In order to understand the evolution of the San Francisco Film Festival on the eve of its 60th anniversary, it helps to look at its name, because it’s no longer called that.
Now, it’s the SF International Film Festival, which is produced not by the San Francisco Film Society because the major nonprofit is now known simply as “SFFILM.” It’s an appropriately modern monicker for an institution nestled in the fast-paced technology circuit of the Bay Area, and chic enough to match the region’s progressive scene.
But that’s not the only way way in which SFFILM, which launches its 14-day festival this week, continues to stay relevant. “We’re sitting here in the Bay Area surrounded by an enormous amount of wealth that wants to be invested in media that matters,” said SFFILM executive director Noah Cowan. “We can really focus on who we are as a nonprofit, to be sure that great films are being made by a diverse group of filmmakers, and help get them out in the world.”
Growing Into the Present
Cowan inherited that lofty goal a little over three years ago in the midst of a rocky few years for the organization. The film society was briefly run by Bingham Ray before his untimely death in 2012, followed by a yearlong tenure by Ted Hope, now an executive at Amazon Studios. Today, SFFILM is healthier than ever, and the festival has more reasons to stand out on the calendar: Now taking place two weeks earlier, it no longer conflicts with the Tribeca Film Festival; additionally, it has added two new presentation venues — the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and SFMOMA — to help encompass a meaty program that includes 181 films, 200 filmmaker and industry guests, a handful of world premieres and five significant awards programs.
Highlights among this year’s events include a “Creativity Summer & State of Cinema Address” by Pixar’s Edwin Catmull, a rare tribute for legendary producer and Telluride founder Tom Luddy, and a closing night performance a new collage film produced by Guy Maddin and commissioned by the film society.
However, one of the most anticipated events involves a key figure behind the current drive to modernize SFFILM: William R. Hearst III, the grandson of “yellow journalism” legend William Randolph Hearst, will speak about the relevance of “Citizen Kane” to his family over the years after a screening of Orson Welles’ seminal 1940 film that was based loosely on the newspaper mogul’s life.
For years, the Hearst family has distanced itself from the project, but the current heir to the Hearst legacy has a special connection to the festival: He’s an influential member of the festival’s board of directors and has heavily invested in the festival over the years, including the development of a screenwriting grant in 2009 and a soon-to-launch streaming platform designed to showcase foreign film to a national audience. “He’s very eager to see us look to our history to guide our next 20 years,” Cowan said. “This guy is the definition of a media visionary. His family certainly understands it better than most. He really galvanized us in the step to think differently about film and how we might play a role beyond the Bay Area.”
The streaming service, SFFILM Screening Room, is a world apart from the arena of Netflix and Amazon. Instead, the curated platform is available to members of the organization and will feature more than 10 films from the lineup after their public screenings. Cowan and director of programming Rachel Rosen worked out non-exclusive deals with rights holders so as not to endanger other potential distribution deals for the films showcased on the platform. “It’s an organic outgrowth of what we do,” Rosen said. “It’s how we support these films we love so much. Success for us looks like audiences discovering a film at the festival and being able to share it with friends and family.”
For Cowan, “as a nonprofit organization, we see our role as filling gaps in cultural knowledge,” he said. “Dynamic streaming services that champions global filmmakers are essential to American culture thriving, and that’s just part of who we are. We’ve been championing foreign language films for 60 years, and won’t stop.”
A Supportive Community
Hearst is not the only influential figure with a longterm commitment to supporting the scene. Chris Columbus first came to the Bay Area in 1993 to shoot “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and found it difficult to return to New York when production wrapped. He moved to San Francisco a year later. “I have never looked back,” the director said in a recent interview. “I feel in love with its visual beauty and majesty. The Bay Area film community values artistic expression and integrity over commerce.”
Of course, the commerce part of the equation is necessary for survival, but it has found many constructive purposes within the organization that encourage the continuity of filmmaking in the area, including the SFFS Producers Initiative, which supports producers on a range of international projects. It’s also an incentive for filmmakers to stay in the area, which Columbus said he considers to be crucial. “My goal is to shoot my next film in the city, and I will strive to continue to shoot films in the Bay Area,” he said.
Another major investor in the region is producer and philanthropist Todd Traina, who left the area for Los Angeles 18 years ago (where his credits include “What Maisie Knew” and “10,000 Saints”) only to return last year with his family newly committed to supporting the scene. “The Bay Area in generally really exposes and ultimately embraces the yin and yang across multiple cultures, residents, groups, artists, leaders and so on,” Traina said. “Local filmmakers gain tremendous access to all types of characters. We have access to so much here — and all these divergent personalities and histories and voices do battle in a very small geographic landscape.”
For Traina, that’s a big reason why the organization’s existence speaks to broader concerns for the survival of film culture. “In many ways, San Francisco is a a microclimate of the changing world today,” he said. “This is a community of major, major art lovers and creators. Everyone has very diverse interests and while the best arthouse films break out, and the exciting studio films break out, the vast majority of independent films have to compete with our other monumentally venerable cultural arts institutions for the time commitment of locals. There can sometimes be little energy left for supporting the film community.”
By stimulating further interest around the medium, SFFILM seeks to change that. “We are knee-deep in global change and cultural shifts — all within a very small and gorgeous city that has more money than it knows what to do with,” Traina said. “Hopefully, we can trigger a lot more of that money towards the arts, and specifically film.”
Beyond the Movies
Some may argue that the very notion of a film institution in the 21st century is too narrow to encompass an ever-cluttered media landscape that also includes first-rate television — and, more recently, virtual reality. But SFFILM isn’t blind to those developments, either.
“TV has been a part of the Bay Area for years,” said Rosen, pointing out that the festival showcased David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” series when it originally aired, long before the advent of TV sections at festivals worldwide. “It needs to fit organically into what we’re doing. We’ve always been relatively platform agnostic.” This year, that sentiment has led to a tribute to screenwriter John Ridley alongside a screening of his new Showtime series “Guerrilla,” starring Idris Elba, in addition to a preview of Jill Solway’s new Amazon series “I Love Dick.”
Meanwhile, the festival continues to find its place in the emerging VR field, launching the second year of its two-day “VR Days” program. The festival will showcase a variety of VR projects from the Bay Area and beyond alongside panel discussions and other activities. “I find that VR can sometimes take on a gear-focused flavor,” Cowan said. “We already have all the gear people, so we find that audiences are more interested in celebrating the artists themselves.”
Much of these efforts reflect a renewed sense of purpose throughout the Bay Area that is now seeping into the film scene. “San Francisco is now arguably the most powerful, legitimate arbiter of society and culture, a global innovator and mediator,” Traina said. “But, in keeping with tradition, it is also the ultimate disrupter.”
The 60th SF International Film Festival runs April 5-9.