The opening night screening of Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival Thursday kicked off the annual flagship event for what is quickly becoming one of the most innovative film organizations in the U.S.: the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS).
Led by Executive Director Noah Cowan, who left his post as Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox in 2014, SFFS has built a year-round film center offering fellowships, residency programs and cash grants to filmmakers by partnering with prominent local foundations and tech companies. Today, SFFS is the largest non-profit granting organization for feature films in the U.S., according to Cowan.
SFFS’ Filmmaker360 program partners with local organizations like Oakland’s Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which provides grants to help with both production and post-production services. The partnership helped the filmmakers behind 2012’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” work with VFX company Industrial Light and Magic to create and shoot the “beast” sequences in the film.
“It’s a different model than some of the other mentoring organizations because we stay very tight with filmmakers that we support and tend to continue our relationship with them until their formal entry into the distribution system,” Cowan said.
One of the benefits of being close to Silicon Valley is having the opportunity to build creative partnerships with innovative tech startups. Recently, SFFS began working with Fora.tv, a video production and live streaming company that lets SFFS members watch films from the festival for several weeks after the festival’s end. SFFS also collaborates with members of the tech community to help with social media marketing and publicity campaigns on behalf of its films.
“The social media boost that’s received from that is palpable, and frankly, measurable,” Cowan said, adding that SFFS has helped run Oscar campaigns for films like 2014’s “Selma” and companies including Pixar.
In addition to partnering directly with tech companies, SFFS is also engaging with the local tech community in more creative ways. At Thursday’s screening of “Love & Friendship,” for example, the festival reserved 200 seats for local female tech employees working at companies including Google and Facebook as a way to engage women in technology.
SFFS also runs a Doc Film Fund that helps provide financing for production and post production on documentaries like 2013’s “Cutie and the Boxer,” and operates a brick-and-mortar residency space called FilmHouse that offers free production office space for filmmakers working on narrative and documentary projects.
While running a film society in San Francisco can give people the impression you have all of the resources of Silicon Valley’s film-going community at your disposal, Cowan is quick to point out that it’s not that simple.
“People say, ‘Oh Mark Zuckerberg has all that money so I’m sure you get some,'” he said. “Well, no.”