One of the nicer rites of spring is the return of MSPIFF — the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, if you’re not into the brevity thing. And just as the area around its home cinema St. Anthony Main has gone into gentrification overdrive, the venerable gala of global film has grown exponentially. MSPIFF, now in its 37th annual edition (three years older than Sundance), has become a big, economically successful festival of international films, reliably showcasing titles in April that become winter’s Oscar candidates.
The gleam of the theater’s marquee draws cinema fans to line up by the thousands daily. Some come for crowded, convivial group viewing experiences no home theater can equal. Others aim to sample the deep and diverse selection of films or to meet and greet filmmakers at the festival’s open-access parties.
This year’s festival — which kicks off Thursday and runs through April 28 — includes everything from features, documentaries, shorts and music videos, to experimental and animated films.
Helping pick the 250-some selections is something of a dream job for Craig Rice. Now in his sixth year as a senior programmer, Rice grew up in St. Paul and Minneapolis in a creative family that loved the power of art.
“We went to the symphony, the art museum, the library. Everybody played an instrument,” he said. “And film was part of the art form, so they believed in that,” bringing him to “heavy, emotional films like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ ” rather than standard kiddie fare.
Rice credits festival founder Al Milgrom as a mentor in the 1970s for importing films outside the Hollywood mainstream.
“Like it or not, we are part of the world, and we need to see works that are created all over,” Rice said. “He was showing us kids films by Truffaut and Godard and Sam Fuller.” Rice has followed that passion for “international, independent cinema” ever since.
Rice was assistant director on Prince’s film “Purple Rain,” road manager of the Purple Rain tour and co-producer of Prince’s third dramatic feature, “Graffiti Bridge.” He directed an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary about Gordon Parks, and worked as assistant director on the Minnesota-filmed Tim Allen comedy “Joe Somebody.” He served as executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board to invigorate the state’s film production.
Now MSPIFF gives Rice the opportunity to turn a year of sifting through film markets into two weeks of crowd-pleasing showmanship. In addition to showing films at St. Anthony Main and elsewhere, a whole week of screenings will be showcased at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis, where Prince gave his first professional performance in 1979.
Rice primarily focuses on Minnesota filmmakers “because that’s my passion,” and finds that there are too many producing high-quality work to include them all.
While the catalog of 157 features may seem daunting, the festival aims to be a manageable experience, according to Rice. The still-sizable schedule is “down from last year, because we want people to have more than just one opportunity to see films. I always felt terrible about wanting to see a film that had only been shown once, so we’ve expanded that.
“It’s a focused look at the whole international context,” he said, noting the works on display from Africa, China, the Middle East and by Native Americans. He values expanding the festival’s focus generationally, as well. Three years ago, Rice created a program for the festival titled the Next Wave, DIY shorts created for and by young people 14 to 18 years old, selected to be shown in the festival by peers in the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Teen Arts program.
“There’s a need to sort of fight the gray in any arts organization,” he said. “The barrier of entry to filmmaking is gone. The key is getting your film made and seen.”