The Film, Video & Media
Magazine of Northern
Oct 6, 2015
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SAN FILMCISCO: The Gate’s Future is Golden, Deep, Wide and Open
by Jay Randy Gordon
San Francisco is historically a film town, as this cloud configuration seems to be saying. illo: Howard Digital/A Media
"They" say a lot is happening in this media-savvy city by the bay. Whoever they may be, they are unequivocally correct. San Francisco cinema, or San Filmcisco, as we have taken to calling it, is on the march.
Yes, it suffered grievously over the last decade due to the dot com bomb, Vancouver's underpricing and the loss of some advertising agencies, which led to the closing of ImagesMovers, the Orphanage, Utterbach Camera and more. Before that, there was the waning of the Golden Age of Bay Area Film: Lucas, Coppola, Kaufman and Zaentz. But it's back on track, from commercials to indies and some Hollywood North, not to mention the new SF Film Collective, which had its well-attended opening
Led by Susannah Greason-Robbins, the San Francisco Film Commission is now helping produce projects rather than just permiting and location managing, a perfectly sound business plan since filming stimulates the economy and boosts tourism. The Commission created the
to provide low-cost space to independent filmmakers (five projects already, room for six more) and
, a program which reduced permit fees, added rebates and got local vendors to contribute discounts.
Burying the canard that the City is not film friendly, this promises to ignite the next chapter in what is already a very rich film history. Just ask Susan Hosking-Ramos, head of the forthcoming
San Francisco Film Museum
, or Davell Swan, who has been deconstructing Hitchcock's San Francisco oeuvre, "
" and "
", in CineSource. Or the "master of the edit," Walter Murch:
"San Francisco has, astonishingly, been at the forefront of a lot of the core inventions of motion pictures and television in the last 120 years" ("Fog City Mavericks", 2007). In fact, the first film prototype was invented in San Francisco by Eadweard Muybridge and Charlie Chaplin developed his character, The Tramp, at Essanay Studios which opened in 1915. The first real studio in California, with a fully glassed-in stage, Essanay was in Niles, just south of Oakland in what is now Freemont.
Saad Khan, co-founder of Film Angels (left), being interviewed by Sunil Rajaraman (right), CEO of Scripped.com at the Palo Alto International Film Festival. photo: J. Randy Gordon
"The San Francisco film community has been on the rise for the past three years," says Sunil Rajaraman, CEO of
(which offers script services), "Due in large part to the film community's access to the technology world." In addition to facilitating traditional projects, this will accelerate "transmedia" or multiple-platform storytelling.
"The re-birth of indie film is going to take place in San Francisco due to access to financing, distribution and 'scrappy' content creators," Rajaraman continued from the podium at the inaugural
Palo Alto Film Festival
in September. Started up by Sundance veterans and Devyani Kamdar, of the Palo Alto Institute, with Alex Ippolite, Alf Seccombe, and Tarrah Lee Curtis, the PAFF intends to showcase the dripping edge of this new wave.
Echoing Rajaraman's sentiments is Christine Munday, Filming Supervisor for the Film Commission, who spearheaded the Film Collective project: “I have seen a steady uptick in 'film days' in San Francisco since the beginning of 2010." Much of this has been the car commercials for a wide variety of brands, which have been filming throughout our long Indian Summer in the financial district, Nob Hill and elsewhere in San Francisco.
“The Bay Area simply shows well on film," explains
, who has done location management for over 15 years (from “Nash Bridges” 1995-2001 to “Contagion” 2011).
Not only does the camera love San Francisco visually, scriptwriters adore it symbolically, as Swan shows in the work of Hitchcock. Sexual and mysterious, San Francisco makes the perfect bad boy backdrop, to which can now be added "Hightech Nerd" and "Responsible Green," not to mention "hippie" and "beat," a winning combination.
