Graham Leggat. Farewell, Pal.

Graham Leggat. Farewell, Pal.

The passing of Graham Leggat yesterday is not just a loss for his family, friends and the city of San Francisco. Graham’s death at the young age of 51 is a blow to the burgeoning art house cinema movement in this country.

You can’t sum up someone’s life in a blog post. But, does that mean you shouldn’t try to offer some insight?

“We’re interested in healthy film culture,” Graham told me simply last Spring during a conversation in the Bay Area. From his base in San Francisco, he was working with a dynamic team to support and engage communities of cinephiles with that clear goal. And their work has been inspiring others at film societies and organizations all around the country. It is some comfort to know that his impact will be felt for a long time and he has colleagues who will continue to carry out his vision.

I was serving as a juror at the San Francisco International Film Festival last May and prior to the extended on the record conversation for indieWIRE, Graham told me that he was battling cancer. We’d been friends dating back to when our professional paths first crossed in the mid 90s in New York, all the way through his work at the Museum of the Moving Image, MoMA, Gen Art, AIVF, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and ultimately at the San Francisco Film Society, including our collaboration on SF360.org.

Graham had this impeccable ability to instigate creativity, bring clarity to a situation and move people. He was an important advisor and collaborator for me and my colleagues over many years. His loss leaves a profound void.

“If we can figure out what our essence is, and we’re getting closer and closer to it, that’s going to be something that is meaningful for many people,” Graham related last year, sitting alongside colleague Rachel Rosen during our SF conversation. I’d asked him to reflect on the dramatic change he’d instigated at the San Francisco Film Society and he summed it up right off the bat as, “Having a daily impact on the community and cultural life of the city that you’re in.”

“I think what we do is a massive benefit for society,” Graham continued broadly. “I say sometimes that we think of ourselves as a machine for the creation of pleasure. We’re out there to give people pleasure. Discriminating taste is a vehicle for the delivery of pleasure. Good service is a vehicle for the delivery of pleasure. Warmth, compassion… We like people to have a good time in many, many different ways.”

The official announcement from SFFS today (the full press release is posted below) was a piece of news that so many of us have been dreading since the day just a few weeks ago when Graham resigned his post atop the San Francisco Film Society. The pain of Graham’s passing is not just the hurt of losing such a terrific guy, but realizing that he won’t be part of continuing to reap the harvest of his hard work.

“I’m sore that things have gone this way (towards mortality, that is) as I have so many things I still want to do at SFFS, but there it is,” Graham wrote to me in an email message last month. “I can’t do the job anymore…so I have no choice but to get out the way.” The following day we traded email again. “You know how much I love my work, have always loved what we do, and I’m sorry it has to end like this,” Graham told me. “Still the work will go on, [Film Society of Lincoln Center] and [San Francisco Film Society] will go on, and it will be glorious for all to behold (but for the inevitable dumb mistakes, that is).

There’s so much more to say, but I’ll leave it there and to conclude, I’ll just quote Graham:

“Thanks, pal.”

Press Release:

GRAHAM LEGGAT (1960–2011)

San Francisco, CA – Graham Leggat (b. March 12, 1960), executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, a national leader in exhibition, education and filmmaker services and presenter of the San Francisco International Film Festival, died at his San Francisco home on August 25, 2011, after an 18-month battle with cancer. He was 51.

“For nearly six exciting and transformative years, Graham Leggat led the San Francisco Film Society with irrepressible determination, dash and design,” said Pat McBaine, president of the Film Society’s board of directors. “His vision, leadership, passion, work ethic, tenacity, imagination and daring along with his colorful language and wicked Scottish sense of humor have indelibly marked our organization with a valuable legacy and left it in the best shape—artistically, organizationally and financially—in its 54-year history. Graham was fiercely proud and appreciative of his years at the Film Society and frequently referred to them as the best years of his life. It’s no accident or coincidence that those years have also been the best years in the life of the Film Society. Our board and staff are deeply saddened by the loss of our leader, colleague and friend but inspired by his example and memory to carry on his work and build on his accomplishments and vision.”

