Oestreich takes a hike

Some people make a fuss when they leave town: others just slip away.

20090911_lastryan.jpg Ryan Oestreich, who has been a pillar of what’s now known as the Film Society of Minnesota for the last four years, tried the latter approach, but we found him anyway.

He says leaving the Film Society was hard.

“We probably are in the best position we have been in in the last seven years,” he said this morning on the phone from Chicago.

Oestreich is heading via a roundabout route to Denver where his girlfriend is entering grad school.

The last few years have been pretty wild at what was once Minnesota Film Arts (and before that the U Film Society.) During Oestreich’s time there the organization went from presenting programs at two theaters, the Bell and the Oak Street, while mounting the annual Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival, to being an organization focused primarily on the Festival, to where it is now, doing repertory programming at St Anthony Main across from downtown, where it shares space with the regular multiplex fare. Then at Festival time in the early spring it takes over the entire complex.

“The film festival that just wrapped is now the biggest it’s ever been,” he said. “With over 200 feature films and 80 short films, and then you have year-round programming.”

Oestreich says 2011 could be shaping up to be a record year for number of movies shown, very different from four years ago when he first began working with founder Al Milgrom, where he admits things were “kind of stop and go.”

While he says its hard to point to one thing which changed everything, he says there is now a clearer direction to the organization and with the help of the board, and Executive Director Susan Smoluchowski’s grant-writing expertise, Oestreich says the Film Society is on firmer financial ground.

“The idea was, let’s raise more money with the film festival so that can influence the year round programming.” Oestreich said. “What happened was the members and the patrons noticed. So the membership doubled and is now is only increasing.”

He says a lot of people are discovering, or rediscovering, the Film Society.

“And suddenly you have the best outcome which is more films, more programming, more diversity,” he said.

For a long time what was then the MFA was locked in an internal struggle between factions who passionately believed the organization had to focus on the Festival, and those who just as passionately believed in repertory film year-round as the foundation. There were passionate meetings and ruffled feathers.

Oestreich says time has shown a need for both.

“The idea of bringing back repertory is coming along,” he said, pointing to recent programs where current releases are paired with similarly themed classics. But what had to happen first was, you sort of have to throw everything out of the house before you start rebuilding it.”

“Yeah, there was probably a concern on many people’s parts,” he admits. “But in time everything came back around, and is sort of getting back into a rhythm that I think people recognize.”

He believes the move to St Anthony Main also helped, giving a focus both to the festival and the programming the rest of the year. He says it is a product of the audience wanting a central location.

“It’s a place people want to go,” he said, pointing to the availability of restaurants, bars and even Segways nearby.

“It’s a very strong organization again, and so it’s hard to leave at this moment,” he said. “And the people that are there are extremely passionate about the mission.”

He said he recognizes his own passion for film in the staff he leaves behind and that makes make him feel he’s leaving the organization in good hands.

He’s hoping to latch onto something in film in Denver, but doesn’t have anything set up yet.

When I ask him if there is anything else we should talk about as he leaves town, he counters with the true cineaste statement: “I don’t know – have you seen anything good lately?”

Oestreich says he doesn’t know what the future will bring, but he’s not ruling out a return to the Twin Cities at some point.

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