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Mike McNamara & Mike Kwielford - Founders of the Midwest Independent Film Festival

By Chris Karr in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 5, 2005 4:27AM

Last month, the Midwest Independent Film Festival graciously invited us out to their monthly event to catch the Chicago premiere of "The Godfather of Green Bay". We were quite impressed with the film festival and the things that make it tick so we asked to interview the founders of the festival to get an idea of what goes on behind the scenes. Last week, we visited Mike McNamara and Mike Kwielford at the MWFF offices west of the Loop. We talked about their upcoming awards show and the festival itself.

Mike McNamara & Mike Kwielford - Midwest Independent Film Festival Founders

Chicagoist: Can you tell us what the Midwest Independent Film Festival is?

Mike McNamara: I would say... God, we’ve had a lot of these – this is the first time I’ve had someone ask us what it is!

We are dedicated to the Midwest filmmaker. I think that’s what really separates us from other film festivals. A lot of other terrific events are focused on bringing films from across the country and around the world to the Midwest. We are solely focused on celebrating those filmmakers that are doing phenomenal work here at home. It’s a tough search. Without a doubt. It’s much easier when you have New York and L.A. and all over the country and all you have to do is find some good films. We really have to hunt to find the best of the best around here.

Mike Kwielford: The hard part about doing the “First Tuesday” thing is that you’re dealing with showing films every month and not only the films. We have a “pre-show social” where sponsors can set up tables and vendors can promote their company. If an attendee wants to get a drink and see what’s going on with Avid, they can do that and hang out with a couple of filmmaker friends of theirs. Then they go enjoy our film lineup and head on to the after-party. With a normal festival once a year, everything’s all compiled into a one or two-week period – showing films and parties and everything. But here, when we do it...

Mike McNamara: We’re always on deadline. That’s the toughest part. That’s one of the challenges with the festival – we’re always on deadline. The second after we have a strong event in June, all we’re thinking about is July. So it makes for a pretty interesting dynamic. We’re always working, always recruiting films, always reaching out to press and audiences.

(More below the fold.)

Mike Kwielford: The thing that I’ve seen with other festivals that try to do a monthly thing is most the time, they end up dying pretty quick. It’s easy to run out of gas. There’s a lot that goes on to produce this every month. Luckily, we have a good board of people where we can split up the duties. Mac’s [Mike McNamara] in charge of programming our lineups and he’s found some phenomenal films this year. It’s just an amazing array of films that we’ve brought in and we want to keep doing that. It’s a constant struggle – you’re not just finding enough films to fill up a one-weekend event.

Mike McNamara: The challenges of having a film event the first Tuesday of every month is also what makes us such an asset to the independent film community. Because every month, every first Tuesday, people come out to see great films and they come out to see each other. Instead of it being a film festival where you show up, see a couple of movies, and go home – this has become an event where filmmakers, film lovers – everyone – comes together to touch base with each other and the different productions they are working on. And to see outstanding film productions from their colleagues.

Chicagoist: For the purposes of the festival, what is “the Midwest”?

Mike McNamara: “The Midwest” is the eight state region of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri. So we had to define it. That was the first thing we had to do – let’s define it. And initially we were like “It’s the Midwest.” Well, some people think Nebraska is in the Midwest. Other people will tell you that Texas is in the Midwest. Or Kentucky. Or Tennessee. So, we picked those eight states and said, “Let’s just go with this.”

Chicagoist: From those eight states, how many submissions do you get every year?

Mike Kwielford: It’s growing and we’re trying to get ourselves more established in the eight states. We’re just establishing ourselves as more of a Midwest-specific festival this year than we have in years past.

Mike McNamara: Without a doubt, this is a Chicago-centric event. But we’re working with the Michigan film office, the IFP office in Minnesota and other Midwest organizations. It’s hard to put a number on it for the first year of branching out to the Midwest because we’re still just getting started.. I’d say that about a third of our submissions come from outside the Chicagoland area. We’d like to get that up above fifty percent.

Chicagoist: How many films do you typically show over the course of a year?

Mike Kwielford: I’d say thirty or forty. This year, we only showed one feature. Next year, we already have two or three features that are ready to go. So, it depends upon the submissions we get and what’s out there.

Chicagoist: Outside Chicago, what are the other Midwest filmmaking hot spots?

Mike Kwielford: St. Louis definitely has some good stuff coming out that we’ve seen.

Mike McNamara: You’d be surprised. I’d say anywhere other than Iowa. There’s a lot of great work being done. There are a lot of people doing work in Ohio because there’s a solid actor base – in Cincinnati, because it’s a pretty good theatre town. Wisconsin – there’s a fair amount going on. There’s a film with James Woods that one of our Wisconsin directors is going to be working on – one he co-wrote. They’re going to be shooting in Madison next year. There is an IFP branch in Minnesota, so there’s a fair amount of work going on in Minnesota if they need their own branch.

One of our top films, “Sugar Mountain” was actually shot in Indiana. I’ve had a number of filmmakers contact me from Indiana, wanting to get involved and bring their films to us. Without a doubt, you have to search for them and that’s the whole point of this film festival. There’s great work being done, but no one knows about it. People think that the only way to do any solid work in independent film is to head out to the coasts. And that’s not the case.

Chicagoist: Tell us about your upcoming awards show.

Mike McNamara: Sure. This is the best of the Midwest, so these are the premier films from our monthly screening events over the course of the year.

Mike Kwielford: We have a lot of very difficult decisions. We’ll have the awards presentation and then we’ll screen a few of the winning shorts. Even if you are not one of the filmmakers, you can come out and have a good night and see some outstanding shorts. In selecting our winners, there was an online vote and our screening committee vote. There were over fifteen hundred votes from the viewing public and there are going to be some difficult decisions, but it’s going to be a great night. Brenda Sexton [Executive Director] of the Illinois Film Office will be presenting Best Picture. Kit Woods [Assistant Director] of the Screen Actors Guild will be there. Mitch Apley [Executive Producer] from Resolution Digital Studios will be presenting. We’ll have a really strong industry crowd on Tuesday, December 6.

Chicagoist: Any parting thoughts for the readers?

Mike Kwielford: One of our goals with the festival is to develop local talent. Local being throughout the Midwest. Illinois, in particular, is doing great things to bring Hollywood here, but there isn’t a lot being done to develop local talent and create new producers and directors here. We want to create a forum to celebrate that so someone doesn’t have to go out to California to showcase their film. We try and give them something where they can develop, grow and show their films at our festival – bring out the cast and crew and not spend all this money on renting out a theatre and projection. We give that as a tool to the filmmakers to use. We like to encourage people to mingle and have projects grow out of our festival. And they have. It’s great hearing about a project where a director met a D.P. at the festival and they get together and shoot their film and bring it to us. They tell us, “Yeah, we met at the festival and want to show our film here now.” We’re seeing that now. It makes it all worthwhile.


This Tuesday (Dec. 6), we're heading out to the Landmark Century Theatre at Clark and Diversey to catch the awards show and root for our favorites. If you're a filmmaker, actor, or any sort of film buff, we strongly encourage you to check out the festival. It's not everyday you can catch great films and chat with the people who made them over drinks afterwards. If you're interested in staying abreast with the new films coming to the festival over the next year, check out the festival's website at