Who Needs the Hassle? This Guy.

Al Milgrom celebrated his inaugural film festival by going to jail. It hasn't gotten any easier.

Film-fest guru Al Milgrom is "your obedient servant"—or at least that's the way he has taken to identifying himself in the comic screeds he pens for the start of each Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival catalog. Granted, sarcasm suffuses these enjoyably rambling missives, the latest of which invokes the "investiture of Napoleon" as well as "9/11 and all that." But the M-SPIFF director's pledge of obedience and servitude may well be sincere, and in any case his civic commitment is hard to argue on this, the unlikely occasion of the festival's 25th anniversary.

Milgrom, as another legendary Minnesota native would say, is an artist and he "don't look back." But with less than two weeks to go before banging the ceremonial gong on opening night, the undisputed champion of grassroots marketing did agree to wander Memory Lane in between the more urgent trips to Kinko's and various campus kiosks.

City Pages:Congrats, Al: Twenty-five years of the film festival. Does it seem like you were just starting it yesterday?

The boss of it all: Al Milgrom at the Oak Street Cinema
Nick Vlcek
The boss of it all: Al Milgrom at the Oak Street Cinema

Al Milgrom: Twenty-five years of tsuris—that's Yiddish, it means "pain in the ass." The idea that there could be a 25th year for this festival never occurred to us when we started it.

CP: The first one—Rivertown, held in Stillwater in '83—was billed as the "lost weekend of cinema." What were you getting at with that tag?

Milgrom: It was based on the Telluride festival—that was the model. We liked the idea of a long weekend of films in a pastoral setting à la Telluride. We don't really have the scenery here [in the Twin Cities], so Stillwater seemed the logical choice. We did it in the Freight House—a couple of hundred seats, very modest. Now it's a restaurant. We showed some old Westerns outdoors, too; people brought blankets. But most of the filmgoers around here didn't want to drive the extra 35 miles to see a movie. So it made more sense to bring it back here.

CP: Is it true that you spent the first night of the festival in a Stillwater jail?

Milgrom: I think the town resented the invasion of us city kids. It was 2:00 in the morning and I had this old Toyota, I was lost on some back road, I got pulled over. I happened to have this overdue parking tag, which meant that there was a warrant out, so I got tossed in the clink, yeah. It was this huge, neon-lit room, the kind of room that drives you crazy after a while. It was like that movie Z. Randy Adamsick and a couple of the other [festival] guys came and bailed me out.

CP: You were talking about tsuris. So you mean there were some years of the festival where it was even worse than being in jail?

Milgrom: Sure. This year is one of 'em. It's all the hassle involved. And this year has been put together really fast: I can't imagine any other town putting it together this fast. And we hardly had a budget.

CP: I came across your catalog essay from 1988 and found something familiar. The piece starts with, "Well, it's Rivertown, and the usual bunch of skeptics again thought it wouldn't happen."

Milgrom: Yeah, that's true [laughs]. Well, you guys in the press always think it's not going to happen until it happens. This year the financial situation of Minnesota Film Arts lent itself naturally to skepticism. Back in the '80s, we had only the Bell [Auditorium] to worry about. Once we started spreading the festival around the Twin Cities—that was eight or nine years ago—the audiences started to escalate, too.

Now the problems are overwhelming. Film costs have gone way up. By the time you cover [print] shipping from Europe, plus the rental, you're talking $900 or $1,200. It started a couple of years back. Film festivals have now become the main avenue for foreign film dissemination; they're expected to support all these international film productions, and these festival agents have been having a field day with it. And then there's Tribeca [Film Festival], which I call villainy. They insist on having first crack at any film, on having premieres.

Getting sponsorships is a problem. Getting corporate support is a problem. Getting industry support is hard, public support is hard. Getting grants is a problem because foundations want to make sure that you've got a Harvard MBA guy running your administration so you can fill out all the complicated balance sheets. Making a production of the whole thing, turning it into a show, is a hassle. These are the headaches of doing a film festival.

CP: I'm told you were here until five o'clock this morning.

Milgrom: There was an ad due today. And yesterday afternoon, what did I do yesterday afternoon? I was running around someplace.

CP: Looking on the bright side here, I found another quote of yours from 1992. "One of the aims of Rivertown and many other film festivals is to break down ethnocentrism and to show the rich diversity existing in many worldwide, far-reaching areas and even within our own backyards." Is that still the case?

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