So why did indie producer Ted Hope take this dramatic turn in his career, moving from New York to San Francisco to take the executive director reins at the San Francisco Film Society? Well, first, Hope denies that he’s ditching indie film production. He’s simply reversing the order of the two things that matter most to him: making indie films and fighting for their future.
“First and foremost, I see this as an extension of what I’ve been doing: producing,” Hope says. “My trajectory has been over the last five years to attempt to build a better mousetrap for indie film. Curating at the Film Society at Lincoln Center is producing. Building apps is producing. Blogging and all that is producing. This opportunity allows me to flip building an indie infrastructure as my priority and producing as a hobby. By no means will I give up the projects I’ve nurtured. I’m in the process of finding partners on all my projects. I won’t be able to do the hands-on day-to-day work. You’ll continue to see my blogging and social media presence.”
Hope sees his new role at SFSS as a missionary calling. “When asked,” he says, “How could I not serve?” A few years ago, Hope says, before Graham Leggat, the SFSS was just its annual film festival. But Leggat built it into something more that Hope wants to build on, reaching out to the Bay Area film community and Silicon Valley. Also, Massachusetts-born Hope says that New York isn’t the same place he moved to in 1982 from Portland, Oregon, where he had done research for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group.
And Hope admits that while his earnings from producing films has declined steadily over the past five years, his salary at the SFFS “is consistent with that income drop.” That said, Hope was never in it for the money and was happy to profit handsomely from his avocation during the good years.
Hope has championed the work of such directors as Todd Solondz, Michel Gondry, Nicole Holocener and Ang Lee, among others. His goal was always ambitious: “To make a movie that couldn’t be ignored, that would have cultural influence.” What happened since the economic crash of 2008? “Very few people had the privilege to do that,” he says. Those movies became impossibly difficult to make. “No systems supported it,” he says. There were no more overhead deals to allow him to dream large, to cushion the flops. “There’s an abundance of good movies,” he says. “But the great movies don’t get made.”
So Hope tried to adapt to the new market, find new models. He dropped his budgets, to under $7 million, under $5 million, under $3 million. But producing these movies became harder still. Hope learned more than ever about the vagaries of indie distribution today by digging into the nuts and bolts of releasing Solondz’s “Dark Horse” this year, and is pushing Sean Baker’s microbudget SXSW debut “Starlet” into the market this winter. His “Prince of Broadway,” made for $20,000, spurred Hope to start his unseen indie screening series three years ago.
Hope wanted to “stay consistent, to keep asking that question, ‘how do we keep reaching?’ I always wanted more.” He has railed in these pages and others across the web that there has to be a better way to make it possible for excellent movies to get made, to build an independent film structure and culture that works again. He’s hoping that San Francisco is the crucible for this change: “The future doesn’t come from Hollywood and New York. It’s Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. I want to be at the center of that culture, that defines itself by innovation, wants to try new things and not live through risk mitigation, that wants to dream big. Everything that once represented the indie film community is out there now.”
So when the SFFS approached him, Hope listened. He believes that the board at SFFS will support his push for change, as it has doled out $1 million a year in artist grants to back such films as “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” “I deeply believe that the system can be built,” says Hope, “that allows artists and investors to make sustainable movies that connect.”