No wonder the city has recently starred in so many films. This year there was "Moneyball", which had to be shot here since the story concerns the Oakland As (Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill), but also “Contagion” (Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law), “Knife Fight” (Rob Lowe) and the "
The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
David Arquette, sometimes a local, presents at TEDxMarin on volunteer work at the old Kerner Studio. photo: J. Randy Gordon
Next year brings “Cherry”, shot locally rather than just the scenics and the interiors in sound stages in Vancouver. Starring Palo Alto native
, "Cherry" follows a troubled young woman who gets involved with pornography and a cocaine-addicted lawyer—classical use of the City's built-in back story. There's also "The Apocalypse (2012) with Seth Rogen, who gets honorary residency for his advocacy of the local agricultural product, and even a bevy of foreign-made reality shows, "180" (Southern India), "Amalfi" (Japan), and "Rose Wedding" (China), cashing in on the cache.
Nevertheless, San Filmcisco is hardly an empty-headed beauty. “The Bay Area is home to an explosive mix of technologists, artists and thinkers," says
(co-founder of Film Angels, lecturer at Stanford Design School and well known blogger, @saadventures).
"You have all the elements from creation to distribution sitting on top of one another along a 40-mile stretch of the 101 [freeway], from LucasFilm to Apple and Google [home to YouTube and Android]. As independent film becomes the new mainstream, I expect the rise of new institutions like angel [financing] networks and incubators to step in and fill the gaps. Take note! Media has a new center of gravity: Silicon Valley.”
"We frequently make the mistake of measuring our current success and our future prospects exclusively in terms of how much money and how many projects come north to shoot in San Francisco," remarks Tim Boxell, chairman of the local Director's Guild, television director, notably 'The Green Screen Show,' 2004, and teacher at the Academy of Art.
"It’s easy to forget that we have filmmakers who’ve been here for years and have never been willing to give up on this place as their creative home," Boxell continues. "There’s even this place across the bridge called Pixar that may be the most potent and successful production house on the planet. We remain a cultural magnet of visual riches and inspiration that are almost palpable. The future is bright."
I was told much the same by his boss, the Academy's Grande Dame de Cinema,
. In addition to running the department, Baker teaches production classes, sits on the board of various arts and humanitarian organizations (like
Roots of Peace
), and continues the acting career she started as a starlet in 1959 (see
). In fact, Baker will appear in Philip Kaufman's upcoming made-for-TV movie "
Hemingway & Gellhorn
" (2012) shot entirely in the Bay Area and also starring Clive Owen, Nicole Kidman and Parker Posey.
Diane Baker, director of the Academy of Art's film department, debuted at 21 as the sister Margot in the 'Diary of Anne Frank.' photo: courtesy D. Baker.
“Incredible things have been happening at the Academy of Art University," says Baker, who sees the school as one big incubator. "Orin Mazzoni (“Larkin”) and Paula Lima (“Angelito”) are ones to watch. Both showed at this summer's Epidemic Film Festival [put on by AAU]"
always dreamt of filmmaking back in Detroit, after ten years in his family business, he set out for the Academy. Arriving having done his homework, he soon directed a one-act play, Tracey Scott Wilson's "Small World", which led to producing "Almost an Evening" by Ethan Coen—of Coen Bros fame. It sold out two performances here and went on the road in Michigan.
"My goals and hopes as a filmmaker," Mazzoni told me, "Are to be able to guide the audience to an alternate reality that is both human and relatable to their own lives, while still providing that needed entertainment which allows them to find themselves engulfed within a fantastical world."
His first short, "
", which he directed, wrote, and produced, raising funds through
, was shot over seven days on 5000 feet of Kodak Super 16mm film. He is currently working on his next short, “The Watchmaker’s Son”, and as a director's assistant on "Home Invasion", a feature by Doug Campbell and starring Lisa Sheridan, Jason Brooks, Hailey Duff, and C. Thomas Howell.
