Al [Milgrom] is a difficult person to work with and/or for. He wants to be a perfectionist but he can't pull it off because he is simply too chaotic a personality.... Perhaps the only way the [University] Film Society could have survived as long as it has is under the helm of someone like Al with just the right touch of monomaniacal drive.
--J. Gillespie, Mpls. Review of the Arts, September 1976
All it took was a special issue of that scholarly arbiter of American cultural evolution--Entertainment Weekly--to make it official: The world of independent filmmaking is now "The New Hollywood." Blame it on whomever you like--Quentin Tarantino, Parker Posey, Pearl Jam--but the "alternative" chic that reshaped the rock industry six years ago has now infected the movies.
Locally, you need look no further than Uptown to see the trend in action. Both the Uptown Theatre and its sister artsyplex, Lagoon Cinema, are enjoying the full fruits of indiemania, regularly snaring area exclusives of mini-major product like The Full Monty and Boogie Nights, and catapulting them into wide-release crossover hits. Landmark Theaters, the national arthouse chain in control of Uptown and Lagoon, offers little explanation for the boom: They're simply content to keep their close ties to Miramax et al., and tear the tickets. After all, these are--to borrow a phrase from Landmark's pre-feature promo clip--"the best films in the wuh-ld."
Things at the University of Minnesota's U Film Society, on the other hand, aren't so peachy. An ongoing series of funding woes, administrative shuffles, box-office lags, and strained relationships with art-film distributors--exacerbated, some say, by the irascible personality of its director, Al Milgrom--have left the organization spinning its reels in a community that once inspired it to panoramic proportions. What's more, a recently failed attempt at a merger between U Film and the burgeoning Oak Street Cinema left insiders edgy--enough so that Randy Adamsick, executive director of the Minnesota Film Board and longtime president of U Film's board of directors, elected to resign after 17 years of involvement. Beneath all the bristling lies the sad irony of an organization struggling to compete in a bull market it helped to establish.
"The Bell [Auditorium, U Film's primary screening location] used to be the epicenter of film in Minneapolis--no question," says Bob Cowgill, director of the nonprofit Oak Street Cinema. "U Film and Al Milgrom have a real resonance in our cultural memory. From the early '60s on, Al was film in this town."
Most insiders agree that Milgrom, director of the nonprofit film society since its inception in 1962, is and has been the ornery lifeblood of the organization. Despite his far-reaching reputation for abrasiveness and his well-reported overbearing treatment of employees and peers, he's been touted as a fierce cineaste whose sheer fanaticism has brought local audiences three decades' worth of exceptional foreign and independent films--many of which might otherwise have gone unseen. In addition to founding the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival (formerly the Rivertown Film Festival) in the early '80s, Milgrom has brought such luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard, Josef von Sternberg, Wim Wenders, and Pauline Kael to the Twin Cities for rare speaking engagements. But that was then...
"Al had the eye and the connections in the indie film industry all over the world long before Lagoon and Oak Street even existed," says Doug Benidt, a program manager at Walker Art Center and former publicity director at U Film. "But the market has blown wide open now. I think Al's been fighting the good fight for so many years that it's hard for him to imagine his stuff being popular." Benidt spent a year and a half working under Milgrom, "scraping by every week" on a puny budget. (Milgrom, for his part, refuses to discuss U Film's financial records.)
In June of 1996, Benidt stepped down and was succeeded by Toby Sauer, who would leave U Film just over a year later. "Al's style has been the same for 35 years," Sauer says. "You have to work with him, not around him, and a lot of people have a hard time doing that."
It was shortly after Sauer's departure that Cowgill initiated talks between the boards of Oak Street and U Film in hopes of effecting a merger. "I felt it would make sense to be one organization, that we should consolidate," Cowgill says. But the offer he brought to the table didn't sit well with Milgrom or with Adamsick, U Film's president of the board.
"It was tremendously disappointing," Adamsick says of the proposal. "Oak Street offered us nothing. They really wanted to take over, change the name, basically get a theater for free, and really offer no substantial role for Al or for those of us on the board. Frankly, I thought we could offer a great deal of experience to the new organization."
Cowgill says his proposal would have respectfully offered Milgrom an emeritus position and kept him in charge of the annual film festival--currently U Film's most visible asset and financial anchor--leaving Cowgill and his staff in control of the rest of the year's programming at Bell Auditorium, as well as the Oak Street theater and its newly opened satellite, Seventh Place Cinema in St. Paul.