Woolley's contributions to Frameline highlighted as he leaves ED role

  • by J.L. Odom
  • Monday August 14, 2023
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James Woolley, left, has stepped down as executive director of Frameline, and Allegra Madsen will assume the duties on an interim basis. Photo: Barak Shrama Photography
James Woolley, left, has stepped down as executive director of Frameline, and Allegra Madsen will assume the duties on an interim basis. Photo: Barak Shrama Photography

San Francisco's LGBTQ film festival is looking for a new leader.

The board of directors of Frameline issued a news release August 10 stating that Executive Director James Woolley, a gay man, was departing the media arts nonprofit after four years at the helm.

During his tenure, Woolley sought for audiences to have access to films, even when such access was more challenging during the COVID pandemic and the film festival was held online. This year's event offered both in-person and streaming options.

Though Frameline's release offered insight into Woolley's next step career-wise — in a leadership role for another film festival — Woolley said in a phone interview that he can't announce the specifics just yet due to contract restrictions and the need to have his visa approved.

"I can't wait to tell people, but I'm just going to wait for all of that to be fully locked in before it's announced. It won't be very long; I'm very excited," he said.

In a phone interview, Allegra Madsen, Frameline's director of programming who will take over as interim executive director, talked about the festival's years during COVID.

"James started working for the organization and then the pandemic hit, and he really had to pivot quickly and take us through some incredibly difficult times," Madsen, a lesbian, said.

The Castro Theatre was shuttered in 2020 during the COVID lockdown. It has since reopened under Another Planet Entertainment. Photo: J.L. Odom  

In spring 2020, the doors to San Francisco's Castro Theatre were shuttered — locked and blocked by a tall metal fence, black security mesh, and sign-of-the-times murals depicting essential workers. In December, as the new year loomed, the marquee read, "Stay healthy and safe. We'll be back soon."

The closing of the Castro Theatre meant the postponing of long-standing events held within, such as Frameline's Pride Month-scheduled San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Frameline44, the 44th iteration of the acclaimed festival, was pushed to September 2020 as a showcase and featured drive-in and online film viewing options. Subsequent Framelines (45, 46 and 47) followed a similar trajectory to other public events, gradually returning to pre-pandemic format, albeit with precautions.

Said Woolley in a phone interview, "We're very, very pleased with the way we got through the pandemic. We certainly tried every year to do different things and be innovative, and I felt that we came through it in a really great way."

Woolley, who hails from Australia, joined Frameline as its executive director in 2019, approximately six months prior to the onset of COVID and its soon-thereafter widespread, debilitating effects. In that role, he was able to keep the organization thriving and reaching audiences during what was an unquestionably difficult time period for film festivals.

Madsen worked closely with Woolley and shared that their visions for how to build the organization were closely aligned.

"He managed to make sure that Frameline was still very much able to reach out and connect with our local audiences," she said. "And he did that while looking to the future and [assessing] how not only to weather the pandemic, but also how do we continue to grow as an organization. He seized every opportunity to make a big splash when big splashes weren't easy to come by."

The most recent festival, Frameline47, took place in June, with 47 of the 100-plus queer films showing on the Castro Theatre's large onstage screen and many attending the film viewings in person.

"When we finally had a truly post-pandemic year, or at least a more return-to-normal-year [in 2023], we kept our loyal audiences and had really stellar attendance," Woolley said. "I think there's nothing more exciting than just to say, 'We survived and we survived it well.'"

Castro Theatre marked its 100th year in 2022. That same year, the theater's longtime owner, the Nasser family's Bay Properties Inc., announced it was partnering with the Bay Area's Another Planet Entertainment in a concerted effort to maintain and improve the popular Castro Street venue and hub of LGBTQ events. APE took over management of the historic movie palace.

Some LGBTQ film lovers and others expressed concern that the partnership would result in unwanted updates to the theater itself and an overhaul of the theater's usual programming and LGBTQ focus, as the Bay Area Reporter has previously reported. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an interior landmarking ordinance that allows APE to remove the fixed orchestra seating in favor of a flexible seating arrangement that can be adjusted for film or concerts.

Following the supervisors' vote, the historic preservation and planning commissions on June 15 both approved a zoning ordinance that allows a conditional use authorization for second floor nighttime entertainment throughout the Castro commercial district. ()

The supervisors must still vote on that zoning ordinance, as the B.A.R. reported.

Frameline came under some criticism when it publicly backed APE's proposed changes to the theater.

About APE, Woolley commented, "There's not much to say, I don't think. We've released a whole bunch of statements about it already, and the decision's kind of made. I think the organization looked really closely at all the different things that were on the table, and we're very comfortable with where we've landed."

The release mentioned that the Frameline board is in the process of finding a successor for Woolley.

"We are actively engaged in an ED search, which I'm very excited to be a part of, because ... I do work closely with this person," Madsen said. "And so I'm looking forward to finding the next person whose vision aligns with the trajectory we are on and can help us continue to grow."

As Woolley moves on, he does so with a positive view of his Frameline experience, San Francisco, and future film events.

"I found the Bay Area films scene to be so inspiring," he said. "And there's nothing more I want than for people to continue attending cinemas and festivals because it's through attending these events that they thrive."

Woolley said that financially, the nonprofit did OK through the pandemic.

"Frameline's finances have been strong during the pandemic thanks to the generosity and engagement of the local community," he said.

And, according to Woolley, Frameline operates on a budget of $2 million.

According to Frameline's IRS 2021 Form 990, Woolley's salary was listed at $98,000.

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