“Graham’s boundless energy and intellect made him just the person to inspire and excite the staff and board to reach new heights and develop our assets,” said Melanie Blum, former president of the Film Society board of directors, who organized the executive director search that led to Leggat’s appointment in 2005. She remembers writing to Graham that the Film Society was about to celebrate its 50th anniversary and was at a critical juncture in its history. It needed an enlightened leader who could grow the organization into a new and powerful year-round cultural institution. She found that leader in Leggat. “He was a true visionary and a wonderful friend.”

Leggat was appointed executive director of the Film Society October 15, 2005. He immediately architected a strategic plan that enhanced the Film Society’s reputation with both filmmakers and audiences, and produced remarkable results. In the five years that he was executive director the staff grew from 11 to 35. The board of directors nearly doubled, from 12 to 22. The operating budget expanded from $2 million to $6 million and was balanced each year. Contributed income increased from $1 million to $3 million. Membership rose 98 percent, ticket sales rose 62 percent and receipts for Film Society Awards Night, the organization’s largest annual fundraising event, rose 42 percent. The San Francisco Film Society was transformed from a two-week-a-year film festival producer into a year-round cultural institution with an increasingly national impact, providing programs and services in three areas of activity: exhibition, education and filmmaker services. An article in the San Francisco Examiner in October 2010 noted that the Film Society “has made a transformation worthy of an adventure movie.”

In exhibition, the International is the crown jewel and the longest-running festival in the Americas. In the past five years SFIFF has honored a plethora of illustrious guests including Kevin Brownlow, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Roger Ebert, Ed Harris, Werner Herzog, Spike Lee, Mike Leigh, Peter Morgan, Errol Morris, Walter Murch, Robert Redford, Walter Salles, James Schamus, Terence Stamp, Oliver Stone, Tilda Swinton, Christine Vachon, Elijah Wood, Evan Rachel Wood and Robin Williams.

Under Leggat’s leadership, the Film Society expanded year-round programming and now presents a robust Fall Season of seven focused festivals including Hong Kong Cinema, Taiwan Film Days, the NY/SF International Children’s Film Festival, French Cinema Now, Cinema by the Bay, the San Francisco International Animation Festival and New Italian Cinema.

Earlier this year, Leggat finalized a long–sought goal when the Film Society announced a historic lease-signing that will enable the organization to offer its acclaimed exhibition, education and filmmaker services programs and events on a daily year-round basis for the first time in the organization’s storied 54-year history. On September 1, San Francisco Film Society | New People Cinema will open its doors in the supremely stylish state-of-the art 143-seat theater located in the ultra-contemporary New People building at 1746 Post Street (Webster/Buchanan) in Japantown.

The Film Society now has a year-round education department that offers media literacy programs to over 10,000 K-12 students, college and university programs to help students transition into the professional filmmaking arena and more than 120 classes and workshops per year in film craft and film studies for filmmakers, filmgoers and cinephiles of all ages and skill levels.

Leggat spearheaded the signing of an agreement with Film Arts Foundation in 2008 that led to the creation of the Film Society’s Filmmaker Services, which offers a full suite of programs and activities designed to foster creativity and further the careers of independent filmmakers. Filmmaker Services oversees one of the largest film grant programs in the country and through 2013 will have dispersed more than $3.5 million to narrative and documentary filmmakers. In addition, through a partnership with the San Francisco Film Commission, production office space has been provided for dozens of local filmmakers, while several hundred more have benefited from a vibrant fiscal sponsorship program, which provides production and development assistance.

Leggat’s vision also encompassed publishing the nation’s only regional online daily film magazine, SF360.org, founded in 2006 in partnership with indieWIRE. The publication now features more than 1,000 pieces of original arts journalism and serves a broad audience of filmmakers, industry professionals and aficionados from around the world who visit the site, subscribe to the weekly newsletters and participate in the growing SF360 community. A variety of stories on Leggat will be appearing on the site in the coming days; reader thoughts and tributes can be posted in comments at SF360.org.