Mazzoni was able to achieve so much so quickly due to the Academy's LA seasoned pros like Baker and Jack Perez, who directed the pilot for "Zena, Warrior Princess" or Sam Raimi, Executive Producer of the just opened "
Some Guy Who Kills People
Other Bay Area filmmakers on the rise include Matthew Leutwyler (grad San Francisco Art Institute) who directed Dane Cook, Julie Benz, and Barbara Hershey "Answers to Nothing" (2011), a narrative feature set against the backdrop of a child abduction. Dayna Goldfine, Dan Geller and Celeste Schaefer Snyder delivered "Something Ventured" (2011), a “Sili-wood” movie—Silicon Valley meets Hollywood. This must-see doc, depicting how the Valley's entrepreneurs worked with venture capitalists to grow world-class companies like Intel, Apple and Cisco, played South-By-Southwest, the Palo Alto Film Festival and November's inaugural
Napa Valley Film Festival
Susan Hosking-Ramos presents on the forthcoming San Francisco Film Museum. photo: courtesy J. R. Gordon.
There has a fecundity of festivals of late but what better to retail the talents of our local actors. Franco co-hosted the Academy Awards last year, starred in "127 Hours" (director Danny Boyle) and in 2008's "Milk" (director Gus Van Sant), also starring another SF-er Sean Penn, who has been hard at work often in Haiti on directing his non-for-prof, see CineSource's
Healing Journeys of Sean Penn
. Franco is supposedly set to play against type as Richard Ramirez, the serial killer who terrorized 1980sSouthern California in next year's "
The Night Stalker
A banner San FIlmcisco year, 2012 will bring not one but TWO Jack Kerouac films partially shot here: “On The Road”, with Kirsten Dunst, Garrett Hedlund and Viggo Mortensen, and “Big Sur”, with Kate Bosworth and Josh Lucas. There's also Tyler Perry's "Good Deeds,” "Five-Year Engagement,” and a surf doc about the Super Bowl of Surfing at massive
wave off Half Moon Bay which routinely kills contestants.
"Bay Area filmmaking has a lot of potential but it needs support," says Napa native DJ Turner, whose "Grave Dawn" (2011), set on the Eastern Front of WWII but shot entirely in Napa, proving the claim that the Bay Area, with its diverse landscapes, can stand in for many different locations "Grave Dawn" won the Napa Valley Film Festival's Special Jury Mention for Narrative Short. He now resides in Southern California, although he just released a music video for the Napa band Mære.
"People are full of innovative ideas, but they lack the proper resources," Turner told me. "With significant increases to financial infrastructure and support from established entertainment businesses, the Bay Area would be an incredible alternative to Hollywood, and could bring significant revenue to a major population. It is my dream to have a studio in the Bay someday.” With the SF Film Collective, the expanding Academy and the new spate of features, Turner's hope may be materializing.
Which brings us back to "
San Filmcisco's secret weapon. With the proliferation of mobile devices and the convergence of bottom-up social media and top-down mass media, transmedia is one of the most exciting developments around. Transmedia travels at high speeds; it features fast editing and condensed cultural signifying; and it accelerates the ancillaries—ie is viewed on the third screen (after the TV and computer). Opportunities for artists, educators, and businesses as well as filmmakers are off the hook.
Andre 'Champagne' Patrick and Nico at the New Media Film Festival. photo: J. R. Gordon.
With the advent of mainstream Internet use in the 1990s, imagemakers began exploring ways to tell stories through it. An early example was Alternate Reality Games which came to a head in last year's Machinima, the use in documentaries made from footage from web games like "Second Life". Also known as multi- or cross-platform narrative, transmedia storytelling creates content that engages audiences in different manners through various linked entry points.
A simple example is "Saturday Night Live". A weekend television highlight for almost four decades, it is now more viewed on Hulu webcasts and clips on smart phones. Transmedia is perfect for increasing the sales of a vintage intellectual property but also for introducing new stories, interactive experiences or new technologies, which will be largely hand held, here on out, and could reach eventually, reach 3D, holography or other innovations. Since form should follow function, content should be self reflective and modernist in terms of gendering, politics, etc—as we are also well positioned to do.
