-ozploitation flick, Revenge.

There’s something to be said for the shared experience of an audience collectively squirming in their seats, as they did during the last act of Revenge, and by that metric I thought the UW Cinematheque’s screenings this fall of Mandy were a wild success. The second feature from Panos Cosmatos, Mandy was a similarly artsy grindhouse style tale of vengeance that benefited from one of Nicolas Cage’s most over-the-top unhinged, scenery-devouring performances in recent memory.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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