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Celluloid Heroes

SFFILM, the organization behind the longest-running international film festival in the Americas, is reinventing itself as a film-world power player—but isn’t losing sight of its Bay Area values.


Bao director Domee Shi and producer Becky Neiman-Cobb onstage with SFFILM Associate Director of Education Keith Zwölfer during an event celebrating Pixar shorts in 2018.

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Netflix Original Tales of the City will open this year’s festival at The Castro Theatre.

Photo: Tommy Lau

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A complimentary screening of Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan’s documentary, Whose Streets?, at the 2017 festival.

Photo: Pat Mazzera

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Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station, recipient of several SFFILM Rainin Grants in 2012.

Photo: Courtesy of SFFILM

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Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You, which received several Rainin Grants and screened at the SFFILM Festival in 2018.

Photo: Pete Lee

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Wallis and Dwight Henry in 2010 Raining Grant-recipient Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Photo: Courtesy of SFFILM

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Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Photo: Courtesy of SFFILM

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Honeyland, part of this year’s SFFILM Documentary Film Fund.

Photo: Courtesy of SFFILM

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When SSFILM Kicks off the 62nd San Francisco International Film Festival April 10, it will pop the Champagne to celebrate the enduring power of storytelling. But it deserves a toast of its own too. Thanks to a series of strategic initiatives, programs and partnerships, the nonprofit is transforming into one of the most influential players in the film industry.

As Executive Director Noah Cowan tells it, SFFILM’s evolution began a decade ago when the organization (then the San Francisco Film Society) expanded to offer artist development and year-round educational programs, keeping “Bay Area values” like social responsibility, innovation and collaboration at its core. At the same time, SFFILM partnered with the Kenneth Rainin Foundation to fund independent narrative films with social justice themes, and to support a residency program for emerging and documentary filmmakers. Cowan describes the relationship as “game-changing.” To date, it has awarded more than $6 million to 100-plus projects, making SFFILM the largest granting body for independent narrative feature films in the U.S. (SFFILM also has several smaller partnerships with mission-aligned organizations, such as the Westridge Foundation.)

“For us, it isn’t about quantity, but about quality—and supporting underrepresented voices,” says Caroline von Kuhn, SFFILM’s director of artist development—“offering them the financial and artistic development support to deepen their work and move it from concept into finished film out in the world.” The team’s expertise at identifying and nurturing talent is evident in a recent string of breakout films— Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You; Ryan Coogler’s debut feature, Fruitvale Station; Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild; and JoeTalbot’s critically acclaimed new film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco—all of which received funding through the SFFILM Rainin Grant program. “These careers may not have happened on this timeline if it weren’t for this community supporting these voices,” says Jen Rainin, CEO of the Rainin Foundation.

Two annual events are increasing both SFFILM’s and the Bay Area film community’s influence by targeting a very specific audience: Oscar voters. The star-studded SFFILM Awards Night moved from Aprilto December to help shape the awards season conversation (Steve McQueen, Amy Adams and Boots Riley received awards last year). And 3-year-old event SF Honors—spearheaded and funded by filmmaker, philanthropist and longtime SFFILM board member Todd Traina—also builds buzz for award contenders imbued with Bay Area values (On the Basis of Sex was 2018’s honoree). The fact that the Bay Area boasts the country’s third-largest group of voting Academy members “is an extra incentive for well-known guests to join us,” notes Cowan, name-dropping Charlize Theron, Spike Lee and Armie Hammer.

The newest, and potentially most impactful, SFFILM initiative is investor-advisory program SFFILM Invest. The program plays matchmaker between carefully vetted films in its artistic-development program and a coterie of deep-pocketed Bay Area film enthusiasts who, von Kuhn says, see “the long-term potential of creating a movement around ethical investment.” Transparency is paramount. “We are basically taking a few strands of tech/NGO/innovation thinking and applying it to the filmmaking world,” says Cowan of the program. The first title to come out of SFFILM Invest, Macedonian documentary Honeyland, recently won a record three awards at Sundance.

For the film-loving Bay Area public, SFFILM Festival—the longest-running film festival in the Americas—remains the year’s most anticipated cinematic event. The 2019 edition runs April 10 to 23, and screens around 200 carefully curated features, documentaries and shorts, each selected based on its “potential to resonate with some part of a Bay Area audience,” says Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. The lineup was not yet finalized at press time, but Netflix’s sequel to the San Francisco-based episodic Tales of the City is set to open the festival at The Castro Theatre. Another highlight includes Q Ball, a documentary produced by the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant about a basketball program at San Quentin State Prison. (The Bay Area, Rosen says, emerged as a clear theme this year.) Food, a perennial festival favorite, also gets a dedicated spotlight in 2019.

Last, but not least, adding to the other initiatives’ synergy are SFFILM’s educational programs, which now reach 13,000 students and teachers annually through school screenings, mentorship and other programs. By instilling a love of filmmaking in young people and imparting professional know-how, SFFILM aims to create the next generation of artists and audiences.

It can be difficult to quantify an organization’s influence or success, though clearly the achievements above suggest SFFILM is making a significant impact. “Winning seven prizes in Sundance in January isn’t a bad metric!” says Cowan, referring to SFFILM grantees’ impressive haul this winter. “But, I think, for all of us here, getting more people interested and excited in the power of film to move people, to change minds, to support a filmmaker’s dream, to further the cause of media literacy in our young people— these are why we come to work, and why we champion the films and filmmakers we do.” By those metrics, SFFILM isn’t just a film-industry player: It’s a star.


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco 

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