San Filmcisco is the de facto hub of transmedia, due to Silicon Valley, but now official with the first annual
Storyworld Conference and Expo
(Oct 31 - Nov 2) not to mention the transmedia conference coming next year. YES, you heard it here first: the inaugural
Transmedia Film Festival
will take place at a premiere Bay Area conference center around April 2012.
Founded and run by Susan Johnston, the second annual
New Media Film Festival
just played the Lumiere in San Francisco and will do year three next summer in LA. Shooter/director
, who did the live streaming, also cofounded
, a group of filmmakers and other creatives now over 450 members, which has been programming events at the Academy and Dimension 7 Studios and, upcoming, Ex'pression College and Zaentz Media Center in the East Bay.
Their transmedia November panel was hosted by San Jose's
, perfect for its Silicon Valley proximity and European co-founders, and included
Chris Fure, Storyworld's Christopher F. Smith, the
San Jose Short Film Festival's
Sinohui Hinojosa and was moderated by Sheridan Tatsuno and Omar Kaczmarckyk (Managing Director of Longtale International). Upcoming events include April 2012's inaugural Transmedia and June 2012's Third Annual New Media.
Ferrari of San Francisco
may even roar in, both to shoot and go transmedia, a la
from 2001. Photography will be at Sonoma's Infineon Raceway and other N. Cal locations in 2012.
Of course, San Filmcisco won't simply trickle down from high tech, big business or mass media. There is always the local film lover, which is why any festival that can draw viewers is valuable. Joseph Ferragamo, for example, works at The Top Of The Mark (Hopkins Hotel) where he started a Tuesday film night which became popular; he showed only films where The Mark appeared: "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "DOA" (1950), "Vertigo" (1958), "Bullitt" (1968), "Dirty Harry" (1971), "Escape From Alcatraz" (1979), "Sudden Impact" (1983), "The Rock" (1996), and more.
Another example of grass roots action of note is the movement for the
SF Film Museum
), Susan Hosking-Ramos leading the charge. A preliminary public meeting was held in September, followed by an inaugural event, a screening of "Bullitt", in honor of its 40th anniversary, at Fort Mason's Cowell Theater.
"San Francisco is America's most cinematic city," says Hosking-Ramos, who earned a Cinema Studies B.A. from SF State but went on to design technology-based products. "I love to see the City on the big screen." Currently working out of San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking (925 Mission), they are creating a Humphrey Bogart exhibition in the lobby of the SF Film Collective on Golden Gate, starting film archiving with Rick Prelinger and building their online presence.
"Since the silent screen days, filmmakers have been attracted to San Francisco's striking panoramas, its gray murder-mystery fog, and its verdant peaks set against the blue bay," says Hosking-Ramos. "Before there was Hollywood, San Francisco was the West Coast's moviemaking hub. Local historians will proudly point out that the motion picture was invented in the Bay Area, by an Englishman named Eadweard Muybridge, in 1878 (see '
Horse in Motion
Muybridge came to San Francisco to sell books but, after a vicious injury in a stagecoach crash, he emerged a coma completely changed: impulsive, creative, into photography and big ideas. His condition undoubtedly contributed to him murdering his wife's lover but he beat the rap and became a seminal San Francisco character.
To settle Railroad tycoon Leland Stanford's question about horses being fully aloft while running, Muybridge set up a series of wire-trigger cameras and produced 24 photos of a horse galloping past. Although the zoetrope was emerged in ancient Egypt (according to Murch), Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope, which uses a lantern and a glass disc—essentially the first movie and projector. Soon Thomas Edison, the inventor of actual film, was paying a visit.
From 1895 until 1905, the films were mostly about a minute long and called "actualities", often covering news or a novelty like a dancer or acrobat. In San Francisco, one of Edison's actualities is filmed from the front of a train going to the Cliff House, while another, “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906, by Jack Kuttner) is from a cable car four days before the earthquake.
The earthquake tragedy and rebuild solidified the San Francisco identity. The plethora of features featuring it started with W.S. Van Dyke's "San Francisco" (1936) starring Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, shot on an LA lot but with great earthquake special effects. SF trivia pop quiz: Who was Gable's character based on? It was a the Barbary Coast gambler Wilson Mizner, whom scriptwriter Anita Loos, best known for "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," described as "America's most fascinating outlaw” and befriended.
