Sundance Experience Motivates Director of Wildwood Film Festival in Appleton

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It’s not easy to get a movie accepted into the high-profile Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

In fact, it’s pretty hard to get accepted as an unpaid volunteer for Sundance – even if you’ve got a film festival of your own. Craig Knitt (pictured above right) knows that all too well.

After years of applying, Knitt managed to land a spot helping out at the country’s biggest event for independent filmmakers. He returned inspired and encouraged by what he saw.

Now he and co-founders Tom Thorne and Jason Buss are preparing for the 2013 Wildwood Film Festival in Appleton on Saturday, March 16th.

Wildwood is in its twelfth year, and Knitt says the festival featuring short films in a variety of genres continues to grow. It is the only film festival in which every single entry has a direct connection to the state of Wisconsin – a fact that makes Knitt and the other founders quite proud.

The trip to Sundance was an eye-opener for Knitt, who serves as the festival director for Wildwood. Besides a sense of awe, the trip also put his own filmmaking efforts into perspective.

“Sundance is the film festival for the United States. It is our biggest and most respected as far as I know,” says Knitt. “As a filmmaker, I’m really glad that I went because I’ve always thought that Sundance was way out of my league, and I learned differently. I saw films that were certainly far above what I could ever produce, but I also saw pieces that I could easily compete with.”

The Sundance Experience

Shaun Parker (pictured above left), an actor and good friend of Craig Knitt’s, was key in encouraging him to come to the prestigious film festival as a volunteer. Parker is a Neenah native who’s also an alum of the local improv group, ComedyCity. Parker had been insisting Knitt offer up his services for nearly a decade.

At first, it seemed like Knitt would be staying in Wisconsin for another year.

“The cut-off point for volunteers came and went and I felt I was overlooked once again,” Knitt recalls. “Then I received a phone call.”

Knitt initially hoped he could volunteer as a video editor. That opportunity fell through. Instead, he filled the role of a “theater runner.” The job required him to bring various materials to nine different venues at the festival, getting theater managers whatever they might need. It also meant he got a look inside each one of the theaters where Sundance films were being screened.

craig knitt edits video at Sundance film festivalHowever, his duties weren’t exactly a walk in the park, although walking through Park City was certainly a big part of it. Knitt says he was constantly on the move.

“I did a lot of walking while I was in Utah and wasn’t ready for that,” he explains. “My feet were ruined for a couple days, but by the time we were cleaning things up at the end of the fest, I was doing much better.”

Knitt says being in the right place at the right time while keeping your eyes and ears open can lead to extra opportunities at Sundance. He actually did get to edit some video for Park City TV while he was there. He also ran camera, corralled an audience line and even acted as a bodyguard.

Protecting Harry Potter Himself

Knitt admits he doesn’t have the best eye for recognizing celebrities, but he knew they were all around him at the Sundance Film Festival. The fact everyone is wearing winter hats and overcoats didn’t make it any easier to pick out the stars.

Knitt says he had a conversation with actress Lake Bell, and didn’t realize who she was until he was editing video of her later on. He also got to compliment actress Elisabeth Moss on her work in Mad Men, and spoke with comic actor/screenwriter Thomas Lennon  of Reno 911.

“We chatted about his book, ‘Writing Movies for Fun and Profit,’ which I recommend. I didn’t recognize him at first either,” Knitt says.

By far the most interesting brush with fame Craig experienced was when he was assigned to be a bodyguard for Daniel Radcliffe, aka the boy wizard, Harry Potter. Radcliffe was responding to questions after a session, and Knitt came to his rescue.

“If I hadn’t been there, he might have been accosted by a 13 year-old fan that I apprehended before she got too far. As he left the theater, Daniel Radcliffe reached over and touched my elbow and got Harry Potter germs all over me. I’ve been selling the germs to all my friends,” Knitt jokes.

Technically, Sundance volunteers aren’t supposed to interact with VIPs. But Knitt says sometimes you just can’t help it.

Taking it Back to Wisconsin and Wildwood

There are some big differences between Sundance and Wildwood other than size and celebrity attendees.

Many of the filmmakers who get into Sundance are hoping they are discovered and land some sort of distribution deal with a studio. It’s where directors like Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh got their big breaks. At Wildwood, the main goal of most filmmakers is to get their movie seen by a live audience.

But that’s also the very thing that makes the Wildwood Festival pure and unmarred by typical Hollywood-style schmoozing. The simple hope of any real artist is to have their work viewed and appreciated by others.

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From left: Tom Thorne, Craig Knitt and Jason Buss – founders of Wildwood Film Festival

Getting an audience is precisely the reason the Wildwood Film Festival came to be the first place.

Back in 2001, Knitt had recently finished his first feature film, The Hunt. It was a project he worked on with long-time collaborator Tom Thorne, and also where the pair met Wildwood’s third co-founder, Jason Buss.

They were unable to get The Hunt, accepted into Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Film Festival, and decided the best way to showcase the movie was to start their own festival.

Wildwood took place in Green Bay its first year, and has also been held in Shawano. However, it’s most frequent location is the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center’s Kimberly Clark Theater – where it will be held again this year.

Sundance tends to breathe new life to the film industry because it is often where amazing films break through the noise of the usual remakes and sequels. In much the same way, Wildwood is giving a voice to talented Wisconsin filmmakers.

“The Wildwood Film Festival is important to our state because so many great stories by Wisconsin creators are falling in the cracks and never being seen,” says Knitt. “Most Wisconsin-based festivals have a ‘Wisconsin’s Own’ category, but these are often quite limited. We make an effort to motivate filmmakers from the state to use their talents and get their work out there.”

This year, aspiring filmmakers can even learn how to improve their talents and produce higher quality content. Knitt will be holding a “Filmmaking 101” workshop along with Tony Reale of NextWaveDV and Creative Edge Productions. That’s on top of a total of 38 short films, which are being screened at four showtimes on Saturday.

Knitt gives the impression that he will likely return to Sundance – maybe even with a film of his own one day. He was somewhat surprised by the fact that quite a few people at Sundance had heard of the film festival he helped start 12 years ago. Whatever the future may hold, the trip to Sundance has given Knitt even more confidence in the uniqueness and fun-loving wildness of the Wildwood Film Festival.

“The biggest thing I learned from my trip to the Sundance Film Festival is that we’re doing a pretty good job with our humble efforts here in Wisconsin,” says Knitt.

He also points out that those Q&A sessions following a film screening are just as awkward at Sundance as they are anywhere else.

The Details

  • Website: http://www.wildwoodfilmfest.com/
  • When: Saturday, March 16th. Screenings at 1:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 8:00 pm
  • Where: Fox Cities PAC, Kimberly Clark Theater
  • Tickets: Advance tickets $10 per session, $12 at the door. All-day festival passes are $20

Bonus:

Check out the free “Filmmaking 101” Workshop before the festival at 10 am. The class takes place across from the PAC in the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel’s Pippin Room. The hotel is just across the street from the festival venue.

Plus, don’t miss the Wildwood Film Festival after-party at Deja Vu Martini Bar on College Ave following the 8 pm show.

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