Rivertown Rules

AT THIS YEAR'S wrap party for the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, Al Milgrom looked a little like a man who had wandered into the wrong party and decided to stay for the free food. Amid crowds of hipsters in their Saturday-night best, he kept his parka on and his hands in his pockets--not exactly the posture you'd expect from a man who, by all accounts, had just pulled off an unqualified coup.

The buzz on the 18th annual MSPIFF began early: Best films. Best press coverage. Best attendance. Best food. And buzz begat buzz, which begat audiences, and by the Saturday-night party at Harmony Box Studios in Northeast--with the four-day "Best of the Fest" wrap-up still to come--the consensus was in. Not only had Milgrom and his U Film Society (comprising a few woefully underpaid, sleep-deprived staff members and volunteers) pulled yet another festival out of a hat, but also--and for the first time, according to some--the two-week carnival of world cinema had risen to the level of a bona fide, citywide arts event that registered on the greater metropolitan consciousness. Early U Film numbers put attendance at roughly 25,000, an increase of more than 25 percent compared with recent years. Anecdotal evidence suggests an even greater contrast, with houses at or near capacity for films--such as the little-known late addition Rent-a-Friend--that in previous years might have drawn a half-dozen people. ("You never know," Milgrom says. "Maybe it was the title.")

That the 18th festival was a success is being held as a given. But ask why it was, how it was, and what it means, and no one seems to land on the same answer. Oak Street Cinema's Bob Cowgill, who has attended the fest almost since its inception, will tell you that, in general, ours is a more mature film town than it was even five years ago. "Also," says Cowgill, citing involvement by the Minnesota Film Board and IFP/North, "for a while, Al was going it alone, and there were all of these interested people kind of waiting in the wings. Now these organizations have found ways in which they can contribute."

The Film Board's executive director, Randy Adamsick, who saw two dozen films at this year's fest, will tell you that it is, in part, a function of the audience having caught up to the event. "I wonder if it took 18 years just to build an audience for this thing," he muses. Robb Mitchell, executive producer at ScreenLabs, points to the number of high-profile films Milgrom managed to snare, like the Amerindie Goat on Fire & Smiling Fish, which was well-received in Toronto. Others cite smoother organization on the part of U Film--programs that came out on time (thanks to a marathon session by Rubin Cordaro Design), a marked decrease in cancellations and substitutions, and a wide range of press coverage that complemented Milgrom's grassroots, hands-on, bottom-up marketing style. More than one person mentioned the white-jacketed organist who performed before each movie at the Heights Theater, a third full-time venue added this year.

But for Milgrom, talk of success carries a lot less weight than, say, what the city should do to help nonprofits to affordably rent public spaces like the State Theater, or where he's going to come up with the $12,000 he needs to rent his office space, now that the university has decided to stop underwriting it, pending review. In fact, in the long run, the ostensible thrill of victory mostly makes Milgrom impatient: "The festival is still running," he admonishes. "And what made them think it wasn't a great festival the last 18 years?"

 
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