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Ted Hope Talks Exit from San Francisco Film Society, Schamus, and Indie Film’s Future

Ted Hope Talks Exit from San Francisco Film Society, Schamus, and Indie Film's Future

What does it take to run a major film society and festival?

It’s about fund-raising, funding and keeping boards, donors and patrons happy, as much as putting a face on a festival and doing good Q & As. New York producer Ted Hope gave it a shot for a year at the San Francisco Film Society, which announced today that the Executive Director since August 2012 will step down at the end of the year.  

Hope is more fast-moving whip-smart entrepreneur than arts administrator. He believed that he could move the needle farther at the well-funded 57-year-old organization than he could. The SFFS was seeking to find a replacement for Bingham Ray, who had died shortly after taking the executive director job, and liked what they were hearing from Hope, a veteran indie film producer with a zeal for moving the independent film community toward new digital models. 

“We got a lot done,” he tells me on the phone. “I’m super-pleased with where we are this year. We raised a lot of money. I talked about the need for entrepreneurial training for filmmakers, and within six months we launched the new Artists to Entrepreneur A2E program at the festival, which looks to be able to grow. As non-profits go the Film Society is an innovative and flexible program. The Film Society has a history of doing things well with the team that got them here. They are very stable.”

“But yeah, I produced 70 films in 24 years. That’s the speed I’m used to. I’m an independent producer and entrepreneur. That’s my mindset. 70 films might be 70 new startups, stories, people, and crews.”

He sees the departure of his ex-Focus Features partner James Schamus as part of an overall industry shift. “When James, David and I sold Good Machine to Barry Diller, who flipped it to Universal, the hope was to have a self-sustaining autonomous company model. As far as I can tell James did an incredible job, was profitable every year with unique films. But that’s not where the industry is. Universal is NBC, a massive corporate enterprise where you have to not just get on base consistently but drive home runs.”

The new nurturing driver for independent movies is no longer the studio subsidiaries but the non-profit independent organizations, from the SFFS and Sundance Institute to Film Independent, the IFP and SXSW. “As the film culture moves away from this mass market,” Hope says, “to targeting niche audiences, it’s going to be SFFS and Sundance that make sure that the handcrafted gem– the indie projects like “Fruitvale Station” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” –get out there and get seen, now more than ever.”

Look at last year’s Oscars: “Every single director except Spielberg came out of the indies,” says Hope. “Every single one got their start working out of indie film. That’s going to be the same this year again. But the companies that made those films barely exist.”

2012 was the start of the transition, he says, with “Beasts” getting nominated for Best Picture and Director: “That film was nurtured through non-profit workshops in San Francisco, Cinereach in New York and Sundance in Park City. Those organizations came together to nurture one of the most unique and original films ever made.”

The same groups united again the next year to back Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” via the non profit sector. The SFFS helped to fund 25% of its budget. That’s the model Hope sees that will nurture “the future of ambitious film culture. The films that dared take the risk to reach higher were real life stories that came from the nonprofit world.”

Hope and his wife Vanessa fell in love with San Francisco, and are adopting the area as their filmmaking home base. But Hope will produce movies in a different way: “I’m not looking to maintain the output I did before. I’ll work on fewer movies. Philip Kaufman is one of my idols. I want to make handcrafted jewels that reflect an artisanal commitment that is the Bay Area. Working as an New York indie producer you get fixated on quality, but you have to have so many movies going just to get two or three movies made. That model is not healthy. I don’t look to have independent film as my consistent income. I look for it to be the deep pleasure that it’s been, as I get to do something I love dearly. Luckily I’m a good gambler at the race track.”  

What does San Francisco need now? Hope will continue at the SFFS until December 31, working with the staff and board to facilitate a smooth transition; he will join the SFFS Advisory Board. Hope admits that the SFFS needs less of a free-wheeling visionary like him and more of an experienced arts administrator: “I think we will find somebody who has a deep understanding and commitment to exhibition, filmmaker services, and education. Somebody who recognizes the strength of the strong team in place. What will benefit the organization is someone coming from a cultural management organization. Someone like Keri Putnam [Sundance] and Joana Vicente [IFP]; their work inspired me.”

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