"Since we were coming in with more financial stability than they had," says Cowgill, "my feeling was that Al should stick to what he does best, which is the festival. I think we were moving in the right direction, but it was clear that Al didn't want [the merger]. The guy's been running the organization for a long, long time, and the last thing I wanted was any kind of warfare. Still, I think it would be best for the long-term benefit of the film community if we somehow came together."
In theory, a joint effort between Oak Street and U Film sounds entirely logical, if not politically amenable. With Milgrom's ability to wrangle a superior roster of foreign and lesser-known indie films, and Cowgill and his staff's proven success with the Oak Street repertory program, a cooperative endeavor would seem able to offer a formidable, well-rounded calendar to pit against Landmark's boutique powerhouse. And while U Film boasts a more influential and art-savvy history, the organization could surely benefit from Oak Street's more streamlined publicity efforts, its more accessible locale, and its all-around higher profile of late. But Milgrom isn't convinced.
"[Cowgill] has got a totally different agenda than we do," he says. "We cannot work with the Oak Street.... They never used to do foreign programming and they said they were never interested in it since it was, in a way, our turf. But now they've slowly encroached on our turf. I'm sure the idea was brought up with good intentions, but I haven't seen the right formula."
"Truthfully, Al is very difficult to work with and sort of drove out any number of people--people like me," Adamsick admits. "But it appeared to me that we'd be trading in one tyrant for another."
With more imported features and newer independent fare landing on Oak Street's calendar, things could get even more complicated. Consider the fact that, as comparable nonprofit endeavors, U Film and Oak Street are poised to find themselves competing more directly and more often for funding from arts agencies and from the community at large. Also, in lieu of a unified front, local filmmakers and patrons may be forced unwittingly to support one program at the expense of the other.
It's a sensitive situation, and one that begs for timely resolution. Some members of the Minneapolis film community have watched U Film impatiently for years, awaiting signs of proactive movement in any direction. Christine Walker, executive producer of the locally created feature Homo Heights and a former staffer at the Independent Feature Project/North, has been particularly frustrated by Milgrom's tireless cantankery and failure to reinvent U Film's image.
"When I first moved here," Walker says, "it was apparent that [Milgrom] was no longer effective, that he was kind of a pain in the ass, but that somewhere and at some time he had been the godfather of independent film, so we should just let him behave this way."
Walker goes on to express concern for the future reputation of both the annual film festival and the Twin Cities market as a whole. "It has nothing to do with [Milgrom's] film selection," she says. "It's the management. The way U Film is managed is this sort of grass-rootsy, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants organization, very unprofessional. That doesn't bode well when you're trying to attract people from outside the area.
"I've heard people say that the only way to resolve these issues is to get rid of Al," says Walker, "and while that may be true, it's also irresponsible. It's not just the responsibility of U Film itself, it's other people and other organizations who look away and say, 'I don't want to deal with these problems.' Somehow the system has broken down and no one wants to take responsibility. I don't believe it's all Al's fault. He doesn't deserve that much scorn."
Though occasional rumors of his retirement have surfaced, Milgrom says he has no plans to step down any time soon, nor does he foresee any sweeping changes within the film society. For him, the troubles facing U Film can be chalked up to outside factors like inadequate press coverage, the advent of cable TV, inflated ad rates, dwindling public funds, and, most discouraging of all, an increasingly apathetic audience.
"Audiences are lazy," he laments. "Audiences are spoiled. All they wanna do is see what's on video. It's this provincial mentality that we've been fighting against for years. They're not as hip as they used to be. And it's not their fault--they just don't get the information they need from the media to make good decisions."
With the lion's share of blame pinned firmly on external forces, Milgrom continues to do business as he always has, stacking mountains of papers in his office, roaming the festival circuit, barking into his phone, and doing whatever else he deems necessary to bring new films to the Bell Auditorium. The rest, he figures, is up to someone else.
"Al hasn't hung on this long without being tenacious," says Cowgill. "But it's not always just about showing quality films. It's also about promoting programs that people will come and pay for.... You have to care whether you have 50 or 500 people there. You have to care if you're losing money."