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If you're a recent immigrant to the United States, chances are Al Milgrom knows where you live. He knows where you shop, eat out, go to church, and polka. This time of year, as he prepares to unleash his annual cavalcade of cinema hailing from countries such as Macedonia, Lithuania, Denmark, India, and Tajikistan, chances are there's a movie he thinks you should see. Chances are he's coming your way to tell you so.
"He's everywhere," reports Jan McElfish, a publicist for the American Swedish Institute. "I was having lunch at Kramarczuk's one day during the film festival a couple of years ago, and he was there, passing out flyers to the customers and the women behind the counter. He saw me, and he said, 'Come with me to my car. I've got some brochures for you.'"
Despite the advent of such things as fax machines, e-mail, and Web pages in the 18 years since the beginning of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, U Film czar Milgrom remains a staunch practitioner of what might be called person-to-person marketing. Milgrom himself flatly rejects the term ("You make it sound like I'm McCann Erickson or something"), but the fact remains that his methods of conjuring an audience rest in: 1) figuring out where to find various ethnic constituencies; and 2) going there, or getting as close as possible. After decades of canvassing various pockets of both recent and established immigrants, he views the process as both obvious and unremarkable--as though everyone would think to hunt down Hungarian grocery stores, Armenian churches, and Czech mayors.
"I don't think there's any trick or secret," he says. "You think it takes a Harvard Business School type to figure out that if you've got a Czech film, you call the mayors of the Czech towns in Minnesota? No. Minneapolis is a small town. It's not that hard to hit ten churches on Northeast University Avenue on a Sunday morning."
Like any apostle, he remains firmly convinced that people want what he has to offer, even if they don't know it yet. "There's a public out there that likes to hear its language and be reminded of the old-country culture it left," he says. And so ensues what appears to be the Sisyphean task of calling and leafleting an endless roster of ethnic newsletters, radio programs, fraternal organizations, and the like.
Czeslaw (Chester) Rog, who edits Pol-Am, a newsletter for Minnesota's Polish Americans, has known Milgrom since at least 1970 and regularly includes notices about U Film movies in his newsletter. This January, Rog attended several of the films in the Krzysztof Kieslowski series The Decalogue shown at the Walker Art Center. "It's a famous Polish film series," he says. "The area churches sponsored it together with the Walker, and each showing was a sellout. After the show, when we walked out, there was Al, passing out flyers on other Polish movies the U Film Society was showing."
Other regular contacts include the American Swedish Institute, Pramod Chopra's Manoranjan Movies (which screens Hindi films at Oak Street Cinema and boasts a mailing list of about 1,100), various KFAI Radio (90.3 FM/106.7 FM) programs, U of M student organizations, and the University's Austrian Center. Such a list is only a fraction of Milgrom's rough database, the true measure of which perhaps no one but Al Milgrom truly knows--and even his assessment may be only an estimate.
"Al has so many different lists and so many different filing systems that it's impossible to know where he's getting his information from, or, more importantly, where you're supposed to get your information from," says former U Film staffer Toby Sauer (who reports finding such chaos "fun"). "Plus, his idea of an 'ethnic group' ranges from one guy from Croatia to an actual Chinese or Mexican population."
To observe Al Milgrom is to conclude that the task of filling seats is roughly equivalent to bailing a leaky boat: A moment's rest might mean disaster. In this way, a successful screening is less a reason for celebration than yet another marketing opportunity. Recently, Rog lobbied Milgrom to bring Pan Tadeusz--the film version of an epic poem every Polish child learns in school--to the U Film Society, which he did in March. Rog reports that the Sunday afternoon screening was full, and the audience was predominantly Polish. "One family brought their four teenagers. They thought it was very important for their youngsters to get a handle on this snapshot of Polish history," he says. The board of the Pol-Am Institute was also in attendance, and because it was the birthday of one of the board members, Rog stood before the film began and led the audience in singing "Stolat," the Polish birthday song.
After the film ended, Milgrom (whom Rog calls "really kind of a gem as far as the Polish community is concerned") approached him. "He said: 'You know, I didn't see the Mayslack's polka crowd here.'"
Skeptics may occasionally question whether keeping track of the polka crowd is the most effective way to program an annual festival with some 120 selections--and then a year-round program, as well. "Occasionally, Al has more faith in a film and in his tactics than either his film or the tactics deserve," says Sauer, who worked with Milgrom for a year. "But it's amazing--the fact he can do it this way for 40 years and still have utter faith in his methods. It's really kind of wonderful."