Also not shot in San Francisco was John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. Quality scenery artists allowed Hollywood to employ the SF character without leaving the soundstage. But "(n)o matter where they were made, these movies transported us to an exciting, dreamlike celluloid city," notes cinema historian Miguel Pendas. "And we returned with indelible images of our journey," hence all the great SF film noirs: Delmer Daves's "Dark Passage" (1947) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; Rudolph Maté’s DOA (1950); "It Came From Beneath the Sea" (1955) and of course Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) and "The Birds" (1963).
The noirs passed eventually but San Francisco returned to the silver screen in the late 1960s in part because Mayor Alioto had connections with the movie business. There was a kind of film commission, albeit not official, and Claude Jarmon, director of SF Film Society was getting people to film here most famously "Bullitt (1968) starring Steve Mc Queen and directed by Peter Yates, notorious for its gritty car chase. See for yourself the sharp peaks that McQueen's souped-up Mustang lept over by heading up Taylor to Vallejo.
Then there's "Harold and Maude (1971) and "What’s Up Doc? (1972) starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal which immortalized Alta Plaza Park directed by Peter Bogdanovich and included another crazed car chase, this time four stunt cars rattling down the park's massive five story staircase, take after take. The residents were outraged, city officials were peeved, and you can still see chips and cracks in the steps today. After Mayor Diane Feinstein was delayed due to a feature filming, film projects were scorned, especially in the neighborhoods.
Then came the more sophisticated Hollywood North explosion of Lucas and Coppola, both of whom directed a couple of the greatest films of all time, not to mention Saul Zaentz, Philip Kuafman and a few others. The 1970s and 80s became the true golden era of San Francisco filmmaking, which most of us remember well and obviously merits its own indepth article. This was followed by the miniature action and explosives work by the recently defunt Kerner Optical, an offshoot of Lucasfilms, and the many animations houses.
The star San Francisco was back on the big screen in series of straight up thrillers starting with "Superman" (1978), when Christopher Reeves keeps a schoolbus full of kids from falling off of the Golden Gate Bridge after an earthquake followed by "Jagged Edge" (1985), "A View to a Kill" (1985) "Basic Instinct" (1992), "Jade" (1995), and "The Game" (1997) among others.
This was followed by the emergence of Pixar which started producing ground and record breaking fully digital animated features“
" in Emeryville in 1995, "The Bachelor" (1998), Gabriele Muccino's "
Pursuit of Happyness
" (2006) starring Will Smith, "The Zodiac (2007) with Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Gus Van Sant's "
" (2008) starring Sean Penn and Josh Brolin—among other films.
Local director/producer Chris Columbus is coming off his high of producing "The Help" (2011) and is looking for another blockbuster the story of the young Jesus Christ, Anne Rice's book "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," which will be directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, the Iranian-American who did the Iranian feminist story "The Stoning of Soraya M."
San Francisco seems to have a unique role in stimulating imagination through film, both behind and in front of the camera, in the Hollywood, indie and art idioms. Some of it’s silly. In "So I Married an Axe Murderer" (1993) about poet's conflict with his odd girlfriend, between each scene, you get a beautiful but meaningless shot of the city. Meanwhile in "Vertigo" every location, every building, every bridge is dripping—literally when James Stewart hauls Kim Novac out from under the Golden Gate—with reference, romance and back story.
Meanwhile, we are one of the undisputed the tech capitals of the world and Transmedia is NOT a flash in the pan (like 3D). All this may inspire you to join with us in the effort of reclaiming San Filmcisco: Follow us on Twitter: @sanfilmcisco, or Facebook at San Filmcisco.
Jay Randy Gordon is the founder of @hanukkahhoops, a new basketball tourney, the author of a book on business vernacular, BusiBUZZ, and an event producer residing in Marin County.
Posted on Nov 28, 2011 - 03:05 PM