Grass-roots group meets film society
Film Arts Foundation & San Francisco Film Society get hitched
by Sura Wood
Well, the wedding is official; two veteran film entities, each with their own constituencies and distinct cultures, who, at first glance, would appear an unlikely pairing, have tied the knot.
The Film Arts Foundation, a spirited, scrappy local service organization with a 32-year history of catering to grass roots, barebones filmmaking and a diverse, 1,500-strong membership of talented, often poverty-stricken filmmakers Ñ among them, they've racked up 30 Academy Award nods Ñ has merged with the classy, comparatively well-endowed, higher-profile San Francisco Film Society, a city institution most readily identified with its ambassador, that annual orgy of world cinema, the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Facing financial woes, FAF, which will soldier on in abbreviated form until early 2009, was a casualty of the economy and a steadily shrinking funding pie. The Film Society's tantalizing resources, opportunities for exhibition and access proved irresistible to FAF President Steve Ramirez, who expressed enthusiasm for the deal. "It comes from a recognition of what's really required to support filmmakers today, versus where we were 30 years ago, when the toughest part of the equation was production and access to equipment," he said in a phone interview. "Now the biggest challenges are around distribution and exhibition, which tie directly to financing and launching a film. It's where we fell short." Ramirez hopes to leverage SFFS public programs to support filmmakers in their bids to get their films seen and out to a wide audience.
In turn, SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat will get a direct main line to the Bay Area's thriving, sometimes contentious film community, as well as ready-made product for an expanding number of venues, including a proposed 600-seat, three-screen facility at the Presidio; and, down the road, perhaps, distribution. "Film Arts is on one side of the fence, the working production side, and we've been on the other side, the exhibition side," said Leggat during a recent interview at the Film Society's office in the Presidio. "We want to showcase and uplift Bay Area film culture in all its forms. So, when it seemed like the key organization was about to go belly up, the choice was obvious."
The merger allows SFFS to offer a comprehensive slate of services, including professional training, career development, fiscal sponsorship, networking, special events and contacts, previously provided by FAF, which is known for nurturing a project from its inception. A new print publication, a sleeker version of Film Arts, FAF's trademark glossy, is projected for early 2009, but FAF's equipment and facilities rental will go the way of the now-defunct Film Arts Festival, a valuable platform for unconventional local work, which may be resurrected by the Film Society at a later date.
Documentary filmmaker Gary Weimberg, a 25-year FAF member, is guardedly optimistic. "The number one thing is survival," he said in a phone interview. "FAF was the home of the indie, and we'll have to see how this change will affect us as independent filmmakers. For the over-20 years I've been part of it, we accomplished the impossible. Now that this phase is sputtering to a close, will it be different? For sure. Will it be better? We hope. Is there apprehension? Of course."
The announcement is the latest step in Leggat's master plan for making the Film Society something more than a single signature event, and fulfilling his vision of a central, 360-day-a-year, go-to film organization that's a driving force for cinema in the city. "I may be overstating it, but we always have been that," Leggat demurred. "Just being a festival is not enough. I told people when I came in that we had to remove the Film Society's identity from its death grip on the festival and build underneath it in various categories, and that's what we're doing. And, yes, this [latest move] adds to that, precisely."
Leggat, a smooth, gracious man with a reservoir of toughness, has been something of a juggernaut since taking the reins three years ago. Hired as a rainmaker and to mix things up, he has delivered, bringing in big names for fundraising events, while not forsaking the festival's foreign-cinema ethos. During his tenure, he has launched a series of "SF-360" initiatives such as: www.sf360.org, a daily online magazine; SF360 Film+Club, a monthly screening series at Mezzanine; SF360 Movie Scene, a cable TV program; SF360 Movie Night; and SFFS screen, weekly engagements of theatrical premieres shown on a dedicated screen at the Sundance Kabuki.
SFFS has also announced the establishment of FilmHouse Residences, a program offering production office space to local independent filmmakers at no charge. Grantees will occupy two floors at the Pier 27 building on the Embarcadero.
Leggat's track record may not entirely neutralize the skeptics, but Weimberg is pragmatic. "The worst-case scenario would be that FAF closed its doors and we said, 'Boo-hoo and those were the days,' and went our separate ways," he said. "Whether we're indies or almost studio people, we filmmakers do our best work together. Whatever form it takes, that's the way it's got to be."