As Time Goes By

Asleep at the reel: U film society lies dormant on mondo's opening weekend.

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.

"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."

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