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?
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?
Milgrom: That would be a standard line now, wouldn't it? Look at how Minneapolis has changed in the last five years; there are so many immigrant cultures here. Having grown up in lily-white Minnesota, where you had Scandinavian culture and that was about all, I find myself in a real melting pot. Is that an out-of-date term?
The problem is that it's not easy to get the new [immigrant] audiences. I would have to say that the audience for the festival over 25 years has remained fairly finite. In the '70s and '80s, we had the hippie audience, and now we have the aging hippie audience. We remain culturally bound by Minnesota. I think there's still a lot of provincialism in the state. You don't see [M-SPIFF] audiences lined up at 10:00 in the morning like you do in most other festival cities. What you get here is, "Well, we can't show this movie on Sunday night at 9:00 p.m., because people have to work on Monday."
This city, despite its good intentions...hardly ever comes up with any money for us. Maybe once about 15 years ago they gave us 150 bucks.
CP: What is it about Minneapolis? From whence this "provincialism"?
Milgrom: I think it's partly a problem of the press—newspaper editors who don't want to cover a broad international spectrum, who say, "Our readers, they want stars, they don't want subtitles." Social class is another negative factor. Then there's the university and the educational establishment here. I don't know if you want to put the blame on French structuralism for our lack of cultural hipness, but you probably could.
The question is: What makes for a vital culture? The problem is the laziness of the audience, the vulgarity of the mainstream, including television, the general dumbing down of America. The younger generation doesn't want to read. We're across the street from 5,000 dorm kids. We put posters up, there's a marquee outside. You'd think they'd walk by and stop in once in a while, but they don't.
And then we have ourselves to blame, too. Add it up. There are too many factors. It all comes down to money, of course.
CP: Two-part question. First part is: Then why do it? And the second part is: What for you are the beautiful moments of this festival when you look back over 25 years?
Milgrom: See, I'm so involved with the immediate problems of deadlines, I haven't really given myself time to reflect. Plus amnesia sets in. I'd like to look back, but it's hard. What was the most beautiful movie of the 5,000 movies that you ran? First of all, you don't remember a lot of the stuff. I glanced at some of the old catalogs just briefly over the weekend and I said, "Jeez, did we run all those movies?" Some of those titles have long been forgotten, and some of them still stick in your mind.
One title that sticks out was this BBC drama with Alan Bates playing Guy Burgess, the spy in Moscow. That film [An Englishman Abroad] wasn't more than 52 minutes, made for TV. We played it in the second year of the festival, I think. It was such a little gem, just stellar, with such a good acting job by Bates. It would never have gotten shown if we hadn't played it.
And I would say that the first weekend in Stillwater was an awful lot of fun. There was a good group of us from the University Film Society, [former film critic] Bob Lundegaard came out from the Trib, we had a good lunch; there was a nice cool breeze off the St. Croix. There were some interesting films, too.
If the question is, "Why do it?" then the answer is...Mount Everest. Why climb that? Because it's there.
CP: Where do you want to take the festival from here?
Milgrom: We talked about doing a mini-festival this month—calling it "24-1/2"—and then doing the 25th in the fall. But we decided against it. Who knows if there's even gonna be a fall around here. Some giant meteorite might come crashing [laughs]. George Bush might still be in Iraq. If it's the 25th year, you have to do it—you can't not do the 25th. That's why it's being done this year. But who knows the fate from here? The festival is an enterprise that I hope survives, and I think it should. I just don't know if I'm gonna be around to see that it does. This [festival] just takes a lot of wear and tear on your soul. Everyone says, "Think positive, think positive."
CP: What happens when you think positive?
Milgrom: What makes me feel good is when we make contact with an audience. On Sunday morning, we managed to get some flyers on our Norwegian films out to the Easter breakfast crowd. They said, "Oh, Norwegian movies!" What's irritating is that we never get this PR out enough in advance so that people can make plans. What you want to do is have a smooth ship, so you can take care of all the little things that can screw you up. See, now I'm getting back to the negatives: money, staff, time, energy, passion, all of it is scarce. This work needs to be a mission, not just a job. They say, "Think positive." Positive is basically when the audience likes the movie—if they feel good, if they're glad they saw it.
CP: In those terms, what's the best feedback you ever had? Maybe a full house sometime, and you showed a movie that you loved, people came up to you and gave thanks in a meaningful way?
Milgrom: Yeah, but even then...I don't know. For me, it's a question of professionalism. You have to do what you have to do, do it right, the product pays off and does what it was intended to do. And then you get on with your life. I've got other projects I need to work on. I've got documentaries to finish. I've got a lot of reading to catch up on [laughs]. I want to go back and visit friends I knew. I've got negatives to print.