How San Francisco’s Film Society Built a Powerful Financial Support System For Bay Area Filmmaking

San Francisco's film society doesn't just give filmmakers money. It gives them room to work.
San Francisco Film Society's FilmHouse
San Francisco Film Society's FilmHouse
Erin Lubin

Over the last seven years, The San Francisco Film Society (now known simply at SFFILM) has become one the largest nonprofit supporters of independent and documentary film having doled out over $800,000 to individual films in 2016. With targeted and flexible filmmaking grants the SFFilm Maker program has been able to give individual films a significant financial boost when they need it most – ranging from before the script is written all the way to the sound mix.

READ MORE: San Francisco’s Master Plan to Keep Film Relevant In the 21st Century — SF International Film Festival

Having played a critical role in successful films like “Short Term 12,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Fruitvale Station” getting made, SFFS’s support has also come to signal to the rest of the film world that a project is worth tracking.

However, the film society’s mission goes beyond being a key cog in the nonprofit financial support system that American independent film has become dependent upon for survival. A vital part of its goal is to help build a vibrant independent film community in the Bay Area.

"Fruitvale Station"
“Fruitvale Station”

“San Francisco is a very expensive place to live and the idea is to be a place that offers the elements of sustainability for being a filmmaker,” said Caroline von Kühn, the Director of SFFilm Maker. “Making sure that [the] culture and history of the city isn’t lost in all this new technology and new sources of income that are coming in is [an important] part of our role.”

Yet for SFFILM, the same economic forces that make it hard for independent artists to afford to live in the Bay Area are seen as a resources to support their work. “There’s an enormous amount of wealth in the Bay Area, and a lot of it is culturally curious,” said Noah Cowan, SFFilm Society Executive Director. “Part of what we see our role as here as a kind of matchmaker, but a matchmaker with a mission.”

That means serving as a conduit to financial and professional resources in the the Bay Area, focusing on filmmakers who instill what Cowan refers to as “Bay Area values.”

“On the filmmaker side, we talk about Bay Area values loosely, but there are specific elements to it,” said Cowan. “Science and technology obviously being a big part of that, but also the history of activism and social justice that has been a big part of the history of our region, and just the general curiosity about the world that we live in.”

SFFILM has been able to connect SFFilm Makers with companies, investors, and collaborators over the year, but the core of it stems from three Bay Area companies: Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Pixar and Dolby. Whether it’s connecting Benh Zeitlin with ILM to make affordable creatures in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” or supporting Ryan Coogler with a first class sound mix at the Skywalker Ranch prior his Sundance breakout premiere, SFFILM has positioned itself to be the connective tissue between filmmakers and the companies and wealthy individuals invested in the maintaining the region’s progressive film roots.

"Beasts of the Souther Wild"
“Beasts of the Souther Wild”

At the nexus of these efforts is FilmHouse, a flexible-use space on the border of the Chinatown and Italian North Beach districts that serves as the physical space to bring filmmakers together with the city’s resources, while also housing 30 residents who utilize the space to write, produce and edit their films. The goal is not only to provide a quiet oasis for filmmakers to develop their projects, but to be a place where SFFILM can nurture these projects.

“We like funding from the earlier stage. We don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of films that already have all this industry support and we’re simply a feather in the cap,” said von Kühn. “That’s why we invest so much [via financial grants] in the screenwriting phase and the development phase.”

READ MORE: Benh Zeitlin May Finally Be Shooting His Follow-Up to ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ in the Caribbean

In addition to looking for promising film, von Kühn said a big part of the grant decision-making process is finding artists and projects that are open to and can most benefit from the resources SFFILM has to offer.  This is why for grantees living outside the Bay Area are required to spend two of the six months of the granting phase at the FilmHouse.

“There should be a significant shift for the project by coming through here as opposed to just being another grant,” said von Kühn.

SFFS FilmHouse
SFFS FilmHouseErin Lubin

Cowan concurred, pointing to SFFS’s tradition of creating an environment at FilmHouse that encourages peer review, where filmmakers have a community outside their office doors that can supply trusted and instant feed back. “I think that there’s a benefit to this more boutique approach to filmmaker support that we offer,” said Cowan.

One of those filmmakers who took advantage of this was von Kühn herself. Before coming to work at SFFILM, she was the producer of “The Fixer,” which received five different SFFS Grants (Screenwriting, Packaging, Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production for a total of $208,000 of support). The film society, which prides itself on supporting creative producers, gave von Kühn the space and funding to step away from her life in New York and Maine (von Kühn was a founder of the Points North Institute, and worked for the Camden International Film Festival) to focus on the film.

“[What] I found most invaluable when I came to this program wasn’t just a production grant that allowed me to afford my movie, but actually gave me the gift of time that you can’t afford as an indie filmmaker,” said von Kühn. While at FilmHouse, she was also introduced to SFFILM board members who individually invested in the film.

SFFS FilmHouse
SFFS FilmHouseErin Lubin

Having experienced firsthand the help that SFFILM can provide, she joined the staff in November to help guide filmmakers into getting the most out of the local community. One of the key changes that will be happening under her leadership come November is that the program will shift more toward a mentor-based program by formally bringing into FilmHouse top-tier field producers, screenwriters, editors, lawyers and other industry experts to help guide projects.

“We as an institution can offer feedback on rough cuts based on our experience, but the idea is to bring in really qualified industry leaders to be the ones to give creative advice and really build an unofficial executive producer suite to support the filmmakers,” said von Kühn. “[This will] allow us also as an organization to take risks on voices that aren’t defined yet, or sort of emerging voices, but giving them infrastructure and support to set them up for the best kind of success for their first or second films.”

READ MORE: How ‘Patti Cake$’ Director Geremy Jasper Went from Indie Rocker to Breakout Filmmaker — Sundance 2017

Below are the  SFFS Maker backed projects playing at the SFFILM Festival 2017.

The SF International Film FestivalSFFILM

“Bill Nye: Science Guy” (David Alvarado, Jason Sussberg, USA)
SF Film Society FilmHouse Resident during its development.

“Discreet” (Travis Mathews, USA)
Mathews was a SF Film Society FilmHouse Resident during the film’s development.

“Dolores” (Peter Bratt, USA)
2016 SF Film Society Documentary Film Fund winner for postproduction

“The Force” (Peter Nicks, USA)
2015 SF Film Society Documentary Film Fund winner for postproduction

“Patti Cake$” (Geremy Jasper, USA)
Spring 2014 SF Film Society / KRF Filmmaking Grant winner for packaging

“Walking Out” (Alex Smith, Andrew Smith, USA)
Andrew Smith is a current SF Film Society FilmHouse Resident Fall 2016 SF Film Society / KRF Filmmaking Grant winner for postproduction

patti cakes sundance
“Patti Cake$”Sundance


“American Paradise” (Joe Talbot, USA)
Joe Talbot is a current SF Film Society FilmHouse Resident Fall 2016 SF Film Society/KRF Filmmaking Grant for packaging of the feature film expansion of “American Paradise.”

“The Boombox Collection: Zion I” (Mohammad Gorjestani, USA)
Mohammad Gorjestani was a SF Film Society FilmHouse Resident during the development of this film.

“Gut Hack” (Mario Furloni, Kate McLean, USA)
Mario Furloni and Kate McLean were SF Film Society FilmHouse Residents during the development of this film.

“Happy Birthday Mario Woods” (Mohammad Gorjestani, USA)
Mohammad Gorjestani was a SF Film Society FilmHouse Resident during the development of this film.

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