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How Do You Find Distribution at a Film Festival? San Francisco’s New Launch Section Provides An Original Opportunity

The 60th edition of the SF International Film Festival will single out five new films without U.S. distribution and connect them with potential buyers.

“Leaning into the Wind – Andy Goldsworthy”


In 2002, director Thomas Riedelsheimer premiered his documentary “River and Tides – Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time” at the San Francisco International Film Festival. At the time, its future was uncertain: Unlike Sundance, San Francisco wasn’t an active marketplace for movies in search of U.S. distribution. Nevertheless, the movie won a top prize at the festival and began its theatrical life at the Roxie that year before gradually finding an audience nationwide. When it opened in Chicago in early 2003, Roger Ebert gave it four stars, noting its Bay Area origin story and a history of “finding its audience not so much through word of mouth as through hand on elbow, as friends steered friends into the theater.”

Now, Riedelsheimer is returning to San Francisco with a sequel to “Rivers and Tides” called “Leaning Into the Wind,” which updates viewers on the progress of British artist Goldsworthy, and the movie has even an greater shot at finding success at the festival. Riedelsheimer is one of several filmmakers taking part in a new initiative to streamline a path to success that he had previously experienced by happenstance.

Launch, a new section in the SF International Film Festival that kicks off April 5, features the world premieres of five movies selected with the specific intention of helping them find distribution. The festival has worked closely with sales agents and distributors attending the festival to ensure that the films receive proper exposure as they screen for the first time to a Bay Area audience. “In 2002, I had no clue about how wonderfully the audience would react,” Riedelsheimer told IndieWire. “I owe a lot of this city and its great people.”

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The festival, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to formalize a roadmap for success that had assembled in a more organic fashion. Many of the movies in the Launch section have received grants from the San Francisco Film Society — now known as SF Film — before finding acclaim at other festivals, including “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Fruitvale Station.”

With Launch, the organization is providing one more step in the process. “It just seemed that if we’re making an investment in these films from day one, that we should be following that through further than writing the check and hearing enthusiasm from the sidelines,” said SF Film director of programming Rachel Rosen. “The ideal for us is that these films get their best possible premieres. We want people to see all five of these screenings in the theaters while they’re here.”

Rosen and SF Film executive director Noah Cowan worked closely with filmmakers to determine expectations for the films in the Launch section, facilitating communication with sales and distribution figures that seemed like the appropriate fits. “The global distribution market has become highly specific and complex in terms of how relationships operate between filmmakers and distributors,” Cowan said. “So we really wanted to respond to the desires of the filmmakers.”

Other films programmed in the Launch section include “The Cage Fighter,” Jeff Unay’s cinema verite portrait of mixed martial arts fighter Joe Carman, and “People You May Know,” a comedy about a luddite forced onto social media that features performances by “Mr. Robot” star Carly Chaikin and Usher. (Yes, Usher.)

“The Cage Fighter”

In short, it’s a broad range of audience-friendly fiction and documentary titles ideally suited to a variety of distributor needs. That’s especially notable at this fragmented moment in the distribution landscape, when heavy-hitters like Netflix promise bigger paydays but potentially less exposure than smaller entities, and filmmakers are often uncertain where they fit in. “Having seen all the films, we think they all have a shot to do something from medium-sized theatrical releases to getting on streaming services worldwide,” Cowan said. “We see this as being a program where we can actually take the time and care to ensure that these films are brought up into the world to the best of all our abilities.”

Among the more topical entries is “Muhi — Generally Temporary,” which deals with the plight of a sick Palestinian toddler trapped with his family in immigration limbo when he winds up in an Israeli hospital. For directors Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander and Tamir Elterman, screening the film at Launch will allow a platform “to facilitate us, together with our sales company Preferred Content, to give a stage to Muni’s story and reach a broad audience.”

The festival environment will also enhance the prospects for Launch films to gain exposure with the industry. Rosen added that the screenings would take place at the same time as SF Film’s Creativity Summit, a non-public event for industry attendees to interact with each other — and potentially discuss some deals. “The distribution world is hard to put your finger on at any given moment,” she said. ‘We see these films as having value to audiences beyond San Francisco, and hope buyers feel the same way.”

The full list of Launch titles are below. The 60th SF International Film Festival runs April 5 – 19.

“The Cage Fighter” (Jeff Unay, USA, 82 min) – World Premiere
With the emotional force and power of a Bruce Springsteen song, Jeff Unay’s cinema vérité portrait of Joe Carman packs an emotional wallop. A family man who has promised not to return to competitive mixed martial arts fighting, the dangerous sport that gives him the most complete sense of purpose he’s been able to find, Joe risks everything for one more chance in the ring.

“The House of Tomorrow” (Peter Livolsi, USA, 100 min) – World Premiere
When a sheltered teen named Sebastian meets an aspiring punk rocker and falls for the boy’s older sister, the stage is set for a cheerful and energetic comedy that tackles matters of friendship, young love, and musical dreams with equal aplomb. Ellen Burstyn is once again wondrous as Sebastian’s grandmother who is devoted to the life and scientific work of Buckminster Fuller.

“Leaning into the Wind – Andy Goldsworthy” (Thomas Riedelsheimer, UK, 92 min) – World Premiere
Thomas Riedelsheimer’s landmark “Rivers and Tides” (Festival 2002) inventively documented artist Andy Goldsworthy as he created his wondrously ephemeral site-specific sculptures, spun from nature. Fifteen years later, Goldsworthy is still appealingly engaged in his philosophical and tactical exploration of the natural world. “Leaning Into the Wind” is a collaborative sequel-a visual and aural sensation that takes viewers into the hillsides, terrains, and other outdoor spaces where Goldsworthy feels most at home and inspired.

“Muhi – Generally Temporary” (Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander and Tamir Elterman, Israel/Germany, 87 min) – World Premiere
Muhi, a cherubic Palestinian toddler with a life-threatening immune disorder, was transported to an Israeli hospital as a baby for emergency treatment. He and his devoted grandfather have lived there ever since, stuck in a bizarre no man’s land, with their extended family living on the other side of a fiercely guarded checkpoint. Their unique and moving story takes place within the crucible of the current relentless Israeli-Palestinian conflict that impacts everyone in its orbit.

“People You May Know” (Sherwin Shilati, USA, 91 min) – World Premiere
Jed is a work-from-home photo editor who has never been on social media until he meets a young woman who approaches him with an experiment: allow her to brand him and make him into someone that everyone wants to know. In Sherwin Shilati’s timely debut drama, Twitter wars, Instagram hashtags, and viral photos become ways to connect, but Jed’s past and his life online eventually have to catch up to one another.

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