The Little Festival That Could (Run for Fifteen Years)

BY Joshua Grover-David Patterson

Wildwood_Prod_Logo_HRPart 1: From Humble Beginnings
In 1991, Robert Rodriguez scraped together seven thousand dollars, partially by submitting himself to medical testing, and made “El Mariachi,” his first feature.  It went to multiple major film festivals and was picked up by Columbia Pictures, launching a career that continues to this day.

In 1993, author Joe Queenan heard about Robert Rodriguez’s film and decided to do him two dollars better, by making a film for $6,998.  The movie was “Twelve Steps to Death,” and it launched exactly zero careers.  It got into a single film fest, the First Tarryton International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Headless Horseman award.

Of course, the open secret, detailed in the book “The Unkindest Cut,” was that Queenan threw the festival himself.

The story of the Wildwood Film Festival – now in its fifteenth year and founded by Craig Knitt, Jason Buss and Tom Thorne – is more similar to Queenan’s story than Rodriguez’s.

“Tom [Thorne] and Craig [Knitt] have been friends since childhood and I came into the picture when I acted in a film Craig wrote and directed, called ‘The Hunt,’” Buss said.  “In short, the fest came into being because Craig couldn’t find a fest to play the film.  The fact that [we knew] everyone would like the movie if they could see it, combined with the fact that we lived in the fastest growing area of the state, made us think the fest was an idea whose time had come.”

The first Wildwood Film Festival took place in 2001 at The Historic West Theater in Green Bay.  In addition to “The Hunt,” the first festival featured eight other films, including an entry from Rob Schrab, who wrote the Steven Spielberg-produced “Monster House,” and more recently directed multiple episodes of the cult TV show “Community.”

It would not be the last time a Hollywood name graced the credits of Wildwood.  Over the years, famous faces that have appeared on the screen at Wildwood include Richard Riehle (the very definition of a That Guy, he’s been in everything from “Office Space” to “Modern Family” to “Bridesmaids”), David H. Lawrence XVII (“Heroes,” “Good Luck Charlie”), William Mapother (“Lost,” “The Mentalist”), and Kim Rhodes (“Supernatural,” “Colony”).


Part 2: Wildwood, Part 2. And 3.  And 4… 
Since that first year, the festival has moved to Appleton, and the number of film sessions has grown – this year there are five of them, including a special Friday night showing of a new feature film called, interestingly enough, “Appleton.”

“I first learned about the Wildwood Film Festival about five or six years ago, but I can’t say I remember how.  I know that back then, having worked on a few film projects in the Fox Valley area, I heard about Wildwood and remembered it and was always interested in supporting the fest and seeing if we could create something to (hopefully) take part,” said Greg Cebulski, one of the producers on the project. “Now that we have the opportunity, I’m really proud about being able to come home and share this movie we made with so many of the people there that helped us get it done.”

The words “Fox Valley” are quite important when it comes to Wildwood.  The Wildwood Film Festival focuses on Wisconsin filmmakers.  According to the fest’s entry form, “The Wildwood Film Festival is a non-profit event designed to showcase emerging independent films/filmmakers from Wisconsin.  The primary creative personnel, such as director, producer, [or] screenwriter, should have Wisconsin ties.” 

Because of this rule, most of the films being shown every year were made in Wisconsin.  But many have been created in such far-flung locales as California, Tennessee, New York, and Sydney, Australia.

As for the film “Appleton,” despite its ultra-local name, the movie primarily was shot in and around Greenville, Hortonville and Dale, with some shooting in Appleton, including at Appleton Central High School.

While “Appleton” is not the first feature film to screen at Wildwood (that would be “The Hungry Bull,” in 2009) it should be noted that since its inception, Wildwood has primarily shown short films.  While a short film usually is defined as anything with a running time of 60 minutes or under, most films screened at Wildwood run for less than 30 minutes.

Moreover, Wildwood has been around long enough to see gigantic shifts in camera and computer technology, and what both of those mean for the life of a short film.

Consider this – the first Wildwood Film Festival (2001) predates both YouTube (2005) and the iPhone (2007).  Fifteen years ago, most people connected to the internet via phone line, making video downloads and uploads a process that frequently took hours, instead of seconds.