Graham Charles Alexander Leggat was born March 12, 1960 in Epsom, Surrey. Born of Scottish parents, he grew up in England and Scotland. His father Graham was a renowned international soccer player and later TV commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His mother Marilyn was a teacher and later a human resources executive at a financial company. Following the end of his father’s playing career in the mid-’70s, the family immigrated to Toronto, Canada, where Leggat attended high school, excelled at athletics and captained four high school teams (soccer, football, basketball and rugby).

Having discovered the Beat writers, and through them Zen Buddhism, Leggat decided to trek to Northern California for college. After a Beat-like cross-country bus ride, he started at Stanford University in 1979, “looking,” he said, “for enlightenment, but instead found preprofessional determination and high school–like anxiety, so dropped out, not once but twice.” The first time, after his sophomore year, he backpacked across Europe and picked oranges on Crete. A year later he dropped out again, moved to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and studied for three years to become a Buddhist priest before returning to Stanford where he edited the campus literary magazine, played varsity soccer, won the outstanding undergraduate in the creative arts award and graduated in 1987 with a BA in modern English, American literature and American studies. That fall Leggat enrolled in the master’s program at Syracuse University to study fiction writing with Tobias Wolff. He graduated in 1989 with an MA in English and creative writing.

After graduate school Leggat worked as a freelance journalist then landed his first film job working with Richard Herskowitz and Mary Fessenden at Cornell Cinema, one of the country’s best college film exhibition programs. The day that he walked into their office he knew, “that (he) had found (his) career, vocation and joy.” As coordinator for the Central New York Programmers Group he organized screenings and conferences, curated film packages and arranged for filmmakers to tour exhibition venues throughout upstate New York.

A temporary job at the New York Film Festival in 1994 drew him to New York City and led to executive positions at the American Museum of the Moving Image (director of public relations), the Museum of Modern Art (assistant director, department of communications) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (director of communications). Leggat served on the boards of Media Alliance and the Association of Independent Film and Videomakers, was a programmer at the New York Video Festival and the Shorts International Film Festival, and helped found the Gen Art Film Festival. He was the associate publisher of Film Comment magazine, contributing editor for Filmmaker magazine and columnist for the New York Daily News. His first novel, Song of a Dangerous Paradise, was published in January 2007; rare copies of this sci-fi adventure sell for nearly $200.

At the 2009 International Film Festival Summit, Leggat received the Director Excellence Award, presented to the film festival director who has made considerable contributions and a lasting impact on his/her film festival and independent film, with an emphasis on festival growth, new programs, organizational structure and overall vision.

In early 2011 the French consul general in San Francisco, Romain Serman, made Leggat a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an honor awarded by the French Minister of Culture, in recognition of his significant support of cinema. 

Leggat is survived by his parents Graham and Marilyn of Niagara Falls, Canada, son William and daughters Vhary and Isabelle, sister Alexandra Leggat of Toronto, devoted partner Diana Chiawen Lee, former wife Ellen Hughes, mother of his daughters and former wife Lillian Heard, mother of his son.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Leggat’s memory may be made to the San Francisco Film Society. Condolences should be sent to inmemoryofgraham@sffs.org or c/o Jessica Anthony, SFFS, 39 Mesa Street, Suite 110, The Presidio, San Francisco, CA 94129.

A memorial service, open to the public, is planned for late September.

Graham Leggat Favorites
Films: The Leopard, Blade Runner, Miller’s Crossing, The Tin Drum, The 400 Blows, Alien, Cold Water, Talk to Her, The Royal Tenenbaums, In the Mood for Love, 2046 and hundreds more.
Writer: Tobias Wolff
Musician: Tom Waits
Songs: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Get Me Away from Here I’m Dying,” “My Dad, I Fucking Love My Dad”
Karaoke songs to perform: Radiohead’s “Creep,” Sid Vicious’s “My Way” and the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”

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