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August 19, 2008 8:00 AM
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Bay Area Blockbuster: SF Film Society Plans Expansion as Film Arts Foundation Closes Its Doors

Logos for the San Francisco Film Society and the Film Arts Foundation.

In a seismic shift within the Bay Area film community, the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), which organizes the annual San Francisco International Film Fesival -- the oldest fest in the United States -- today unveiled a major expansion in the wake of the simultaneous announcement of the closure of the city's 32 year old Film Arts Foundation. The latest non-profit film organization to face fatal financial challenges, Film Arts recently sold its interest in the local 9th Street building it shared with a number of festivals and arts organizations, paying down its debts in the process and paving the way for a deal with the Film Society. "Film Arts Foundation has essentially gone under," SFFS executive director Graham Leggat explained to indieWIRE late Friday, previewing today's announcement. "We managed to catch the ball before it hit the ground."

Films Arts Demise Creates Bay Area Void

In adding a full roster of filmmaker services, including professional education, career development, membership services, fiscal sponsorship, grant-making and information resources, the San Francisco Film Society will hire core FAF staff members and, with the full suppport of the FAF board, work to maintain the late organization's key programs and relationships. With the exception of equipment rental, the Film Society intends to carry on all FAF activities, Leggat told indieWIRE, but he was also quick to clarify that the agreement is neither a merger or an acquisition. Instead SFFS is moving forward to carry on the legacy of Film Arts, rather than the name.

The move was approved by the boards of directors of both organizations, as they will explain in today's announcement. The 1,500 existing members of the Film Arts Foundation will become members of the San Francisco Film Society giving SFFS a total of 4,000 members. The organization will reach out to recently lapsed FAF members, hoping to grow its membership to about 5,000 by the end of the year.

"We were at risk of not being able to sustain these programs," FAF board president Steve Ramirez told indieWIRE on Monday night, explaining that conversations with the Film Society began back in the spring when FAF began to see the writing on the wall. "When AIVF ceased operations [in 2006] it was pretty abrupt, we were just really concerned about having these really vital services cease to exist [here as well]."

"It's great from a business point of view, a mission point of view and from a community point of view," Leggat explained. "It's almost like we knocked out the wall between two apartments and now we can have one big apartment that we can all stay in."

Tough Times Inspire New Programs, Partnerships

Today's announcement sets the stage for a number of new activities on tap for the San Francisco Film Society. Vowing more programming, more events, and the development of a new three-screen film center in the Presidio, SFFS is outlining a number of filmmaker initiatives.

In association with the San Francisco Film Commission, the Film Society will launch SFFS FilmHouse Residencies, offering free production office space for one to six months at a 2,800 square foot space at Pier 27 at the city's Embarcadero. Also on tap are the new Herbert Filmmaking Grants, offering support to the tune of $25,000 for Bay Area film projects. A call for entries will be announced in November. In addition, the new SFFS Filmmakers Advisory Board will work to support the group's service activities and the new SFFS Film Arts Forum will host a regular series of screening, conference and networking events that bring together Bay Area filmmakers and their work on a monthly basis.

With a background in filmmaker services while at arts organizations throughout the '90s and then work at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center in a key post more recently, Leggat noted that he brought a spirit of collaboration to the discussions with FAF.

"The Film Society and Film Arts are thought of as two radically different organizations," explained Graham Leggat, pondering the history of the two groups in the city. "One is seen as scrappy, oppositional, and political, the other is seen as an Ivory Tower that doesn't give a toss for flmmakers." Continuing, he noted that he joined SFFS in the wake of long-time leaders who in many ways shaped those perceptions of the San Francisco groups. Steve Ramirez agreed that such diplomacy and coalition building among groups is vital for indies today.

In announcing the expansion, the San Francisco Film Society emphasized the importance of providing fiscal sponsorship to filmmakers and supporting their work with grants, bolstering those projects with professional education and career development programs, serving members with access, networking, events, and information (including toolkit materials and more via SFFS's SF360.org website and a new bi-monthly magazine).

Singling out the recent comments by former Warner Independent chief Mark Gill, FAF board chair Steve Ramirez noted that this is indeed a dire time for indie film. "To this date, so much of the success of independent film has come from a sort of Haley's Comet-like, 'one in a milion chance' where the little film breaks out and does amazing things," Ramirez explained. "But clearly that is an extreme exception...Could we provide better support and infrastructure to filmmakers to show that success is not such a random thing?"

Festival and Organizational Alliances

Following in the footsteps of the move this year by the Tribeca Film Institute in acquiring Renew Media, a recent re-branding of the Atlanta Film Festival and its year-round programing via the Image Film and Video Center, and the growing bond between Film Independent and its annual Los Angeles Film Festival -- not to mention the dynamic relationship between the Sundance Institute and its annual Sundance Film Festival -- the San Francisco Film Society announcement underscores the importance of film festivals as anchor events for bigger film organizations.

"Film festivals are like nodes across this country. I think they can begin increasing their importance culturaly if they individually start to think about how they can do more within their cities," Graham Leggat reiterated. "We are not just a film festival, we are a year-round film exhibition program."

"If we can do [it] right, Leggat concluded, "And maintain and very quickly grow our programs and activities, we can create a really viable, energetic, dynamic organization, really making San Francisco that third filmmaking city."

"We have pure hearts. We absolutely believe that it's the right thing...we will prove it not through rhetoric but through activities, actual programs and events."

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