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How Can the Nation’s Oldest Film Festival Survive? With New Leadership, San Francisco Looks to the Future

How Can the Nation’s Oldest Film Festival Survive? With New Leadership, San Francisco Looks to the Future

The San Francisco International Film Festival, the nation’s oldest film festival, is flexing its funding muscles. For its 57th edition, which begins tonight, the SFF is harvesting what its new executive director Noah Cowan calls a bumper crop of seven films made with funds from the San Francisco Film Society, which operates an ambitiously discerning but little-known film-funding program — surprisingly unknown, in fact, to cash-sniffing filmmakers.

Noah Cowan, 46, a veteran of the Toronto International Film Festival, and more recently the Bell Lightbox, talks as if the institution has put recent crises behind it – deaths of two of its directors (Graham Leggat and Bingham Ray), and the passing last year of the dedicated and much-loved philanthropist George Gund —  “a rock,” said the critic and San Francisco resident David Thomson, who will receive the festival’s Mel Novikoff Award. (Novikoff, an art and repertory exhibitor in San Francisco, was also the record executive who discouraged folksinger Oscar Isaac from a solo career in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”)

Cowan won’t take credit for the programming in 2014, with 168 films, 74 narrative features and 29 doc features. “I walk in here with a 90 percent complete program of what I consider to be the most interesting films of the year,” he said, deferring to Rachel Rosen, SFIFF’s programming director. “In my perspective, I don’t see an issue in terms of how we’re executing programs.”

That “issue,” comes in response to concerns about whether the festival is on steady ground, after the losses of Leggat, Ray and Gund, which Rosen and others described as “tumultuous.” Indie producer Ted Hope, Cowan’s predecessor, departed in October after one year on the job for Fandor. (Hope did not return phone calls seeking comment, but previously spoke with Indiewire about the move.)

But Cowan, the festival’s administrative and artistic head, asserted that the financial footing is secure. Here are some of the factors he singled out as guarantees of the institution’s future.

San Francisco on the World Stage

Asked about the strengths of the 2014 program, he cited “Manos Sucias,” the new Colombian thriller by Josef Wladyka that tracks two impoverished black fishermen on a drug delivery up the Pacific Coast. Co-produced by Spike Lee, and first shown in the U.S. last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, the low-budget genre travelogue (shot mostly in a boat) points to the kind of international cinema that Cowan wants to show, and to the international film community that he wants SFIFF to nurture.

“These are filmmakers who have trained in the United States, who are sustained by a Bay Area filmmaking community – and a Brooklyn one,” Cowan said. “They’ve tapped into resources that are very much looking globally, and we are very much included in that. We see the confinement of the U.S. borders these days as being irrelevant as to where interesting films are being made.”

That development, he added, was key to the festival’s future. “These groups of producers are really helping us look at our global reach, and our potential global impact,” he said. “There’s a hunger for global connection coming out of San Francisco, but on its own terms. Every day I feel like I’m encountering another filmmaker, writer, artist who’s looking to Europe, Asia, India, Australia, wherever.”

Fostering the Local Community

Asked about local talent, Cowan turned his attention back to films that will show this week. Seven of those were made with funds from Filmmaker360, an arm of the San Francisco Film Society, the festival’s parent organization: “Manos Sucias,” “Hellion” (Kat Candler, Sundance 2014), “Ping Pong Summer” (Michael Tully, Sundance 2014), “Little Accidents” (Sarah Colangelo, Sundance 2014), “Obvious Child” (Gillian Robespierre, Sundance 2014) and the docs “The Overnighters” (Jesse Moss, Sundance 2014) and “The Last Season” (Sara Dosa, a world premiere).

Dosa’s film, set among 200 mostly Southeast Asian migrant workers hunting the elusive matsutake mushroom in lush Oregon forests, looks at the connection between two former soldiers – an American veteran and a slave laborer under the Khmer Rouge.  

Cowan noted that the mix was eclectic. “There’s something about the Bay Area that makes people and institutions unafraid to experiment,” he said.

The projects were also years in the making, said Michele Turnure-Salleo, director of Filmmaker360, the ensemble of different funds from SFFS that account for some $800,000 a year.  The funding thrust dates from SFFS’s merger with the Film Arts Foundation in 2008. The largest chunk of that support comes from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, created by the family of a Bay Area entrepreneur.  

“There’s a great thrill about finding a person and helping them at a point where they really need a lot of help,” said Turnure-Salleo, an Australian who has been at her job since 2008. “We do tend to be drawn to these projects that are incredibly ambitious.” 

