The Film, Video & Media
Magazine of Northern
May 20, 2015
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Film Arts Rescued
by David Hakim
The big local news this month was the stunning announcement that the struggling Film Arts Foundation – after a couple of rocky years and the closing of its doors amid much speculation in recent months – is being taken over by the older and more stable San Francisco Film Society, known mostly for producing the world-renowned SF Film Festival.
In a joint press conference at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema in late August, SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat and FAF President Steve Ramirez made the announcement to a packed house of concerned filmmakers, reporters, and others having a stake in the continuance of FAF’s services to the community.
“Welcome to our celebration,” Leggat began. After giving a brief rundown of the situation, he concluded his opening remarks by saying, “We’re incredibly enthusiastic about this exciting opportunity. We shoulder this mantle with great honor and privilege.”
The mantle Leggat mentioned included almost all the services that Film Arts has provided to independent filmmakers for over 32 years, as well as new initiatives and – perhaps most important – the legacy that the locally-born national organization has built up over the years, as it became a predominant presence in teaching filmmakers, funding projects, and building a supportive community for over 3,100 film projects produced with the group’s assistance.
Before introducing San Francisco Film Office Executive Director Stefanie Coyote and Film Society President Melanie Blum, Leggat noted that the agreement for the takeover “was unanimously and enthusiastically approved by both boards.”
After months of dedicated work by a team that included members of the boards of both groups, the SF Film Society will now take over and expand on the key programs once offered by FAF, including production classes, fiscal sponsorships, and assistance in distribution and marketing. Many in the local film community were relieved by this news, as funding is perhaps the single major stumbling-block to getting any kind of picture made. Leggat was careful to point out that all current FAF memberships will be ‘rolled over’ into SFFS memberships of the same duration. The only offerings not salvaged by SFFS are equipment and facility rentals – programs that no longer fit with the needs of the community, since once-expensive equipment is now affordable to practically everyone, ‘beginning’ filmmakers tend to be more production-savvy and generally have less difficult technical data to learn, and rentals don’t return enough to justify the investment.
So, though Film Arts Foundation will soon be gone, there was much good news over which to celebrate. But the most exciting news of the press conference was yet to come: the 51-year-old Film Society will underwrite four new initiatives that for some could overshadow the dispelling of rumors about FAF’s demise. In addition to the creation of the new ‘Filmmakers Advisory Board,’ comprising 20 members of the local film community who will serve as a mentoring body for all levels of filmmakers, November will see the inauguration of a monthly party/salon/screening for members and selected guests from all artistic disciplines. Christened ‘The Film Arts Forum’ in honor of the foundation (and to keep its name alive), this evening salon will host 300 to 500 people at San Francisco’s Mezzanine, where (it is hoped) innovations in the art form of cinema and visual storytelling will be born from the interaction of artistic sensibilities, through networking, seminars, screenings, pitch sessions, and workshops.
As if that weren’t enough, Leggat and Ramirez had more stirring news: the commencement of the Herbert Filmmaking Grants, starting out with $25,000 to award to Bay Area filmmakers (matched up to four times over the next 12 months, with hopes that the amount will continue to grow over time); and the the FilmHouse Residencies at Pier 27, a shared space of 2,800 square feet to be made available for periods of one to six months without charge to qualifying Bay Area filmmakers for offices, production and postproduction space, and editing suites. Says Coyote, “The FilmHouse Residencies represent support of filmmakers in a practical way – and the mission of the City is to always be practical.”
Local legend Gail Silva left her position as head of Film Arts several years ago, amid rumors of factionalization of the board that had made her job untenable. It has been widely acknowledged that financial issues have been at the heart of FAF’s troubles for some time, and Eric Hayashi was brought in to help alleviate those issues. But Hayashi was unsuccessful in leading the board to a resolution to the financial woes, and the foundation closed its door earlier this year for ‘reorganization.’
After careful restructuring and staffing cuts, Film Arts was able to escape the pain of bankruptcy – mostly by selling at a loss its one-quarter ownership of the Ninth Street Independent Film Center building and the sale in June of its film equipment inventory.
One insider report credits Silva as one of the prime movers in the Film Arts/Film Institute ‘merger,’ providing sagacious guidance behind the scenes. Whatever took place, members of the FAF board floated the idea to Leggat about a takeover in the spring. As the talks continued, they developed into negotiations that would eventually lead to Film Arts’ being pulled back from the brink of the precipice and the Film Institute gaining fresh reach, enlarged capacity, and new resources. As Leggat poetically put it, “Continuity is programmatically baked in.”
With the media landscape undergoing such radical changes since the millennium, the new merger almost seems like a natural development: Film Arts has all the resources to help filmmakers with production, while the Film Society is focused on exhibition, promotion, and distribution.
And while the FAF/SFFS ‘merger’ does not create a completely unique entity, it does become only the second such alliance in the country. In March, The Tribeca Film Institute and Renew Media joined forces, becoming at that time the only festival-producing entity in the country affiliated with this kind of infrastructure. However, TFI, while having deep financial pockets, does not have other resources that are as wide-ranging or as deep as those of SFFS.
Posted on Sep 04, 2008 - 01:24 PM