North by Northwest

The Rolling River music and movies festival goes through a divorce

By Peter S. Scholtes And Rod Smith

It was supposed to be St. Paul's answer to the South by Southwest music and movie festival in Austin, Texas--a five-day civic gala that would lure more than 100 unknown bands and 30 regional films to our capital-city riverfront. Instead, the Rolling River International Music and Film Festival has split into two separate, pared-down events. Where an outdoor megafestival like Mill City left bounced checks and unhappy artists in its wake, Rolling River seems half over before it has begun.

The movie portion will go forward as scheduled from September 18 to September 22 under a new name, the Central Standard Film Festival, and in new venues, the Heights Theatre and Apache 6 Theatre in Columbia Heights. The music half will proceed with gigs by local bands in downtown St. Paul clubs, but without hoped-for national stars or big outdoor concerts on Harriet Island and the Mississippi River Barge. At press time, festival organizers Mick Sterling and Michael Beach were working with St. Paul city officials to salvage Rolling River after losing headliner Alanis Morissette and collaborators Independent Film Project Minneapolis/St. Paul (IFP MSP), who organized the film branch of the event.

"The festival is facing some serious challenges at this time," says Erich Mische, St. Paul's marketing director and longtime Norm Coleman aide. "But we're working hard to make it the success it will be."

"I've called at least 30 bands today, and they all still want to play," Sterling says, audibly relieved. "The majority of clubs are probably still going to do it, too. The response has been amazing."

The idea of a multimedia celebration of regional and independent culture was always a good one. Which is one reason independent programmer Nate Johnson created the annual Sound Unseen Film and Music Festival, now slated to host its third season...the same week as Rolling River! Johnson, whose festival starts September 20, says Rolling River didn't return his phone calls about when their festival was going to take place for months, until it was too late. (Disclosure: Johnson also helps program "Get Real: City Pages Documentary Film Festival.") Local IFP executive director Jane Minton blames the scheduling mishap on the disorganization of her former partners. (Whether the relocated event will compete with the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival is another open question.)

So what went wrong with Rolling River's plan?

Sterling's film and music enterprise began ambitiously enough, securing the entertainment barge and Harriet Island for what promised to be a Mill City-sized spectacle. Clubs such as the Lab and the Minnesota Music Café were all too happy to lend stages to this potentially high-profile event. Supportive, too, was the City of St. Paul, which largely remains a nighttime dead zone, despite heavy civic investment in new arenas, museums, and amenities. Perhaps the most enthusiastic backers were the dozens of local bands who saw their Rolling River appearances as a ticket to wider audiences--or in some cases, any audience at all. "Some of these bands hardly ever get a chance to play out," Sterling notes.

But the festival ran into trouble last month, when an expected torrent of funding turned out to be more like a trickle. Sterling, who is also the founder and organizer of the charitable Heart & Soul Festival, attributes this difficulty to three factors: a dearth of sponsor dollars, slow advance ticket sales, and the failure of expected lines of credit to materialize. When a deposit for slated headliner Alanis Morissette didn't arrive on time, her booking representatives, Creative Artist Agency, issued a cease-and-desist order to get her name off Rolling River advertisements. Other advertised national acts--including Vanessa Carlton, Lisa Loeb, and Darius Rucker (Hootie!)--canceled as well.

Having already invested $60,000 in the festival, IFP sized up the situation and decided to cut bait. They amicably withdrew from the arrangement on August 23--and amicably declined to comment on their failed collaboration. This meant forfeiting support from such sponsors as Summit and some major local media, who'd signed on with Rolling River. "This way we'll only be in the hole about 20 grand," Minton explains. "[Rolling River] understood that we were emotionally committed to the films and filmmakers and had to move forward with this festival."

Fortunately, Heights and Apache co-owners Tom Letness and Dave Holmgren stepped forward to make room for the Central Standard festival in their idiosyncratic theaters, all the better to publicize recent renovations at the spots. (And so St. Paul, which has previously flirted with art-film programming by both Oak Street and the U Film Society, lost out to arts powerhouse Columbia Heights.)

Though the film festival brims with promising movies, the collapse of Rolling River as a music-film event is no small letdown--not least for Minton and IFP. Minton was one of the suitors who approached U Film Society director Al Milgrom about purchasing the decades-old Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival two years ago. After losing out to Oak Street Cinema founder Bob Cowgill, who will oversee a merger of his organization with Milgrom's, this might have been IFP's big step into the exhibition business. As it stands, all the same films will screen as originally planned, but without many of the directors present to introduce their work--and without the synergy created by popular concerts and the backing of St. Paul.

"We've had to scale back," says festival programmer Todd Hansen, a Minneapolis native who spent six years programming the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. "We were originally going to fly in all the directors, and we had to call them and tell them we couldn't do that. But half of them are still interested in coming." Debra Winger and Arliss Howard, the team behind the festival's opening night film Big Bad Love, have canceled their appearance.

Both Minton and Sterling say they hope to do festivals next year. Sterling mentions another joint project; Minton doesn't. North by Northwest, it seems, will have to wait.

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