Among those ambitions that became films are “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Fruitvale Station” — an enviable record so far. 

Most of the SFFS-supported films at the festival this year, she acknowledged, premiered elsewhere (as did “Beasts” and “Fruitvale”). Yet she stressed that the goal behind them was more than an SFIFF-first quid pro quo or a commercial return for the films.

“I would encourage people to think in an open minded fashion about what success means,” she said, noting that producers and cinematographers on Filmmaker360’s earlier projects were finding their way back to new films supported by the program. “Now that we’re five years into this process, that is actually happening,” she said.  

Asked whether those funds, provided on an annual basis rather than through an endowment, will be there at that level for Filmmaker360 five years from now, Turnure-Salleo responded confidently, “Oh, yes – maybe more.”

Who Needs to Be First?

The scheduling of Tribeca right before SFIFF makes it inevitable that films playing at both festivals will get a jump on SFIFF. “Manos Sucias,” Cowan admits, premiered at Tribeca (as did the Grateful Dead doc, “The Other One,” featuring Bob Weir, and the SFIFF closer “Alex of Venice,” by Chris Messina). Premiere envy points to a problem that Cowan hopes to address – not by a more aggressive pursuit of premieres, but by aiming the annual event past the glitter.

“I don’t really believe that red-carpet-driven and sales-driven festivals are the future of our media,” he said. “The ones that exist are great, and they’re serving a useful function. But we need to find a way of engaging audiences in film.”

For Cowan, the celebrity and industry aspects of festivals are more of a hindrance. “Both of those tendencies in film festivals serve to alienate audiences from the intimate experience of watching a movie,” he said. “We’re working really hard to figure out different structures, different methods of how you might bring a communal festive flavor back to a major urban film festival.”

He recalled the early days of his previous employer as a model for moving forward. “I was there for the rise of Toronto, which at that time was called the Festival of Festivals,” he said, “which probably de-emphasized premieres more than any film festival in the world.  Those were precisely the years when it grew exponentially. So, go figure.”

The modern film festival, he added, needs some rethinking. “We’ve got to stop thinking along the lines of red carpets and premieres, and millions of dollars and what Harvey ate for breakfast,” he said. “It’s just not helping right now.”

Live Events Will Save the Day

What could be helping is one of SFIFF’s proven assets, its film/performance events. A highlight this week is Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, led by the singer, prison reform activist and filmmaker Thao Nguyen. On April 28, the band will plays its own scores to “The Pawn Shop” by Charlie Chaplin, Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s “The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra,” animation by Harry Smith and classic newsreels.   

On May 6, Stephin Merritt presents (and performs with Magnetic Fields) his score to the Todd Browning’s 1927 horror classic, “The Unknown,” which features a young Joan Crawford and Lon Chaney, playing an seemingly armless character who possesses secret hands that he uses to strangle his victims.  

“These will be packed, and they’ll be packed by the denizens of this city – the young,” said Cowan. “You walk on the streets here, and you see that it’s clearly the youngest major city in America.”

From the city that brought you the Grateful Dead (also on the program), live music to silent films can fuel nostalgia, and stoke the energies of collective spontaneity that aren’t accessed remotely on VOD or a smart phone. “It brings the movies to life when it’s done well. Where there is a live element, it just amplifies that community experience,” said Rachel Rosen. “There’s the air of possibility — anything can happen and the audience is sharing that uncertainty.”

That’s no small accomplishment in San Francisco, a city where three long-standing cinemas were closed and converted into gyms recently.

Honorees at SFIFF this year, besides David Thomson, include Richard Linklater (Founder’s Directing Award), Isaac Julien (Persistence of Vision Award), Pixar’s John Lasseter (George Gund Craft of Cinema Award), Stephen Gaghan (Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting), and Jeremy Irons (Peter J. Owens Award for excellence in acting).

Thomson, who lives a ten-minute walk from the Kabuki Theater where awards will be presented, sees this year as crucial for SFIFF, given recent setbacks. “Stability is really called for, and it’s important that they have a good festival this year,” he said, “for the festival, and for their outstanding support for filmmakers, which is a big part of their future.”

Next Steps

The long view? Among the post-festival projects, Cowan said, is a collaboration with the tech sector “as it goes about re-inventing film for the next couple of decades” – logical for the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, but still more a dream than a working relationship.

“Right now, a few Hollywood players are part of that conversation, but there is no one in the art film sector even knocking at the door there,” Cowan said.  “Anything we can do to create excitement, interest and engagement with the behemoths of contemporary culture – and, by the way they don’t just write code, they’re actually changing our culture every day – is going to be for the better.”

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