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Why the San Francisco and New York Film Societies Seek New Leaders

Why the San Francisco and New York Film Societies Seek New Leaders

As the Film Society of Lincoln Center adjusts to the departure of executive director Rose Kuo after three and half years (her controversial predecessor Mara Manus lasted for just two), the film community is looking to fill a number of vacancies.

The skill-set that seems to be in short supply is that of gifted arts administrator and fundraiser. Luckily for The Film Society of Lincoln Center–which runs several lucrative fundraising galas as well as less surefire year-round theater programming and the well-attended annual New York Film Festival– two years ago Kuo brought in a new managing director, producer and documentary filmmaker Lesli Klainberg, 49, the former executive director of LBGT film festival NewFest, to handle the nuts and bolts of running this expanding New York non-profit. Now the FSLC board is turning to her as its interim director. 

When Kuo, 53, arrived at the FSLC she inherited its ambitious transition to art-house exhibitor with the installation of two new theaters, offices and a cafe costing $41 million at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on West 65th Street. The complex has just started to find its footing in 2013 with such first-run hits as “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Kill Your Darlings” (after sparse hits such as “Margin Call” and a money-hemorrhaging 2012) against Dan Talbot’s dominant powerhouse the Lincoln Plaza.

Kuo also supervised the replacement of New York Film Festival director Richard Pena, who retired after 25 years, installing programming veteran Kent Jones, who mounted a well-received festival this fall. Even Film Comment, a hidebound film journal which seemed cut off from much discourse in the film community with a tiny circulation, starting earning some income after years of red ink as Kuo’s import, digital strategist Eugene Hernandez, pulled the magazine and film society-related content onto an ad-supported website and launched a special print awards supplement packed with Oscar ads. 

But L.A. recruits Scott Foundas and Robert Koehler were among the critic/programmers who came and went under Kuo’s tenure, replaced by New York critic Dennis Lim. When Kuo and the financially anxious Film Society board met last weekend to discuss Kuo’s expiring contract, they could not find a way to move forward together. Kuo is ready to move on, back to California (where she and screenwriter husband Larry Gross never sold their Hollywood home). “The organization is now in a perfect place for me to make my own transition,” said Kuo in a statement; she is not talking to press.

The FLSC told the NYT that Kuo will consult during the transition, but she’s gone. And no one is looking for a successor.

While there’s speculation that recently departed Focus Features CEO James Schamus, Tribeca exec Geoffrey Gilmore and Toronto’s Bell Lightbox chief Noah Cowan, who has built an audience for year-round arthouse fare, could be strong imports for the FSLC, clearly as far as the Film Society board led by Dan Stern is concerned, they already have strong leaders in place. 

As Klainberg and Jones carry on, they may miss Kuo’s social skills and strong relationships with filmmakers and such Hollywood players as Scott Rudin. The organization is carefully reapportioning duties for the staff.

The likeliest scenario is that Kuo will return to greener pastures at the San Francisco Film Society, where she worked some years back and knows Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. Why? Greener is right. While the venerable institution has endured an agonizing management turnover (long-time director Graham Leggat succumbed to cancer, and his replacement Bingham Ray was felled by a stroke), they are still seeking the right fit as outgoing executive director producer Ted Hope, having learned first-hand what an arts administrator does–painstakingly raising funds and more funds, stroking patrons and recruiting new ones–is moving back into production (or is he?). 

A veteran indie film producer with a zeal for moving the independent film community toward new digital models, Hope proved to be 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. “We got a lot done,” he told me after he resigned. “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.”

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.”

San Francisco has built a stable organization–like the well-run Sundance Institute— that is able to dole out sizable grants to filmmakers. On the other hand, at Lincoln Center Kuo had hanging over her head not only the huge pressure to manage a financially strapped non-profit organization, but to book several art house cinemas in a cutthroat environment. She talked more like an exhibitor than an arts administrator. 

Meanwhile Brookline, Massachusetts’ beloved The Coolidge Corner and New York State’s Jacob Burns Center have also lost their leaders and are seeking replacements. It may be that in these tricky times for specialized film distribution, being in the exhibition business is the knife’s edge–especially in New York City.

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