These shifts mean that the bar for entry into filmmaking is simultaneously both lower and higher.  In the early days of Wildwood it was possible to know the general skill level of a filmmaker based on whether they were shooting on film or video.  Today, a movie shot and edited on a smartphone can, theoretically, look just as good as a movie shot by professionals on a high end camera.

And while fifteen years ago the best way to get your film in front of an audience was to try to get into film festivals, today filmmakers can finish their work and have it uploaded to the world and shared on Twitter and Facebook in a matter of minutes.
Of course, there are certain experiences you can only have at a film festival.

In 2008, for example, Wildwood screened a short film entitled “Jake’s Choice,” complete with a musical score that was performed live as the film unspooled.  Regardless of how good your TV setup is, that would be difficult to replicate in your living room.

Also unique to the film festival experience will be an educational session – the festival’s fourth.  The topic of the workshop this year will be Filmmaking  101: Getting Started, and it will be hosted at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton at 9 AM the day of the festival – admission is free, check for further information.

Some film festival experiences are a little more universal, however.

John Pata is a filmmaker whose work has appeared at Wildwood on multiple occasions.  In his own words, he, “[Works] part-time slinging comic books at House of Heroes in Oshkosh. I used to co-own a screen printing shop, but sold that at the end of 2010 to pursue my passion of filmmaking. Since then, the plan has been to work just enough to pay my bills, allowing myself more time to focus on the films.” 

Pata’s short film “Better Off Undead” appeared at Wildwood in 2008.  He completed a feature, “Dead Weight,” in 2012, which secured distribution. 

187960_ManSunglassesHe then returned to Wildwood in 2014 with his short film “Pity,” which won Best Horror/Thriller.  Asked about the benefits of film festivals, Pata said, “I’ve met a ton of incredible humans due to all our festival experiences, and that’s been the best part, hands down. From screening ‘Better Off Undead,’ I met people who would then be a part of ‘Dead Weight.’ While hitting the festival circuit with ‘Dead Weight,’ I met even more people, (and) quite a few would join the team for ‘Pity.’ I’m sure you can see the pattern here, but there are people I met from ‘Pity’s’ festival run that will be part of our next film.

“But, more importantly, I’ve made a ton of great friends from around the world due to the films. It’s pretty insane to think about, but it totally rules.”


Part 3: Wildwood 15 – The Not-So-Final Chapter:
Asked whether or not they expected Wildwood to still be going strong after fifteen years, Tom Thorne and Craig Knitt gave similar, yet diverging answers:

Knitt: “There’s no way we could have ever anticipated 15 years of the Wildwood Film Festival! We were all fairly confident that we were creating something important, but we worried many times that our scope might have been too limited. Our audience is quite diverse yet they all seem to appreciate the artistic endeavors of our filmmakers.

“Here’s a scary/funny thought…in the early development stages of our festival we actually considered calling the fest ‘Whackfest’ based on my production company ‘Out of Whack Productions.’ We might have gotten a whole different crowd if that name would have stuck!”
Thorne: “15 years?  I certainly did not expect it to make it this far.  After a tiny showing the first year I thought maybe once was enough.  I’m very happy to see that so much good work/talent keeps coming out of every corner of Wisconsin.”

Of course, a fifteenth festival means fifteen years of selecting which films to include, a process that can be both fun and difficult.

“I wish that I could say that it was an exact science but it is not,” Buss said. “We have always said that if [a film] is shorter, it stands a better chance of being accepted. Though it (is) easier to program shorter films than features, that concept also came out of the realization that when we first started it was the ‘shorts’ that were more enjoyable and better quality because the technology was so different.  Now that the tech cost hurdle has dropped, the only item separating many films now is the quality of the story.  Whether we stay focused on shorts or open it to all lengths of projects is something that will be up for discussion in the future.”

Knitt said a variety of factors goes into the choice of films that Wildwood screens.

“We look for films that celebrate the Midwestern sensibilities as well as some that challenge those same ideals. We’re always hungry for some short, sweet comedies, but if we get a film that has a nice story, we’ll always try to make room for it,” Knitt said. “We tell folks that when they watch the festival they’ll see some films that will blow their socks off. I’ve heard people say, ‘I can’t believe that was made here in Wisconsin!’ But, we also try to include some pieces that will challenge folks to get out there and make some of their own films. We consider story, acting and production value when films come our way, but also look at the significance of the Wisconsin connection.”

Frances Perkins, a lecturer at University of North Texas’ Department of Radio-TV-Film and Journalism, served as both a judge and a participant of Wildwood over the course of several years. 

“It has been such a pleasure to watch Wildwood grow over the years,” said Perkins, who entered Wildwood with her husband and collaborator, Troy Perkins.  “Our first screening at Wildwood was in 2006, and we’ve had 6 shorts show over the past 10 years.  Three years I’ve been a judge in the competition.  Students of mine have volunteered and shown their own work, and have always been welcomed into the Wildwood family.”

Ultimately, judging is a multi-step process, with the founders setting the overall schedule of films, and a separate panel of judges voting on which films will ultimately be awarded as the best in their category. Featured genres have ranged from horror to comedy to music videos to documentaries to student films to animation, and just about every style and classification has been represented over the course of fifteen years.

Thorne noted, “I’m not as involved as I used to be in the actual selection of films.  Currently, I’m more of a dispute settler; if there is a film or two that we are uncertain if it should play, I am sometimes the deciding vote for in or out.  Personally, I like to see short comedies.  The reason we don’t see very many of those is that it’s actually very hard to make a good humorous film.”
Filmmakers looking for a challenge, take note – the gauntlet has been thrown.


Part 4:  Coming Soon…
Much like the proverbial shark that must always keep moving, Wildwood must both get through the current year and prepare for the year(s) to come.  This is a huge and unique challenge as a one-time event, much less as an annual occurrence.

This year the original triumvirate has added a couple of new members to the board: Brian Murray and Jim Bork.

“Brian Murray was integral in helping us achieve our incorporation and our non-profit 501c3 status,” Buss said. “He has supported us with tax and appropriate financial services.  He has obviously been a supporter for a while so he was a natural addition.  He and I have been friends for years. We had become acquainted with Jim Bork when he hosted Wildwood at his business, the Big Picture.  He has been our bookkeeper ever since.  He is very aware of the inner workings of the group as it was, and he was also a very easy and sensible addition.”

Thorne offered some thoughts on the Wildwood workload.  “Wildwood to me is like any other social event.  It’s fun to be around people that like sports if you like sports, music if you like music, and movies if you like movies.  It’s kind of like throwing a big party every year.  The workload is similar to that of a large wedding.  And when the event is over, we catch our breath and then start all over.”

Perkins summed up the hard work the board members face each year – and just why she thinks it’s worth it.

“Jason, Tom and Craig are true film lovers, and that passion shows in everything they do,” she said. “If they didn’t love it so much, they wouldn’t go through the hard work and pressure it takes to put on a film festival! I especially appreciate the Wisconsin connection that all films must have.  It keeps the local feeling alive and sets Wildwood apart from other festivals in the state.”

Guy_RedBarnSince it was Knitt’s films that kicked off fifteen years of Wildwood, it seems fitting to let him have the last word about where he hopes the fest goes in the future.  “The biggest thing we’d like to see is that the festival does more than break even. We’ve struggled a few years, but feel strongly about what we offer creators in our state. We’ve had incredible audiences yet there is no way we’re compensated for the energy and time we all commit to Wildwood. We’re looking at partnerships that will make those efforts pay off. We’d also like to see Wildwood utilized more as an educational opportunity for tomorrow’s filmmakers of all ages.”


Part 5:  The Where’s and the When’s.
In a world where the movie theater experience is filled primarily with sequels, remakes, too-long-too-boring dramas and unsubtle (and often unfunny) comedies, The Wildwood Film Festival presents its viewers with a completely unique viewing experience.  Unless you attend a lot of film festivals, chances are good that the movies you’ll see at Wildwood are movies that you’ll never get a chance to see anywhere else.

And who knows – perhaps one day you’ll find yourself in a movie theater, see a name go by on the screen, and think – “Hey!  I saw that person’s film at Wildwood!”

The Wildwood Film Festival is playing Friday, February 19 and Saturday, February 20. 

The schedule of films and ticket prices are posted at

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